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Monday, April 23, 2012

CS in the Sunshine State

As many of you've heard the Dean of Engineering at the University of Florida is planning deep cuts to the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department (CISE) and focusing its mission solely on teaching. Here is the relevant part of her plan.
Roughly half of the CISE faculty would be offered the opportunity to move to Electrical and Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering or Industrial and Systems Engineering.  These faculty would continue to support the graduate and research mission in the Computer Engineering degree track.  The choice of which faculty and which departments will be made based on fit with the research program and with the receiving departments. Staff positions in CISE which are currently supporting research and graduate programs would be eliminated.  The activities currently covered by TAs would be reassigned to faculty and the TA budget for CISE would be eliminated. The faculty remaining in CISE would then focus their efforts on teaching and advising students in the existing Computer Science BS and MS degree programs, offered through both the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Their assignments would change to reflect this new educational mission with sole focus on delivering quality education for students in these degree programs.  Any faculty member who wishes to stay in CISE may do so, but with a revised assignment focused on teaching and advising.
In other words Florida is eliminating core Computer Science research, something that makes no sense for a state flagship research university in this day and age. There is a website and petition protesting the move which has caused the Dean to respond. Perhaps because of geographical closeness, this was a big topic of discussion when I was down at Georgia Tech last week. The current and founding Deans of the College of Computing at GT wrote strong letters to the Florida president. The CRA has also expressed their concern.

Certainly the president and dean deserve much of the blame to allow the targeting of computer science at Florida. But as Steven Salzberg of Forbes points out, the real villains lie in Tallahassee with a governor and legislature that has cut funding for the school by 30% over the past six years.

29 comments:

  1. Frustrating to read, there's no transparency about the decision process or *what* research activities are actually being cut. There is some blather about how other universities have computer science in the same department as electrical engineering, but the two fields are so different now that I'm not sure that makes sense. In any case they're gutting their CS research to an extent that renders the new arrangement not comparable with GA Tech, or Berkeley, or anywhere else with combined CS/EE.

    Also, is it just me or do they seem to think that computer science and computer engineering are kinda-the-same?

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  2. A similar event almost happened at the University of Cincinnati: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110214/NEWS0102/102150310/University-Cincinnati-drop-computer-science-major

    Fortunately, the Dean was prevented from completing his plan to terminate the undergraduate CS program: http://lavergne.gotdns.org/2011/10/Dean-Carlo-Montemagno-Now-Finds-Computer-Science-Important.html

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  3. Median family incomes in the United States have been stagnant for three decades; it is not realistic to expect that academia will prosper in this circumstance.

    Are there realistic prospects that academic STEM research can catalyze an end to this stagnation? If so, how exactly?

    Nowadays these are key, tough questions that challenge every professor in every discipline.

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    1. Let me turn that question around: what, besides more and better STEM research and education, do you see as likely to increase economic productivity in the future?

      Government spending is mostly for wars and transfer payments (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.). Both are fine, as far as they go, but neither is going to improve long-run economic growth. We also spend so much on them that it's hard to believe that the problem with education funding is a lack of resources; rather, I think it's a lack of priorities.

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    2. Aram, depending on the meaning of "lack of priorities", then yes, there does exist a structural misalignment of priorities that afflicts research academia broadly, and Florida's university system specifically (along with many other university systems).

      That misalignment becomes evident when we talk to state and federal legislature members about their priorities, in which case we are like to encounter appreciable (and increasing) skepticism with respect to the reliability of rosy-but-unrealized forecasts of economic growth and job creation.

      Along with almost everyone who reads/writes on research forums, my personal strong belief is that fundamental research *is* an essential catalyst to economic growth and job creation. And yet, our fellow citizens and governmental officials are wholly reasonable too, in asking us STEM academics for better, more reliable, in-depth answers to the question "How does that work, exactly?"

      Provided that we don't mind asking-and-answering what is admittedly a tough, trans-disciplinary class of questions, then answering these questions affords an extraordinary opportunity for STEM academia to revitalize academic growth, by revitalizing broader economic growth.

      So how *does* STEM research contribute to economic growth and job creation … exactly?

