"READY, FIRE, AIM!" - The CMPS/CLFS Merger Process

A case for substantive and open strategic planning before undertaking serious administrative change.

In announcing the likely acquisition of CLFS by CMPS, College Park's leadership has flatly asserted that the new mega-college will retain all of CMPS's administrative structure and policies. Dean Halperin - slated to be in charge - has assured CMPS faculty that he "would leave intact our modus operandi" but acknowledges that "this represents a real change for our CLFS colleagues."

At least with respect to education, what is the "modus operandi" of CMPS, and what are the likely effects of administering CLFS undergraduate programs the 'CMPS way'? In order to study potential impacts, it is reasonable to first understand what role the CMPS Dean's office plays in undergraduate education today. This we review below, chiefly expressed using the college's own materials and descriptions as a starting point.

Overall the college has some truly talented faculty and dedicated staff, and its departments provide students advising and co-curricular opportunities at varying scales. However the picture painted below of the Dean's office - the operation responsible for ensuring the college's implemention of campus policies - is of an operation that, by design, remains unengaged in the campus community, much less in the business of creating quality undergraduate student experiences. Whatever community-centered activities might be undertaken by individual CMPS units are largely independent of the college office that is otherwise uninvolved - and often unaware. The CMPS undergraduate office is blessed with some tremendous staff members, whose value to students is nevertheless hobbled by seriously restrictive policies. Applying these same CMPS restrictions, practices and temperaments to CLFS (which unlike CMPS relies on strong college coordination of its units and is widely regarded on campus) could severely impact that college's staff and undergraduate programs.

The Provost's public initiation of a merger process in Fall 2009 cited the "natural complementarity" of the colleges. Acknowledging high CLFS standards for education and student engagement, he motivated his proposal in part by indicating he would bring CMPS undergraduate office standards up to the level shown by its CLFS counterpart. This cannot happen now that the plan has morphed into one that instead imposes CMPS structures and policies onto CLFS. A literal reading of the Dean's intentions foretells a dismantling of CLFS programs. If that is not an intention, then one must ask either why there is no evidence of planning to the contrary or why, in a supposed environment of transparency and shared governance, such materials are not being provided to stakeholders, or how one can combine the operations without changing the CMPS modus operandi (which was the assurance given to CMPS personnel.)

The advisability of this acquisition is further clouded by process issues. Faculty who sought the few available materials within CMPS were denied these documents (these documents are denied to CMPS faculty to this day), and the assessment of stakeholder support was conducted by a non-anonymous balloting in which staff and junior faculty knew their responses were open to the proposal's progenitors - their direct supervisors. In spite of this intimidating mechanism, advocates failed to get a statement of support from a majority of staff members in either college, yet leadership ignored this fact and signaled its intent to move the process to the next step - whatever that is.

Our conclusion is that absent a serious strategic planning exercise involving both colleges, followed by a fair and non-threatening assessment of stakeholder interest, any administrative effort to combine these two colleges into one is reckless and ill-considered.


CMPS provides the administrative structure into which it is proposed that CLFS units would be placed. In order to understand the CMPS track record, a short profile with respect to education (chiefly undergraduate) and community engagement follows. Highlights of the supporting data are:

1. Rankings, Metrics and Programs

Rankings based on instruments such as US News & World Report are approximate at best, and a stretch to project graduate school rankings onto undergraduate program standing. Nevertheless, that is what CMPS recruiting materials do, so taking the college's own claims for 1999 through today, the Halperin decade saw an overall drop in recognized quality of its largest departments. After a rapid rise in the 1990's, Computer Science peaked in 1999 at 11th, to settle today at a reported 14th. Physics rose rapidly to hit 13th in 2002, today settling down at 14th. Mathematics was at 16th in 2002, today dropping to 20th. Measurement based on research funding is more difficult as reliable data are far less available, but while CMPS sponsored research rose in this period, an assertion has been made that funding won by aspirational or actual peers in this period increased more. This warrants further study.

