Computer Math, UH-Style

Clashes over class sizes cause a Bear to oust a chairman

They've been seething for a long, long time at the University of Houston's computer science department. Now they seethe no longer. They take action.

This being academia, the "action" consists of a resolution calling for the resignation of a dean, but still, you take your revolutions as you find them. And at UH, what you find is a bunch of computer professors who are sick and tired of their department being treated like a cash cow.

Too many students and too few professors result in classes that can be three or four times the size of what's found at other universities, teachers say. And while all those students generate plenty of tuition and fee income for the university, precious little of that money makes its way back to the department.

The problem has been growing for years. Now it has come to a head.

Bowen Loftin, the chair of the computer science department, has been tangling relentlessly with John Bear, the dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, over the problem.

Give us more staff, Loftin has said. We're doing all we can, Bear has replied.

Loftin, a specialist in virtual-reality computing who has chaired the department since September 1999, decided he had had enough.

He capped class sizes. He and other professors reminded their colleagues that "no faculty member is under any obligation to teach any course in the summer," as one e-mail put it. (In the computer science department, all revolutions are conducted through e-mail.)

The result: When UH students tried to sign up for summer computer courses the week of April 17, many found themselves out of luck. Half of the summer sections were closed just a few days into the registration period. Almost half of the fall courses were full by that time, too.

Bear called Loftin in and ordered him to make the classes bigger. Loftin refused. Bear removed Loftin from his department chair position. And the e-mail war began.

The ratio of 1,000-plus students to 16 professors "is completely untenable," one professor wrote to UH brass. "It makes it impossible to recruit new faculty members (the department recruited very actively last year, but no offer extended was accepted); it also means that the existing faculty will leave (one highly regarded junior faculty member left recently because of the pathetic work environment)Š.The problem is that the work environment in the department has deteriorated to such an extent that nobody has any intention of coming here -- at least nobody that has an even remote chance of getting tenure here."

Soon there was a resolution in front of the computer science professors, who in august assembly met, at least electronically speaking.

"Whereas Dr. John L. Bear, Dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, has refused to engage in any constructive dialog with the department of computer science, and whereas John Bear has ignored the resource needs of the department during his entire tenure as dean, and whereas John Bear has neglected his duties as dean in repeatedly refusing to transmit to the Provost carefully elaborated plans addressing the long-term resource needs of the Department of Computer Science, andŠ" whereas a whole lot of other stuff John Bear was doing or refusing to do, the department faculty called unanimously for his resignation, with four abstentions.

Whereas Bear told them that he would give their resolution all the consideration it deserved, which wasn't much, because he wasn't resigning.

"I want to work this out in a way that benefits the students," he told the UH student newspaper. "I am doing all I can do."

Loftin hasn't lost his professorship, and he vows to keep pressing the issue.

The department generates more than $5 million yearly through tuition and fees and state money, based on student head counts, and gets less than $2 million in return, he says. "That's a big gap. I have had long-standing discussions with the dean about moving to equity, and the only leverage I had was to reduce class sizes. The dean ordered me to restore class sizes; I refused, and he dismissed me."

Loftin says he and his colleagues didn't want to take the drastic step they took. "We're willing to continue with the large classes -- and we're talking about graduate classes with 75 students or more, which is unheard of. Usually classes are 20 students or so." Loftin says they only wanted to "see some light at the end of the tunnel, but apparently there is none, and so we have no desire to continue like that."

E-mails make the case more strongly. "For the past decade, Computer Science has been in a deepening crisis," one professor wrote. "Since virtually nothing has been done to address this, complete collapse is now imminent."

The e-mail manifesto paints a bleak picture. "It must be noted that competition is fierce in this field, so that even mediocre associate professors have little problem in getting significantly better offers," it says, demonstrating the liberté, if not the égalité or fraternité, of the famed French Revolution slogan. "Once the exodus happens, and it is clear that it is beginning, there may be nobody in the department left. This is not hype -- all we need is two or three more leaving and the avalanche is unstoppable."

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