      And why has success in this crucial task seemingly been becoming harder, slower, and riskier, rather than easier, faster, and more certain?

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    3. Hmmm ... the above link having been corrupted, perhaps I will simply recommend that researchers in fundamental STEM disciplines reflect upon the sobering content of articles like MIT Technology Review's recent "Why Boston Power Went to China" (2012), or Crosscut's "The failed promise of biotech in South Lake Union" (2009).

      On an individual basis, it is entirely reasonable for STEM researchers to assert "The practical challenges of enterprise are not my primary professional concern." Yet on the other hand, in an era in which many STEM researchers reply similarly, then it is well — for students especially — to reflect upon the maxim: "Be wary of entrusting your future to leaders who are confused by the present!" :)

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    4. It's really hard to measure how *exactly* it works, for a number of reasons. Economists don't have a great theory of why economic growth happens, as far as I can tell. The stuff I've seen says that there is something called "productivity" that is a function of technology, organization and culture.

      There are some things you can measure. Many companies are spun off directly from university research. Alternatively, we see technology _overall_ advancing, and if you subtract what happens in government labs and industrial research, that still leaves a lot coming from universities, including things that we appreciate now, but seemed of only academic interest at the time (like quantum mechanics).

      Of course, you can't guarantee it'll help a specific region, like South Lake Union. People who make those kind of promises are being dishonest. But the article you link to suggests that what we should be skeptical of is luring businesses to town with tax breaks. I think the best way to lure businesses is to strengthen local university and K-12 education! Many business leaders themselves say this.

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  4. It seems that they are spending 100 times more on sports at UFL, it doesn't make sense at all even with the university budget cuts.

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  5. Marginal quality schools should not spend resources on research. In the future, teaching will be delivered online, from better lecturers at better schools, and research will be decoupled from teaching and also concentrated at better schools. This doesn't mean the end of universities. Schools like UFL can focus on football. They are very well prepared!

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  6. Eight NSF CAREER awards is not exactly a sign of marginal quality.

    If football is that important, why have a university sponsor it? They are surely not the best venue, best organization or economically most efficient way to do that.

    Finally, lectures are a poor way to achieve learning. Best learning occurs through interaction between students and faculty, and among students. Neither happens with taped lectures or with classes of 800.

    As for why research is good for students, the answer is simple: we want students to be able to learn the technologies of 10 years from now, not only those of yesterday. Since we have only vague hints about what those technologies might be, the best way to achieve it is by teaching fundamentals, and ways to learn new stuff: interacting with researchers does both.

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    1. And yet, there are well-respected folks who assert that the technologies of the present decade differ insubstantially from prior decades. Has this weakened the traditional synergy of research, teaching, and enterprise? If so, what measures might revitalize this crucial synergy?

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  7. Here is a statement from UF about the Forbes article:
    http://www.eng.ufl.edu/news/uf-statement-made-april-23rd-2012/

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  8. An article about why gutting an academic department while increasing the football budget makes economic sense.

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  9. Francis Adams and Anonymous, the statement and article linked to could both be summarized as follows:

    "Some wild rumors have been circulating lately about UF eviscerating its CS department. Please rest assured, those rumors are no more than 85% correct..."

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    1. I think from an outsiders perspective, combining CS and CE makes sense. (Actually, it may make sense even from an insiders perspective; I think the part we object to most is turning research faculty into teaching faculty.)

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    2. I absolutely agree. I'm actually a math PhD student at UF (with an interest in theoretical CS) and just wanted to share something that had just popped up on my facebook since I 'like' UF. The claims of losing no research capacity are impossible when they are cutting all TA's and increasing the teaching load of the faculty. Another reason why this is ridiculous that I haven't seen a lot of press for is that a 'global IT and product engineering company' Mindtree is bringing in 400 well-paying jobs to Gainesville, citing the fact that UF is a great CS research school. (link here http://news.ufl.edu/2012/03/27/mindtree/ ).

      What I'm really scared about though, is the precedent trying to be set of a dean unilaterally cutting an entire department. Especially when the other colleges, like the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where math is, have yet to say how they are dealing with the imposed budget cuts.

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  10. no job market post this year?

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    1. Too early. The CS job market is far from settled.

