May 3, 2002

Computer Science Dept. Controversy Forces Change

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Although the Computer Science Department (CSD) currently reports to the Provost and the Faculty of Computing and Information Science (FCIS), the CSD may face changes in administration in the near future.

Since its inception in 1965, the CSD has held undergraduate majors in both College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences. Three years ago, the administration of the CSD shifted from the College of Engineering to the newly formed FCIS, an unaffiliated organization responsible for the integration of computer and information science into all departments.

Currently, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin handles the budget of the CSD, and Robert Constable, dean for computing and information science, directs its implementation. Constable also directs faculty appointments and promotions.

Members of the CSD believe the current situation is best for both the department and the University.

Charles Van Loan, director of undergraduate studies for the CSD, expressed his thoughts on the new developments in computer science.

“To track these trends – if we were sitting traditionally within a college, it would be very hard to do that,” said Van Loan.

Others see the current position of the CSD ideal for promoting interdisciplinary studies.

“We’re allowed to grow in the directions we want … and people who don’t want to major in computer science will bring these ideas to bear on what they do want to study,” said Prof. Fred Scheinder, computer science.

However, many faculty members demand a return to the more traditional administration of the CSD. The main disagreement revolves around a document unofficially titled “The Garza Agreement.”

Several years ago, Emeritus Vice Provost Cutberto Garza and other faculty members forged an agreement on the future of computing technology at Cornell. Martin decided to place this document aside until the position of dean of engineering was permanently filled.

Many faculty members believe that the CSD must return to administration under the College of Engineering to fulfill the arrangement, according to J. Robert Cooke, dean of the University faculty.

However, Van Loan and Constable view “The Garza Agreement” as flexible.

“Some people are strict constructionists. The strict constructionists see us as leaving engineering,” Van Loan said. “It’s not a divorce.”

Although Van Loan and Constable say that this arrangement is for the benefit of the entire University, Cooke raised questions about their motives.

“At the heart of it, it really is a struggle about how to gain political power, a struggle for control of financial resources. It may be dressed up in various ways, but that’s what it’s about,” said Cooke.

Philip Lewis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also believes that the current arrangement may pose problems in the future.

“In the long run, having a single department run by itself … the way appointments and promotions will be handled … will be problematic,” said Lewis.

In defense, Van Loan said he thought Cooke’s perspective is somewhat “cynical,” while Constable said he sees money as part of the picture only in context of educational quality.

Martin refuses to take a side on the issue.

“I believe it is a mistake to reduce the arguments on any side of the issue to political motives, or to imagine that the faculty in computer science are interested in independence for its own sake or a larger budget for its own sake,” Martin said in an e-mail.

According to Martin, President Hunter R. Rawlings III and she will make the final decision on this issue probably within the next month.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher