Even the most die-hard Gators sports fan would probably agree: giving the athletic program at the University of Florida close to $100 million while cutting an engineering program to save a little more than $1 million doesn’t seem quite fair.
Yet that was the claim, widely circulated in an online Forbes magazine post over the weekend headlined "University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets. Hmm."
"The University of Florida announced this past week that it was dropping its computer science department," the blog post said. "Meanwhile, the athletic budget for the current year is $97.7 million, an increase of more than $2 million from last year. The increase alone would offset the savings supposedly gained by cutting computer science."
The article, written by Forbes contributor Steven Salzberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, quickly gained traction on social networking sites, getting posted, re-posted and commented on hundreds of times. Salzberg said even he was surprised at the attention it got.
But is the claim true? Is UF really cutting computer science to save the same amount of money that it's adding to athletics? Couldn’t the university use the extra sports money to fund the academic program?
It's true that UF is struggling with budget cuts while athletic funding is up. But the blog post details are questionable. The computer science program isn't going away, for example. And it's not quite so easy for the university to move money from athletics to academics.
Salzberg told us he got his information from various news articles and the UF athletic budget, which he found by searching online. Budget documents for the UF Athletic Association show that total expenditures for 2011-2012 were $97.7 million, about $2 million more than the year before.
Meanwhile, UF is attempting to save $1.4 million by overhauling one of its engineering departments. But the department, Computer & Information Science and Engineering, isn’t being eliminated. Instead, UF is considering merging it with another department, Electrical and Computer Engineering. No one's major would change, and course offerings would remain the same.
But many of the program’s teaching assistant positions would be eliminated, with faculty taking on a greater teaching role in the consolidation, the university says. The idea sparked campus protests when it was made public a couple weeks ago.
It’s part of a total $4 million cut that the engineering college has to deal with, its share of a $36.4 million cut to the university — which is UF’s share of a $300 million cut to higher education statewide.
Cammy Abernathy, dean of UF’s engineering college, said she understands people’s frustrations. Nobody likes budget cuts, she told PolitiFact Florida. "It’s painful."
Still, she believes the reorganization would make the best of the situation. "We looked for areas where we had duplication or overlap," Abernathy said.
That sentiment was echoed in a statement released by UF, in response to the Forbes article:
"The Dean of the College of Engineering has put on the table for discussion a budget plan to reorganize the Computer & Information Science and Engineering Department. Under that proposal, all undergraduate and graduate degree curriculum would remain the same and the college would maintain its brainpower and research capacity. The plan calls for no lay-offs of tenure-track faculty."
But what about that athletic budget? Surely UF could use that extra couple million out of the athletic association’s total $97 million to bolster engineering, right?
Not exactly, says UF.
The athletic association is a separate, nonprofit entity from the university and does not receive direct state funds. Its money comes from ticket sales, donations, Southeastern Conference revenues and student fees of about $2 per credit hour.
UF President Bernie Machen has no authority over the association’s budget, said university spokeswoman Janine Sikes. "It is a separate organization with a separate board," she said.
If the association wants to contribute to UF, that’s up to them. And it regularly does so, giving the university more than $60 million since 1991 for academics. Last year, it gave $6 million, paying for things like scholarships, campus events and updates to facilities.
The association can’t give academics an unlimited amount, Sikes said. Not only does the program require money to operate, but many boosters are specific about wanting to donate to UF sports.
After many commenters on the Forbes article made the same points, Salzberg added a clarification. But he maintains that the athletic association director reports to the university president, and as such, Machen should be able to direct those athletic funds however he wants.
"He’s out of his mind to allow this to happen," Salzberg responded to a commenter.
And if Machen isn’t doing anything about it, perhaps Gov. Rick Scott should, Salzberg said. After all, Salzberg points out, Scott just approved the creation of the state’s 12th university, Florida Polytechnic, which will be built in Lakeland under the flag of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"Heads up, Gov. Scott: no one is going to believe that you’re supporting technical education when your flagship university is eliminating its Computer Science Department," Salzberg wrote.
Scott’s office wasn’t crazy about that suggestion, also issuing a response to the Forbes piece.
"It would be nice if Gov. Scott could make spending decisions for the universities, but that’s not the way our system is set up," said Lane Wright, a governor’s office spokesman. "In the meantime all he can do is what he has been doing, which is urging them to focus on programs that will give graduates hope of actually getting a job."
Salzberg told Politifact Florida that the intent of his piece was to illustrate what he sees as hypocrisy by Scott and other state leaders — cutting the budget of a well-established engineering program while committing to a new university that’s likely to require more, not less, state resources in the future.
It’s a compelling overall idea, but some of the finer points are a bit stretched. The university is considering consolidating programs, not eliminating computer science entirely. And the funds for academics and athletics aren’t easily moved around. We rule the statement Half True.