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Archive for Sunday, February 23, 1992

CONFIDENTIAL REPORT IDENTIFIES PROBLEMS IN KU DEPARTMENT

February 23, 1992

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The computer science department at Kansas University should be eliminated if faculty disputes and academic deficiences can't be resolved, consultants say in a confidential report.

Consultants from Illinois and Colorado said KU should first try to separate at least the chief rivals on the faculty William Bulgren, professor and chair of the department, and Zamir Bavel, computer science professor.

"We recognize that this plan has some big ifs: It may not be possible to remove the combatants and resources needed for an outside chair may not be available," the report said. "We therefore describe a more radical, less desirable, but less expensive alternative."

Under this alternative, the consultants said, the department would be dissolved and its faculty divided between the KU math department and the computer engineering program.

Charles Himmelberg, chair of the math department, said his department wasn't "eager to solve the problem by absorbing all or part of computer science."

JAMES MUYSKENS, dean of KU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said that since the report was completed last month, he had discussed options for the department's future with computer science faculty and graduate students.

"I outlined many options, and those (separating Bulgren, Bavel and eliminating the department) were included," he said. "At this point, there is no plan of action just a number of possibilities we need to look at."

Muyskens declined to elaborate on what other options were under consideration, but he said no final decision would be be made until later this year.

He said it was unusual for consultants to recommend discontinuation of an academic department. "It would not be a typical kind of recommendation," he said.

DEL SHANKEL, executive vice chancellor at KU, said he had read the report, which was intended to be an internal document only.

"This report identifies problems that have been there for years and which we've been working on for years," he said.

He said KU wasn't bound by what the consultants proposed.

"They're paid to give us their advice," Shankel said. "We can take it or not."

Muyskens, who as dean is responsible for about 50 academic departments, including computer science, praised the consultants.

"They did a fine job," he said. "They were more successful than I thought they would be in getting people to talk with them."

BULGREN, CHAIR of computer science since 1985, said he couldn't comment on the report because it was a confidential document.

"I'm not in a position to talk about it," he said.

However, Bulgren said Muyskens told him he would remain the department's chair for now.

Bavel said he shouldn't be blamed for the department's problems.

"It is interesting how the X-ray machine is blamed for the cancer," he said. "All I did was report my concerns."

The report doesn't contain specific criticisms of Bavel.

Bavel said the "only thing that will save the department is for the chair to resign."

A copy of the report was mailed anonymously to a Journal-World reporter. One of the consultants, Clayton Lewis, associate professor of computer science at University of Colorado at Boulder, verified that the J-W's copy of the report was authentic.

AFTER interviewing 25 current and former computer science faculty, students and KU officials, the J-W published a story in November that detailed how discord in the computer science department had impaired research and teaching there.

More than a dozen people said the rift had manifested itself as a rivalry between Bulgren and Bavel.

Bavel said the department's "biggest malady" was a series of bad chairmen, including Bulgren. He called for Bulgren's ouster.

One former chair, Victor Wallace, a professor of computer science at KU, said Bavel had "a 20-year history of attacking anyone who is in authority."

Muyskens said then that it was probably too late to bring the department's combative faculty together for a meeting of the minds. The situation in computer science was unusual because it had been sustained for two decades, the dean said.

Lewis and William Kubitz, professor of computer science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were hired by KU to assess the situation.

LEWIS SAID it would be inappropriate to comment on his report.

"That's not my role," Lewis said. "I was asked by the dean (Muyskens) to come in and look at the department, and that's what I did with Kubitz."

Kubitz and Lewis were provided extensive documentation about the department's operation and track record before they arrived on campus in December to interview all members of the computer science faculty and some students.

Their six-page report contains one paragraph of praise for the department.

"On the positive side, the department appears to be doing well in educating its undergraduate and MS (master's degree) students. There are some outstanding teachers on the faculty, and most faculty are rated as good teachers by the students with whom we spoke," the report said.

THE REPORT identified problems within the department, which include:

Faculty research standards are too low for a major public university. Only one of the senior faculty produced journal publications at the rate of one a year in the past five years.

Research grant activity is low. Only one member of the faculty has National Science Foundation support. Overall, the faculty hasn't obtained adequate external funding for a strong research program.

Management of personnel matters is weak. Last year, questionable choices were made in developing a list of finalists to fill a faculty vacancy despite many strong applicants. The department's faculty voted to reject all four finalists.

The department has a poor record in promotion and tenure cases. The department pressed a case for promotion despite "clear evidence that the candidate was a poor, uncommitted teacher."

"MANAGEMENT of the department rests with the chair (Bulgren), who operates without bylaws," the report said. "A single committee appointed by the chair handles recruitment, salary, tenure and promotion. The makeup of the committee creates the impression for some faculty that it is easily manipulated by the chair.

"This unusual management system is apparently justified by reference to longstanding dissension in the department. But it has not only failed to eliminate or manage this dissension but has also itself created an atmosphere of suspicion and, in some cases, fear."

The consultants said in the report that to improve faculty hiring and retention, "the current management system, which gives the chair arbitrary power over junior faculty (or any faculty) must be eliminated."

THE REPORT said the computer science doctoral program appeared to suffer from "capricious management." Student requirements aren't documented and are subject to change. The handling of doctoral exams leaves room for abuse by faculty, the report added.

"The atmosphere of conflict in the department unfortunately affects students as well as faculty," the report said. "Whether or not students' fears of being drawn in faculty disputes are well grounded, the way the program is managed does nothing to dispel them."

Assuming a means might be found to keep the department in operation, the consultants recommended that an advisory committee be elected from among computer science faculty. The committee would establish bylaws and a strategic plan for research and instructional objectives.

The report said the department should develop targets for teaching performance, publication, service and external funding. The teaching load of graduate teaching assistants should be reduced and advisers assigned to all students, the report said.

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