Football fans gather at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. To save $1.4 million, the University of Florida is eliminating its computer science department. At the same time, UF has increased its athletic budget by more than $2 million. (Photo by Pedro Alcocer.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

My wife and I spent most of the last three years in China, and one thing that hit us again and again was how seriously the Chinese take education.

My wife, who had given up her teaching career in the United States because Florida public schools paid so little, made excellent money as an English tutor for children in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In those places, parents eagerly pay for premium pre-K instruction or to lengthen their kids’ already demanding school day with after-school lessons.

While we were there, Shanghai public-school 15-year-olds scored highest in the world in reading, science and math. In the same standardized test given in 65 countries, Hong Kong kids ranked either third or fourth.

And the United States? Our kids ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math.

Was it a coincidence that Florida’s economy was mired in the doldrums and that China’s was booming — creating more millionaires each year than any other place on earth? We didn’t think so.

Seeing all this has made it especially alarming to return to Florida and to see not only that the state is maintaining its sorry status as one of the nation’s worst for public school spending, but that the worthies in charge are putting the screws to higher education.

To save $1.4 million, the University of Florida is eliminating its computer science department. The school is dropping all funding for teaching assistants in computer science and erasing the graduate and research programs, casting more than 610 bachelor students, 400 masters students, 130 Ph.D. students, and 32 tenure-track faculty to other departments.

That’s right. In the midst of a technological revolution — the very one that allows me to write this blog item and you to read it — at a time when Gov. Rick Scott is promising to make Florida a beacon for new businesses, when places like China, India and Brazil are rising up and whetting their appetites to eat our lunch … our state’s flagship university is saying to hell with the future.

At the same time, UF is increasing the athletic budget by more than $2 million — to $97 million.

As Steven Salzberg, a Johns Hopkins professor of medicine and biostatistics, said on “The University of Florida is moving backwards while the rest of the world moves ahead.”

As the students themselves say, in support of a petition to save the Computer and Information Science and Engineering department: “The software industry is currently experiencing massive growth, which makes these proposed cuts all the more damaging, irrational,and reckless.”

It gets worse. At the same time that UF is taking this step to cope with its share of a severe $300 million funding slash for state universities, Scott has approved the creation of a new university in Central Florida — Florida Polytechnic University.

On July 1, the new Florida Polytechnic will take over a small existing University of South Florida campus in Lakeland and welcome its first crop of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students.

This would be a happier occasion if the school were accredited. But it won’t be for at least five years. Until then, students won’t be able to get federal financial aid or have their credits transferred to other schools. Faculty members won’t be able to get research grants.

Is this smart? The business-oriented Florida Council of 1oo said no. “Building a new STEM university from the ground up is the slowest and most expensive way to produce more STEM graduates in the state,” the group said in a letter urging Scott to veto the bill. “There’s no evidence that a new state university is even needed.”

But it was very important to one man, Senate budget chair J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Lakeland who is retiring because of term limits. As columnist Frank Cerabino writes in the Palm Beach Post:

It might help to think of Florida Polytechnic University’s birth as a generous parting gift to Alexander from the state’s Republican leaders.

After all, Alexander gets to return to Polk County as the patron saint of his very own university, which one day soon will need to hire a six-figure-salaried president, preferably one who will be installed in a big Saddam Hussein-like mansion on campus.

This could turn into quite an impressive personal stimulus plan.

And it sure beats getting an engraved Cross pen.

Lots of us in America are in the habit of blaming the Chinese for stealing our intellectual property, or undercutting our manufacturers, or jiggering their currency to explain why their country is rising while ours is struggling.

Maybe we ought to ask what we’re doing to abet our own decline.

UPDATE Thursday, April 26 9:30 a.m.:

The Gainesville Sun reports that in light of the “overwhelming negative response” to the proposal, University of Florida President Bernie Machen announced Wednesday that a plan for cuts to the computer and information science and engineering department was being set aside and that an alternative was being developed:

Some faculty and students reacted with cautious optimism. CISE professor Sartaj Sahni said he was happy that the university abandoned a plan that “made no sense at all” but noted that members of his department had voted against a previous plan for a similar merger.

“I think it just exposes the whole political nature of this exercise, which has damaged the reputation of the university and the college,” he said. “It could take years to recover.”