April 19, 2012 U. of Florida Dean Proposes to Save Money by Revising Faculty Jobs to Focus on Teaching, Not Research By Michael Stratford One college at the University of Florida is proposing to revise the assignments of some of its tenured and tenure-track faculty to focus on teaching and advising, at the expense of research, as a way to save money in the face of state budget cuts. While layoffs and program cuts are bound to draw anger on any campus, a proposal by the dean of the College of Engineering to have its computer-science department take on a new mission with a "sole focus" on teaching is drawing special attention. Shifting the department's focus from research to teaching is drawing the ire of faculty and students who say the plan amounts to a transformation of a premiere research department into a polytechnic institute aimed only at churning out degrees. Earlier this month, the college's dean, Cammy R. Abernathy, issued a proposal that called for restructuring the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department. Under the plan, half of the department's 30 tenured and tenure-track faculty would be moved to other departments and would keep their research and teaching commitments. The remaining half, about 15 faculty members, would be required to refocus their efforts on teaching and scale back, or eliminate, their research responsibilities. In the process, the college would save money by laying off the staff who support research and graduate programs, as well as two non-tenure-track instructors. Beyond the opposition from faculty, students, and alumni, the dean's plans also have received criticism from outside groups. Eric Grimson, board chair of the Computing Research Association, expressed concern about the reduction of faculty's research responsibilities. "[A] strong research program actually results in a strong undergraduate program ...," he wrote. "Without strong research programs, undergraduate research becomes undergraduate projects." More than 5,000 people have signed an online petition decrying the proposal, and earlier this week dozens of students formed a human chain around a campus building to protest the plan. Deans at other research institutions have weighed in, expressing their concern over the proposed changes. Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, decried the proposal in a letter to the university president. "The unprecedented conversion of a research department to a teaching department will seriously impact the University of Florida's ability to recruit faculty," he wrote. The proposed cuts have also drawn the attention of at least one source of research funds. The director of the U.S. Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, which has invested $6-million in research dollars to the university's Computational Science and Intelligence Lab, wrote a letter expressing concern about the cuts. State budget cuts this year are responsible for the College of Engineering having to trim more than $4-million, according to Ms. Abernathy's budget proposal. She plans to fill some of this gap by scaling back administrative expenses, with the remaining savings coming from a $1.35-million cut to the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department. "Usually we've tried to take these cuts across-the-board, but we've reached a point where we simply can't do that anymore," Ms. Abernathy said. "Across-the-board cuts will drive us down the path of mediocrity, so I felt that we really needed to be more strategic." Revised Assignments But opponents of the plan say that forcing one department out of the college's 10 departments to bear the full brunt of the cost isn't fair, and they worry about its long-term effects. And the plan's proposal to revise the assignments of some faculty has particularly angered many professors in the department. "You're taking people and doubling and tripling their teaching loads," without the benefit of support from teaching assistants, said Sartaj K Sahni, a professor in the department. Under the plan, faculty would take on the responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants in leading discussion sections and advising students. "In higher education, we've always maintained that good-quality research is essential for quality teaching," Mr. Sahni said. "If you aren't doing research in a field like [computer] science, you can't really be teaching state-of-the-art technology." Anita Levy, senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said it is unusual for a university to react to financial challenges by reassigning faculty from research positions to teaching positions. "At a research institution, that doesn't appear to be the wisest choice," she said. "Since academic freedom does involve freedom of research, and this faculty was hired to do research, then it may implicate an issue of academic freedom as well." Ms. Abernathy defended her plan as one that actually protects tenure, by preserving tenure-track positions. Tenure and promotion criteria, though, may be changed. She said that the college has begun a discussion about creating a path to promotion that gives more weight to teaching quality. "Education is a very important part of our mission," she said, "We should reward excellence in education." Other faculty worry about the net effect of dropping research from the focus of the computer-science department. "It's going to do more damage than most of the administration realizes," said Gerhard X. Ritter, professor emeritus and interim chair of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department. The cuts, he said, would threaten the college's rankings, its partnerships with industry, and faculty members' ability to win research grants. Cutting from computer-science programs is unwise, he said, in an economy that is increasingly demanding more expertise in that field. "Nobody has yet decimated computer science," he said. "They've decimated other things, but not computer science." In response to the torrent of feedback to the plan, the college extended a comment period through May 17, at which point the dean will submit a budget to the university provost and president, who will make the final decision. .