The CMPS web site as of January 25, 1999, claimed 2,485 undergraduate students and 770 graduate students. Today its page claims the college is down to 1,813 graduates, while graduate student rosters swelled to 846. Independently we know the general trend is true, but the web figures must be considered suspect because its pages are clearly not diligently maintained. The "degrees granted" on today's statistics page still lists an FY2008 banner, for example, making it likely that other data on this page are out of date as well. Looking at prior year snapshots, the CMPS statistics page showed a 2001 banner from that year through at least October 22, 2007 (the last Wayback snapshot available). We know the page was updated once in the following year to reflect 2008 data, which is what it lists today.

Turning to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as made public by the Diamondback in a recent article, the 2007 data clearly show CMPS as seriously unengaged as compared with the rest of campus. Quoting the CMPS-specific report summary:

The NSSE scores are unsurprising. Recent Planning Cycle reports cite CMPS for its decline in share of degrees awarded by campus, first year retention rates and diversity of students. It has consistently ranked lowest or second lowest among the colleges in six year graduation rate. By policy of the Dean, the college office provides no liaison or coordination with McNair Scholars, Academic Achievement, Hinman CEOs, QUEST Honors Fellows or other co-curricular opportunities made available either in collaboration with other colleges or run through Undergraduate Studies. By Dean's directive the college invests minimum possible effort in Learning Outcomes Assessments, graduation surveys and campus-level coordination committees such as UPAC and UTEC.

CMPS further has undergraduate opportunities that its leaders neither advertise or implement. A degree option that has at least received links on CMPS web pages is a Science Journalism specialization in the Physical Sciences Program. Proposed and approved shortly after turn of the millennium, it has yet to attract the first student to its roster. CMPS lists in its strategic plan a priority of helping explain science to the broader society, yet by Dean policy the college will not coordinate the promotion of any new track. It is not otherwise advertised on the outside, nor for that matter is "computer science" listed at the College Board web site as CMPS offering available at College Park, a situation that for now two years the Dean has been willing to abide. The college's program on physics education research once described as being on the cutting edge is now being dismantled by the Dean, who while expressing his preference that CMPS not be in the "education research game" has ensured that champions of the program have incentives to leave. Lost or retired physics education faculty will not be replaced, rather, the department will be approved to hire only in other research areas. A nascent Computer Science Education degree program has suffered similar administrative roadblocks from the Dean's office. Contrary to the state emphasis on science education, CMPS is focused strictly on its core research.

More revealing is the fact that both the Dean and his Director of the Applied Mathematics & Statistics, and Scientific Computation (AMSC) program were surprised last year to learn (based on inquiry from the then-Associate Dean) that the college has an approved undergraduate certificate in scientific computation which has never been made available to students. The record shows that after some discussion on the matter, and lacking interest in undergraduate matters, the Dean chose for all parties to continue to ignore the program. Having been approved by the state on this Dean's watch, the program remains unimplemented to this day.

All these points reflect directly upon the vigor, quality and leadership of the Dean's office. The performance - and its perception by students - directly correlate with the college's withdrawal from mentoring and advising matters. The college's 2009 NSSE scores reported by the Diamondback show small upturns in some parameters (possibly reflecting an idealistic, albeit temporary effort by the then-Associate Dean to re-engage the college) but any prospect that this might foretell a positive trend is nil in light of the fact that those isolated efforts were quickly quashed by the Dean. CMPS organization has been described as following the "Toronto Model" for college organization, in which largely autonomous departments are responsible for picking and choosing what they do in the campus community, with a minimalist college office. If true then in the last decade CMPS has adopted a 35 year old administrative structure that is diametrically opposite the College Park trend towards more engaged college operations that reduce duplication of efforts and leverage community ties.

2. Career Development

While once deeply involved in advising its young scientists, today's CMPS undergraduate office no longer provides career mentoring to its majors. The few remaining vestiges of earlier career programs in the office do no actual mentoring and are at various stages of being eliminated.

A Corporate Scholars Program is one such activity. Years ago CSP offered participating students a class on career issues taught by experienced mentors, and through this awarded students with scholarships provided by participating companies. This allowed students to integrate major content with industrial practices. When career advising was eliminated from the CMPS office, the CSP course (CMPS 497) was temporarily offered by the college's development officers (who were intent on maintaining the funding stream) but today the college doesn't even go through the motions. CSP remains only as a dean's fundraising mechanism, where the college charges companies for an opportunity to award interns salary as if a scholarship (inflating development statistics.) In 1999 CMPS listed 84 partnering companies as participating in Career Services. Today CSP lists 7 companies as offering positions for Summer 2010, and the registrar's site lists no CMPS-prefix courses for Fall 2010. By Dean's directive, students seeking career information are referred to the generic campus Career Center.

