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Thursday, April 20, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 137

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No hope for computer science seniors

Steve Forsberg

Registration for the Summer and Fall 2000 semesters has begun. Unless you are a computer science student. In that case, there is no point in trying to register. Actually, that is a bit of an exaggeration. I am told that there are still seats open in computer science courses. Just not any of the ones that you need to take.

For those of you who only read the Cougar editorials (the best part of the paper, I know) or who haven't seen the protest letters stuck up all over campus, a new ruckus has emerged from the normally placid waters of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. It seems that there is some disagreement (to put it mildly) about the resources being allocated to the Department of Computer Science. The computer science folks are loaded for bear, and gunning for the Dean of the College, who just happens to be named John Bear. 

The arguments are not new to people who have been in a university setting for a few years. The students try to register for classes they need to graduate, and find them full. They complain to the department. The department says their resources are already stretched to the maximum, and they point their finger at the college. The college dean, however, points a finger back at the department, and so the story goes. 

This situation brings to light several of the great conflicts raging in modern academia, which is another way of saying that such fights will probably happen in the future in other departments or colleges as well. What are the fundamental issues?

According to the department, there are too many students signing up for too few classes. The department claims that it needs more resources (i.e. money) in order to offer more class sections. The college administrators, however, see things a slightly different way. They say, "Hey, there are more chairs in those rooms; there is no problem." The department counters that it is not a matter of chairs, but rather the quality of teaching that the students will receive. Upper-level courses require smaller class sizes.

The college then points out that the department's professors seem to spend a lot of time on research and personally favored special sections. If they would spend more time teaching the required classes, the students could meet their graduation requirements in a timely manner. After all, the department didn't complain when all these people first signed up for computer science; now it has to pay the piper and teach these people.

This argument opens up a whole new can of worms. After all, the college may talk big about teaching being a priority, but research and grant money determines who gets to stay on and who gets fired among the professors. And besides, as the department faculty knows, most computer science professors don't want to teach basic computer science any more than most English professors want to teach basic English.

Teaching lower-level courses is grunt work for teaching assistants and those without seniority. The proper place for a real professor is leading a small section of the majoring elite in a special interest class, the special interest being the professor's special interest. And besides, it is research that brings in those big dollars.

Of course, it is pointed out that the department "brings in" over $5 million in tuition and related money, but "receives" less than $2 million. Translation: Every other department had better watch its money pot carefully, lest it be raided to pay for computer science courses. This argument about money seems rational, but in itself raises ugly questions about the role of money in a so-called educational institution. I'll spare the readers a rant on Thorstein Veblen and his prescient observations about the business class taking over American education.

There are no easy answers. Not in the long run. In the short run, I expect they will just push more desks into the rooms and those needing to graduate will get that last tick on their transcript, teaching quality be damned. But this situation is probably only an early indicator of troubles yet to come for universities all over the country.

Forsberg, a senior history major, 
can be reached atsjforsbe@bayou.uh.edu.

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