The University of Florida Lost the Computer Science PR Conversation Before it Began. Here's How to Avoid the Same Mistakes.
The University of Florida hates computers - or so says the Internet. In case you haven't heard, Florida's flagship university announced that, in the face of state budget cuts, it was cutting the research arm of its computer science program. This was a hard and unpopular decision, but one made based on a clear set of priorities.
Unfortunately, the priorities and reasoning were buried deep inside a four-page PDF which the university issued last week. Because of its inability to clearly and succinctly state its position, the university was quickly drowned out by critics online and ultimately chose to rethink its decision. Steven Salzberg, writing for Forbes.com, wrote an article that quickly got a lot of traction:
Wow, no one saw this coming. The University of Florida announced this past week that it was dropping its computer science department, which will allow it to save about $1.7 million $1.4 million. The school is eliminating all funding for teaching assistants in computer science, cutting the graduate and research programs entirely, and moving the tattered remnants into other departments.
Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?
Meanwhile, the athletic budget for the current year is $99 million, $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.
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.
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.
A few days later, Florida president Bernie Machen waved the white flag:
As many of you know, the proposal has been met with overwhelming negative response, much of which I believe has been based on misunderstanding. Nonetheless, it is clear that the University of Florida must figure out a way to make it through these financially difficult times in a productive manner. I am optimistic we can do that.
This week, the chairmen of the departments of Computer and Information Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering have come forward together with a framework of a new proposal that would help meet the college’s budget target. It also would address issues raised during recent discussions, namely, clarify and enhance degree offerings while preserving the research mission in both computer science and computer engineering, achieve efficiency in teaching and bring faculty workloads in line with other departments of the college.
Misunderstanding. The university never had a chance to let its plan work, because it failed to clearly and simply define its narrative from the outset. Florida allowed itself to be painted as the villain. From the school's perspective, the villain is Florida Governor Rick Scott and the state legislature, which has cut UF's budget by 30 percent over the past six years. (In fairness to Salzberg, he shares this link deeper in his Forbes story).
But Florida never shared that narrative, never gave itself a chance in the furious debate that was sure to follow a tough decision. Florida should have lead with a few succinct message points that would have framed its story:
- State budget cuts -- an absurd 30% over six years -- has left the school in a very precarious position from which it must chose from a bad set of options
- To guide its decision process, the university has defined its priorities and will make cuts based on those priorities
- Restructuring the computer science program, which unfortunately affects current jobs and research, will allow the university to preserve its computer science degree programs and serve a state badly in need of engineering and technology talent.
Florida's failure to effectively communicate its position allowed the story to get out of control.
The takeaway is clear: You cannot control the message anymore in our connected world. But you sure as hell better be concise and clear coming out of the gate, with your message and proof points in order, or you leave yourself with an exposed glass jaw. And you will be knocked out.