Cutting Computer Science Departments While Teaching More Students to Program?

News broke this weekend about the University of Florida's plans to restructure its computer science department.  What are the ramifications -- on the department, on the discipline -- of this decision?

April 24, 2012

News of cuts to the computer science department at the University of Florida hit the Web this weekend. Shock and outrage ensued, particularly in tech and education circles, fueled in no small part by the headline of the Forbes story that brought this to most people’s attention: “University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets. Hmm.

The headline is a little misleading, and the university hasn’t “cut computer science completely” as the story suggests. It has substantially gutted the department, true, through a restructuring plan that eliminates its research and graduate programs and teaching assistantships and relocating some staff and faculty (and grad students) to the Electrical and Computing Engineering Department. 

The headline is deceptive too, argues The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman who says that the budgetary cuts faced by UF that prompted the decision to “gut” the CS department weren’t really about a choice between college or college sports. Placed side-by-side – the $1.4 million saved due to CS budget cuts versus the $2 million boost to the athletic department – the decision might look that way. But the University of Florida athletic program is a separate entity with a separate budget, and a profitable one at that. “Gators Inc.” Weissman calls it. And it’s all within the context of a the Florida state legislature’s ongoing cuts to the university’s funding – 30% over the last 6 years.

So even if it’s not a matter of “college versus college athletics” (although let's be honest:  alumni everywhere need to take a good hard look at where their donations are going), those sorts of sweeping budget cuts do pit department against department, discipline against discipline. And even under the larger roof of the University of Florida College of Engineering, there seems to be plenty of conflict.

The question that most folks are asking: Why make the Computer and Information Science Department the focus of the cuts, particularly when the tech industry is booming and computer programmers in demand?

The decision – even if politically motivated, as a student petition against the move suggests  – raises other questions too about how we teach computer science.  These questions extend well beyond our wondering why a research university would abandon CS research and why we’d want to make students who want to major in software engineering do so in a hardware-focused department.

In an article in the local Gainesville newspaper, the CISE department chair Gerhard Ritter said the focus solely on teaching “would cause a ‘brain drain,’ as qualified faculty interested in research will look elsewhere for jobs. The department’s rankings and status as a place where companies come to recruit would suffer, he said.” But the College of Engineering Dean Callie Abernathy said that she sees the change as a boon to (what remains of) the CS program, arguing the changes would make make graduates more appealing to local employers who want to hire “liberal arts students also studying computer science.” “Under this scenario, we will actually be focusing on producing more of the kinds of students that they want,” she told the paper.

Perhaps that’s just a way to rationalize an unpopular announcement. But how does the move at the University of Florida, particularly when it's framed that way, fit in with calls to spread CS beyond the CS department?  How does it relate to calls to make programming a graduation requirement? How much computer science do those highly desirable liberal arts majors (ha! I love that!) need to know? Or is the expectation instead that they need to know a fair amount about applied software engineering? Where do you draw the line between teaching liberal arts majors “the basics” and teaching computer scientists “the rest”? What happens – to departments, to disciplines, to the advancement of the field – when you focus on the former at the expense of the latter? And once you’ve made all these changes, how much instruction can move online? How much does that save the university?  Or, with the explosion in the number of learn-to-program startups emerging, is this sort of education going to move online and out of the university altogether?


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