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  11. It's completely wrong to say that the "real villains" lie in Tallahassee. State budget cuts are a fact of life across the entire country, and there are incomparably better ways to handle them than to destroy the CS department. Besides, even if there were no budget cuts, state universities are run on the cheap. A dean who thinks that a department is a waste of money when there are budget cuts, is a dean who would still think that that department is a waste of money without budget cuts. In fact, it looks like Abernathy had it in for the CS department from the beginning.

    It's not as if every department is a vital necessity. Here at UC Davis, in just the current round of austerity, they have dissolved two departments and a campus unit that wanted to be a department. Two of these demolitions were long overdue and the remaining case is at least colorable. But NOT the CS department. We did not eliminate the CS department and we never will.

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  12. "State budget cuts are a fact of life across the entire country."
    -----------------------------------------

    Similarly, the crew of the Titanic might justly have asserted: "Ships hitting icebergs is a fact of life in seafaring!"

    Parsed strictly, this is an inarguable statement of fact. And yet, the passengers suppose that the crew has a responsibility to forestall this unhappy eventuality, and moreover, in the event of shipwreck, the passengers rightly expect more from the crew than brusque disclaimers and squabbles over lifeboat seat-assignments.

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  13. It seemed to me that vast majority of the complaints were motivated by something along this line: I love abstract Turing machines therefore all the money from taxpayer are best spent on exactly what I like!

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    1. Your comment is richly ironic, since it's Abernathy who's trying to divert taxpayer money into her personal hobbyhorses. If you haven't noticed, "abstract Turing machines," and the field based around them, constitute one of the main engines of the modern economy. As many people have pointed out over the last week, to whatever extent you agree that
      (a) we should have public universities at all and
      (b) those universities should help students get jobs,
      they'd do well to invest more, not less, in CS! Now, if you're against the entire concept of publicly-funded education, that's a different debate, but don't pretend it has anything to do with "abstract Turing machines."

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    2. I do not know enough about the Abernathy to say anything sensible.

      My point does stand because I said "motivated", it is blatantly obvious that

      (a) you guys will complaint whenever any slightest cut to abstract TMs were proposed.

      (b) you don't care about the economy or whether what you do is useful whatsoever

      Theoretical research is fine, but one should not expect such to be the dominating focus of any funding body.

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    3. No doubt many folks feel that both Anonymous' posts and Scott's posts have made valid points … and moreover, that any real progress toward solving the challenges — the very real, very urgent challenges — that confront the STEM enterprise, requires an effective synthesis of Anonymous' and Scott's points.

      Needless to say, one of the glories of the 21st century is that we can look on-line for historical precedents of such a synthesis, and in this regard one such blended precedent is von Neumann's celebrated essay of 1947 titled "The Mathematician" (which is mainly Scott-ish with a blend of Anonymous), and its economic sequelae that are described in the Time Magazine theme issue of April 29, 1957, titled "The New Age", which profiles the celebrated systems engineers Si Ramo and Dean Wooldridge … both of whom worked closely with von Neumann (a Google search will find both essays).

      Readers of the Fortnow/GASARCH Complexity weblog who are so fortunate to have access to a university library are encouraged to go to the stacks, pull down a bound copy of Scientific American for the year 1957, and read, not the articles, but rather the remarkably numerous, remarkably vigorous job ads. As the Time article describes it:

      ------------------------
      "From coast to coast the speed of the new giant's growth is staggering ... in Los Angeles, where a new electronics plant is built every fortnight, there are already 470 companies ... the face of this new industry is as different from old-line industries as a candle from electricity."
      ------------------------

      Nothing like this this vigor of enterprise, or this density of job ads, appears in the present-day Scientific American, and thus the key unanswered question of today's broader STEM debate is simply, why not?

      Scott's posts and Anonymous' posts each have blamed the other for this lack … this is regrettable, and it seems (to me) that the integrated worldview of von Neumann / Ramo / Wooldridge has historically has been far more productive of advances in math, science, engineering, and enterprise.

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    4. As a followup, I was going to post an ad-count comparison of Scientific American for April 1957 versus April 2011 … and visited the library stacks yesterday evening to do so. But halfway through the count, I stopped, sick at heart.

