The Cost of Proposals

mistakes

Organizations are reasonably good at weighing the costs and the benefits of potential reorganizations. Most will do a careful analysis, receive comments from stakeholders, subject the analysis to an independent review, and allow an accountable governing body to make a decision.

On the other hand, organizations rarely understand the cost of their decision making process. Not in dollars, cents, and hours, but in lost reputation. This essay is a cautionary tale on the hidden costs of proposed re-organizations.

In 2011 and 2012, Dr. Cammy Abernathy, the Dean of the University of Florida’s College of Engineering, was faced with budget cuts. She proposed that, in order to save about one million dollars per year, the Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (“the computer science department”) be merged with the Department of Electrical Engineering. This would entail cutting some nontenured staff, and in some iterations of the proposal, eliminate the PhD in Computer Science and other CS research positions.

At no point did Dean Abernathy propose cutting the undergraduate computer science program, or entirely eliminate computer science. To her credit, many of the sub-disciplines that would be in CISE at other schools are already in EE at UF - in particular, UF’s highly successful Machine Intelligence Lab is a part of Electrical Engineering, not Computer Science.

There was a strong public outcry against this move. As is often the case, in the process of raising support, the story changed from “merge CISE into EE” to “Dean Abernathy is going to cut computer science”. Undergraduate students posted Facebook statuses about having to find a new major (at no time did anybody ever consider forcing current CS undergraduates to find a new major). Things were heated.

Fine. There’s a whole story about the cost of that outcry and the face that was lost by the College of Engineering’s administration in the eyes of faculty. But now, years after the fact, the costs continue.

Recently Ars Technica ran an article titled “To address tech’s diversity woes, start wit the vanishing Comp Sci classroom” about the decline of computer science classes in secondary education. The focus of the article was on the Advanced Placement Computer Science Exam, which is offered by fewer schools than it used to be. The article discussed this in the context of the diversity crisis in tech. A good article all around.

However, as part of the article, the author stated that “Colleges including the University of Florida and Albion have cut their programs in the last few years.” Given that the sentence immediately preceding, it’s clear that the author believes the University of Florida - a top 50 school, and top 100 globally - does not have any Computer Science department at all.

And, conservatively, 25,000 people active in the tech industry have read that article, and that sentence, without batting an eyelash.

Authors make mistakes - this is not the fault of the author. Readers are generally right to trust authors on reputable sites like Ars Technica.

This - the fact that tens of thousands of technologists now think UF doesn’t do computer science - is just a cost of the proposal made years ago.

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