Chronicle Article: UF Dean proposes to save money by revising faculty jobs to focus on teaching, not research

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. .


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