      The 2011 Scientific American April edition was half the length of the 1957 edition (96 pages versus 193 pages) … the number of technical advertisements had declined more than 95% … the number of STEM career/family supporting jobs offered had declined from many hundreds of ads 1957 — "Innumerable opportunities exist at IBM", "Please send your resume to MIT's Lincoln Laboratory", "We'd like to know you better at Sandia" — to just one job advertised in 2012.

      It's fair to say, that back in 1957, no-one foresaw America's present era of economic stagnation. Was Goethe right in saying "Altogether in academies they teach too many things, and far too much that is useless"?

      One thing is certain: the burgeoning career opportunities that ware associated to the integrative STEM enterprises of the 1950s are scarcely evident today. The reasons are less clear, and what is *really* surprising, is that the reasons (whatever they may be) are little discussed in academia.

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    5. The above post's meditation flowered from Goethe's aphorism "Altogether they teach in academies far too many things and far too much that is useless." To vastly simplify, we saw how von Neumann's appreciation of it and creative response to it catalyzed a remarkable era of enterprise and prosperity.

      As a counterpoint, we will consider a different Goethe aphorism, and (again to vastly simplify) from it we will evolve a reading of the modern STEM enterprise in which the intractable problems at the University of Florida are laid at the feet of … Alexander Grothendieck.

      --------------------
      "All the thinking in the world does not bring us to thought. We must be right by nature so that good thoughts may come before us like free children of God and cry 'Here we are.'" (Goethe, 1824)
      --------------------

      Two articles in the Notices that illuminate some modern mathematical instantiations of Goethe's ideal are Allyn Jackson's "Comme Appelé du Néant — As If Summoned from the Void: The Life of Alexandre Grothendieck" (Notices AMS, October and November 2004), which was followed by Winfried Scharlau's "Who Is Alexander Grothendieck?" (Notices AMS, September 2008).

      Without belaboring the point, we see plainly in their respective writings that von Neumann's conception of mathematics is coarser and less finished than Grothendieck's. Moreover, the great enterprises that von Neumann's mathematics helped spawn — thermonuclear warheads, ballistic missiles, computers, informatic biology — have proved coarser too, in their methods, objectives, and effects, than the methods, objectives, and effects of Grothendieck's high-minded Survivre et Vivre.

      And yet we see too, that the problems that assail the University of Florida specifically, and the global STEM enterprise generally, historically have been more effectively addressed by von Neumann-style vitality of enterprise than Grothendieck-style naturality of objective.

      Much more can be said regarding these considerations, and very fortunately much more is being said. We can be appreciative of and grateful for George Dyson's just-released Turing's Cathedral, and also for the initial volume Anarchie of Winfried Scharlau's multivolume opus Who Is Alexander Grothendieck? Anarchie, Mathematik, Spiritualität. In this regard, it is unfortunate that Grothendieck has recently requested that his writings be withdrawn from circulation, on grounds that the works are mistaken and/or may be misused … because it is the mistakes and misuses that are the most enduringly significant aspects of Grothendieck's works (or any works).

      We can all hope that coming decades will witness a synthesis of von Neumann's vigor of enterprise and Grothendieck's naturality of practice. For the alternative is wholly unacceptable, on both practical and moral grounds: to concede that we live in 21st century whose senior STEM professionals have uncreatively embraced one final aphorism of Goethe: "I thank heaven that I am not young in so thoroughly finished a time."

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  14. On reflection, you make a good point. Even if Mr. Turing's "abstract programmable computer" idea looks neat on paper, it remains to be seen whether it will find any real-world applications. At the least, before supporting a CS department, UF could wait a few decades to see whether any actual employers become interested in this so-called "software" field or put jobs or money behind it.

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  15. Again, the explanation that the University of Florida has budget problems (or equivalently, that the real villain is in Tallahassee) does not work. They should not be allowed that excuse at all. Exhibit A is the fact that Abernathy is granting open positions to her other engineering departments.

    So you can claim that the whole ship is sinking and that we shouldn't quarrel over lifeboats. But the truth is that this captain is throwing some passengers onto lifeboats, and accepting new passengers at the next port.

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