Monday, April 23, 2012

Day 13: Money Academe

So, earlier today I posted the following article from Forbes online on Facebook: 
University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets.
That's right, no more gator CS majors, and those CS majors that are their are going to be scattered to other degree programs.  What's to gain from killing the program on campus that is most equated with the current high-tech revolution: 1.4 million dollars.  Simultaneously the University of Florida is raising the athletics budget by $700,000 to a total of 97.7 million dollars.  Like the author of the report: I am aghast:

"Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?"

I don't want to say that the athletics department is more important than academics... but... well, let's just say that for most large public universities (and many small ones), especially those known for athletics, ... it is.  Still, I don't think it's fair to pick two budget items and draw unsupported conclusions from correlations.  The article doesn't do that, and neither will I.

The  article does, however, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the state legislature for cutting the budgets of higher education.  I don't think I need to say I'm against cutting education in any of it's forms; I'm a professor, my wife's a secondary education teacher.  We need unions, we need pensions, we need to give teachers more flexibility to actually teach and research, we need less mandates, we need more money for education, not less, and with fewer strings.  Still, I have a problem placing the blame wholly on the legislators.  Why?  Legislators are elected.

Higher education has a P.R. problem.  Americans have too much of a loose notion that education is a vaguely critical component of making the future better, but the future... well... is the future.  Americans want what they can get now, right now!  The political system can't make investments, not in infrastructure, not in education, not in healthcare.  Simply put, and most ironically, the population needs to be better educated (and to have a reason to have more faith in their government).  I always remember this notion brought to us by de Tocqueville very early on in our country's experiment into democracy.   In America, the people always get the government they deserve (never more, usually not less).

What I really want to focus on though, is why Computer Science?  I have several theories that all boil down to Computer Science has a P.R. problem; even within the academy.

Imagine you're an administrator at the University level.  You've been forced to cut costs because uninformed philistine politicians who've been elected by an uninformed philistine electorate have seen fit to slash your funding.  Meanwhile, those same politicians are demanding that you get more performance out of fewer resources; and the measure for how they will tell if you're being efficient or not is as simple and useless as you'd expect any philistine metric to be; the number of degrees you give out.  Nothing else matters, only give out more degrees.

Admittedly, I'm not intimate with the situation in the state of Florida, but what I've described is exactly what is currently transpiring in Virginia.  So, at the worst, I'm projecting, but I'd be willing to bet what I'm doing comes most close to extrapolating the Floridian situation.

Given the requirements, you can see why the Computer Science program would be singled out.  CS (and other STEM fields) are expensive.  It's expensive to buy away professors from a professional career, equipment is expensive, teaching assistants are expensive, facilities are expensive and degrees are harder to obtain.  If the ratio of number of graduations to expenditure is all you care about, ... hello chopping block.

The irony is; it's in vogue across the country for politicians to speak in support of STEM.  With the one hand they say how important STEM education is, with the other they create an academic regulatory environment that forces its death, or worse, it's forced meaninglessness via a deluge of diluted degrees from Universities managed like degree mills.

Don't expect other academic departments to step in either.  I can tell you that the one thing that being on committees, especially those that are responsible for research funding, has taught me is that the other departments have been stripped to the bone and made to fight for scraps already.  I know that I'm blessed to have resources to buy the equipment I need and want to experiment with because experimental resources are DEFINITELY not available outside STEM.  Also remember how professionals in the STEM field are the best paid on campus (again, for good reason).

It's a sad state of affairs for whom their is no "silver bullet" solution that I'm aware.  But, it's definitely time to stop, as technologists in the academy, thinking that we're going to continue to be insulated from anti-intellectualism rampant in our society.  When politicians make a point to focus on STEM, it isn't a good thing.  It simply means they're trying to leverage and eventually eliminate what they don't really understand and who's usefulness they can't fully grasp.

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