Archive for Sunday, November 24, 1991


November 24, 1991


Years of discord in the computer science department at Kansas University have impaired research and teaching, leaving people bitter about their academic experiences, students and faculty involved with the department say.

In interviews with 25 current and former computer science faculty, students and KU officials, a profile emerges of a department struggling under the weight of seemingly irreconcilable differences.

No consensus exists about what should be done to mend fences.

"What can you do about the Arab-Israeli problem?" James Miller, associate professor of computer science, quipped when asked about the department's woes.

"There is a problem in that the same people have been here a long time, so when a new issue is faced it's seen in the light of all sorts of history," said James Muyskens, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He's responsible for more than 50 academic departments in the college, including computer science.

Appie Van de Liefvoort, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said conflict drained the KU computer science department when he was there from 1981 to 1987.

"INFIGHTING takes a lot of energy away, which could be better spent on teaching and research," he said.

"The environment just generally wasn't conducive to collegiality," said Ray Ford, who left the department in 1990 for a job at the University of Montana.

Becky Ryan, who received a master's in computer science from KU in 1987 and still works at KU, said she's disappointed by her experience in the department.

"It was a very unpleasant environment," she said. "There was a lot of tension."

More than a dozen people interviewed said the rift in the department has manifested itself as a rivalry between William Bulgren, professor and chair of the department, and Zamir Bavel, professor of computer science, and among supporters of each. Others said the line couldn't be drawn that clearly.

"THERE ARE a couple people who outright hate each other. You can't wave a wand and have them like each other, respect each other," Miller said.

Bavel and Bulgren were the nucleus of the KU computer science department started in 1968 by Earl Schweppe, the department's first chairman.

Bulgren declined to discuss the merits of faculty, but Schweppe and Victor Wallace, both professors of computer science, blame Bavel for strife.

"He (Bavel) has a 20-year history of attacking anyone who is in authority," said Wallace, Bulgren's predecessor.

Bavel said the department's "biggest malady" is a series of bad chairmen Schweppe, Wallace and Bulgren.

"All of whom were more interested in their personal power than in the good of the university," said Bavel, who wants Bulgren ousted as chair.

MUYSKENS SAID it's probably too late to bring the department's combative faculty together for a meeting of the minds.

"With this long history it would just be a shouting match or a time of silence," he said.

Del Brinkman, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said he is aware of difficulties in the department. It's hard to sort this type of academic duel, he said.

"It gets very complicated when personalities and political motivations get involved," he said.

To get a handle on planning the department's future, Muyskens is forming a committee of non-KU scholars to review the department.

Bulgren, chair of computer science since 1985, said it's not unusual for faculty in the same department to have sharp disagreements.

"THERE ARE individual differences among faculty in this department as well as probably almost any other department," said Bulgren, who brought an attorney, Mike Riling, to an interview with a Journal-World reporter.

Muyskens said dissension exists in other KU departments, but the situation in computer science is unusual because it has been sustained for two decades.

Asked what might be improved in the department, Bulgren said the department needs to expand from 13 to 20 members and increase research funding and publications. He said the department has good faculty and students, a good mix of research and a newly renovated building, Snow Hall.

Muyskens agreed a state-of-the-art building is a positive development.

"The big concern for me is that we rise to the standard of the facility in our research and teaching," he said.

MUYSKENS SAID battles that divide the faculty have a negative influence on research because they reduce chances for collaborative work.

Wallace said dealing with Bavel's sniping has consumed a great deal of the department's time, but faculty remain productive.

Asked whether the department's research is influenced by infighting, Bulgren, the chairman, said, "I don't see that it affects research."

But Bavel believes the department's reputation has suffered in recent years.

For example, the 1982 edition of the Gourman Report, which ranks academic programs at U.S. colleges and universities, reported that KU's graduate program in computer science was 26th in the nation. By the 1987 edition, the program had dropped out of the top 40.

Muyskens, Bulgren's boss, said graduate students have been caught in the department's feuding. Some graduate students are uncomfortable working with certain faculty because it might be perceived as favoring a faction, he said.

"It's very bad for teaching," Muyskens said. "Most of the time when those sorts of things arise faculty members are able to be professional enough that it doesn't affect the students. The difficulty in this department here is that it isn't happening. It is affecting students in an adverse way."

BULGREN SAID departmental skirmishes don't influence teaching or faculty relations with graduate students. "I don't think so," he said.

"We've done a hell of a job educating people," Schweppe said. "Without it (conflict), we could have done better."

Computer science students are pawns in the faculty's struggle, said Phil Bradford, a doctoral student at the University of Indiana who started but didn't complete a Ph.D. at KU.

"Students were typically victims," Bradford said. "Tenured professors were protected by the system. Morale was about as low as it could go."

"I'm terribly concerned that students get caught between different warring factions," Muyskens said.

Most undergraduate students are shielded from departmental strife because they only take one or two courses in the department, he said.

Muyskens said he remains concerned factionalization in the department clouds hiring, promotion and tenure decisions.

"IF YOU ASK for a recommendation from the department you're not sure if it's one built on good, solid judgment or if it's more of, `If we build here, then this group gets another person,'" Muyskens said.

Giora Slutzki, an Iowa State University professor who left KU in 1983, said hostilities in the department at KU led to politicization of his tenure case. He eventually received tenure.

The fight among faculty has carried to private and public gatherings.

"We spend a lot of time bickering in meetings on what should be simple things," said Miller, associate professor. "In my view, all of this is very frustrating."

Fernando Nervada, a KU computer science faculty member in 1987 and 1988, said open colloquiums turned into shouting matches.

"It was embarrassing. Students were often there," said Nervada, now of the University of Scranton (Pa.). "It was impossible to work there in the end."

BULGREN, elected by computer science faculty in 1988 to a five-year term as chair, said morale in the department is "fine."

However, Muyskens said morale is "very low" and an influence on the department's high faculty attrition rate.

Attrition in the department is part of a "national tragedy" in the computer science field, Bulgren said. Five of the 10 faculty Bulgren recruited have left KU. None of the remaining five have attained the rank of full professor.

Muyskens labelled the attrition level "very high."

He also said "a number of extremely frustrated" students have complained to his office about the department.

Jay Livingston, a former computer science student, is among them. He said he knows of at least 15 students who also complained.

"We have kind of despaired of our ability, given the limited resources we have, to really get to the bottom of a number of complaints and concerns," Muyskens said. "And I feel badly, because I know some students who came here and left and who have not been well served."

RUNNING a department in turmoil isn't easy, he said.

"It's terribly difficult to be a leader in a department with that kind of dispute going on for years," he said. "And since Bill (Bulgren) is part of that dispute, he is not as effective as he could be."

Muyskens said it would be "wonderful" to hire a new chairman if that person is hired from outside the department. There isn't money in the budget for that now, he said.

He said the principals in the dispute may have to retire or resign before the situation is settled.

"If these were happier times there is no question we could bring in several senior people even if wouldn't be for another chair to make this whole dispute seem ridiculous," he said.

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