The University of Florida’s budget cuts for the Computer Engineering degree programmes have put Indian students in a fix.

It’s a university that claims to be “a leader in research and discoveries.” But the April, 2012 budget plan of the University of Florida (UF), Gainesville, U.S., that did away with all research from the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) and divvied up the rest of the wreckage among other departments, well went against its grain.

If this initial plan had gone through, the 300-odd Indian students — constituting three-fifths of the department, according to the CISE Records Office’s Fall 2011 data — pursuing postgraduate and doctoral degrees would have faced a serious threat of being transferred to a hardware department, losing the value of their degree, their employability, and in some cases, their Teaching Assistant (TA) posts.

According to College of Engineering Dean Cammy Abernathy’s proposal, the budget for the College of Engineering would be reduced by 5.86 per cent, combining with other expenses to total about $4 million that needed to be cut or re-purposed. The plan included moving all Computer Engineering degree programmes from the CISE department to the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), and Bio Medical Engineering (BME) departments. CISE teaching assistant positions, research and graduate staff would be removed. Half of the faculty would either be moved to another department or asked to quit.

The proposal, this summer, sparked an outcry among the industry, academia, students and the faculty. A major issue was that the only department to be targeted by the budget proposal in the entire College of Engineering was the CISE.

“This has baffled everyone. To focus budget cuts only on a department of over 1,000 students that brings in 17 per cent revenue at 10 per cent of the cost is a very illogical move,” said a senior faculty member of the CISE. “It’s going to be pretty rough on the Indian students as most of them are TAs or are on a scholarship.”

Ever since Dean Abernathy announced the proposal, the students and faculty at CISE joined hands to protest against it by conducting meetings, awareness rallies, study-ins, white-outs, forming human chains and launching an aggressive social media campaign.

Adding to the Indian students’ worries was the fact that the F1 student visa does not permit an international student to stay in the U.S. without taking a full course load (except in the graduating semester, and summer semester).

New proposal

On May 11, the administration submitted a new budget proposal, this one recommending an “across the board cut of 2.93 per cent,” along with endangering more than 50 faculty positions, delaying services like building repairs, disbursement of student aid and detection of data security breaches, and shutting down two libraries — those of music and journalism. Several departments would need to cut travel, and reduce availability of research equipment. The administrative proposal covered about $13 million of the overall $38.2 million budget-cut, representing a five per cent cut to administrative units and service centres handling everything from human resources to legal work.

While a majority of the people still felt that the new proposal was not any better, most of the CISE students graduating in Fall 2012 certainly heaved a sigh of relief, as the prevalent worry that the entire budget “debacle” would lead to fewer jobs and a decrease in value of their degree did not come to pass, at least during the commencement.

A lot of Indian students, though, who were contemplating upon the university as their choice, had justifiably had a few misgivings about applying at all.

Damage control

By mid-May, the university went into damage-control mode by sending a missive:

“Dear applicants, we have received a few inquiries about the future of our department. We want to inform you that the current budget-cut mandated by the Florida Legislature will have minimum impact on the CISE department. All our admission and/or Achievement Award offers are guaranteed.”

“Save UF! Spend the Reserves!” — a “coalition of Gainesville-area residents, students, Graduate Assistants, faculty, and staff” — is of the opinion that while all other State universities are spending their reserves to cover this year’s budget shortfall, the UF administration has chosen to cut the budgets for each college instead.

Drawing from reserves is not being considered by the administration because the budget-cuts are “recurring” and thus the reserve funds would not indefinitely cover them.

Taking the protest against the new proposal forward, the “Save UF! Spend the Reserves!” group launched an attack by criticising the university administrators’ “huge” salaries when there was shortage of cash to run the university.

According to a report published in the Gainesville Sun in late May, data from an October, 2011 salary report by the university showed that the top brass was receiving a pay much higher than the Median Doctoral pay suggested by a survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Paula Varnes Fussell, the university’s vice-president for Human Resource Services, however, defended the salaries in the same report by expounding on the extra responsibilities that most of the administration had and saying that the survey was not an apt comparison, as many of those schools were small and lacked the major research operation of the university.

According to the general consensus, the new proposal’s claim of an “across the board” cut would result in the same effect on CISE as the original proposal made by Dean Abernathy in April. The “Save CISE” group’s analysis said that in the case of CISE, the 2.9 per cent had been taken from the CISE base budget at the beginning of 2011-2012.

“This amounted to $1,90,000. However, CISE has also been told that at least two positions that were included in the above base budget, but were due to become vacant in 2012-2013 due to retirements etc., will not be replaced… This amounts to an over eight per cent recurring cut for CISE… This is not across the board. So we have come full circle.”

As regards the question of research — the backbone of CISE — Benjamin Lok, Assistant Professor at CISE, said resources were being stretched thin. “The CISE faculty are banding together to find more effective ways to teach and do research within these new fiscal constraints. To that end, you’ll be seeing new degree offerings and research initiatives as an approach to bridge the budget gap.”

As protests continue at Gainesville, the administration is taking a short break during the vacations, and the situation remains in a limbo.