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Fla. university writing new computer science plan, cites 'overwhelming' backlash

Student opposition leader says serious threat remains to department

University of Florida computer science students remain fearful about their department's future, despite the school's decision this week to "set aside" an earlier plan to reorganize the department and cut its budget.

This month, students at the state's flagship university in Gainesville organized demonstrations after the university announced plans to cut $1.7 million from the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) department.

The move would have cut all teaching assistant positions, which help finance education costs for Ph.D. students, increased the teaching responsibilities for faculty who now conduct research, and eliminate staff, including technical support. The ensuing reorganization of the program, which trains more than 1,100 students, would have crippled research efforts and left a "token department," according to critics.

On Monday, the university released a statement defending its plan.

But on Wednesday, the school president, Bernie Machen, appeared to retreat a little, and said the "overwhelming negative response" to the university's proposal "has been based on misunderstanding." Exactly what that misunderstanding is wasn't explained.

The university, in its latest statement, said a new proposal "in consultation with students, faculty, staff, alumni and industry partners" is being developed. The statement didn't address the proposed cutbacks.

The Florida legislature instituted a $300 million cut on the state's university system in the next fiscal year that begins July 1. Machen said the university has to cut more than $38 million. "After five years of cuts, we have lost almost 25% of University of Florida's state support," he said.

Nuri Yeralan, a Ph.D. student at the university who is the leader of the student opposition, said there was nothing in the university president's statement to lessen concerns about the future of the computer science department.

"We are in an existential sort of crisis mode," said Yeralan. "This is a threat to our department; this is a threat to our department's autonomy, and to every student and to the value of their degree," he said.

Yeralan disputes the need for the cuts and believes the university has sufficient money in its reserves to ride out what he says is a non-recurring cut by the state.

The university's plan, affecting 600 undergrads, 400 master's degree students and about 130 Ph.D. computer science students, quickly garnered national attention because it affected a program directly linked to U.S. global competitiveness.

President Barack Obama has cited the training of so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grads as a "national priority essential to meeting the economic challenges of this century."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Read more about education/training in Computerworld's Education/Training Topic Center.


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