Historically the CMPS office ran a successful program called CSEM (Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics), which offered scholarships and mentoring to students having financial need and who came from groups that often faced barriers in moving to graduate school in the sciences. The second multi-year award of funds for this from National Science Foundation concluded in February of this year. At that point, for the first time in memory, the CMPS undergraduate office carried no sponsored programs for improving graduation rates or promoting pursuit of advanced degrees in the sciences. By directive of the Dean, no proposal for a renewal (much less new initiative) was to be prepared.

A one-time offering of an enhanced Leadership Development course ran successfully in Fall 2009, but its proponent was subsequently berated by the Dean for having handled it through the CMPS undergraduate office. By directive of the Dean the CMPS undergraduate office will no longer organize nor offer such courses.

At the time of this writing (in May 2010), the CMPS web pages for "Employment and Internship" opportunities (that are only accessed via a link on the CMPS Career Newsletter) offer a few bullet points of what to put on a resume, one part time job offering (undated), four on-campus job offerings (outdated) and one career event notice (for a Career Center activity from last February.)

3. Diversity

Unlike yesteryear, CMPS apparently has the distinction of being the only college on the College Park campus to not provide any diversity outreach through its undergraduate office. By policy of the Dean, no office resources - time, funding or special consideration - shall be given to such activities.

A student group called SCORE was once affiliated with the college and its activities dovetailed with undergraduate office efforts. To quote the web site for SCORE: "S.C.O.R.E., the Student Community for Outreach, Retention, and Excellence, is a student organization founded in 2000 by a group of eight minority students from the fields of mathematics and computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park." What a difference a decade can make. In 2008 CMPS severed ties with SCORE and banned staff from supporting SCORE activities in any way.

The college does have one part time graduate student who supports LSAMP programs that are organized and run through Engineering. Beyond this, individual departments are at least free to promote, or not, diversity outreach, such as they choose. In the Dean's office there is no coordination (much less awareness) of these activities.

4. Student Organizations

While individual departments may have an affiliation with one or some student organizations particular to that discipline, CMPS itself no longer has direct contact with student groups. There is no college advisory board involving students, no representative body or student council involving students, and generally no knowledge of (much less leadership for) what exists out in the departments. The CMPS web site lists three groups that, ironically, CMPS undergraduate staff are directed not to support. (Presumably these three groups - SCORE, Women in Math and the Association for Women in Computing - are entries listed on the web page in order to maintain an illusion that CMPS is actually involved in diversity.)

5. Outreach

The University of Maryland offers a splendid assortment of scholarly and community outreach programs, from business collaboration and consulting through special performing arts programs. Today's full list of offerings on the College Park main web site is remarkable for the absence of an entry for the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. CMPS is not in the outreach game. A lone entry for the (terrific) Astronomy department's observatory open house appears instead, reflecting the initiative of that department, but if individual departments offer other community services then it is not apparent here. By directive of the Dean, the CMPS office does not "waste time" on even attempting to be cognizant of departments' efforts, much less lead efforts to coordinate and improve outreach activities.

Similarly the University of Maryland Alumni Association invests serious effort to maintain connections with students in many dimensions (whether through on-line presence, athletics or special outreach programs.) One important way to maintain connections and build our community is through college-specific associations. Notable by its absence from that list is CMPS. By policy of the Dean, external contacts (for any reason) may only be done by him or someone under his explicit direction, and typically this is only done based on an expectation of receiving donations in response to solicitation. No CMPS office resources are invested in outreach at or past graduation otherwise.

CMPS recruiting efforts almost exclusively go to meeting the basic needs dictated by the Office of Admissions, and by Dean's policy the office functions 'blind' (key data about prospective or admitted students is not made available to the college office for use in recruiting or yielding efforts - even if the same type of data is made available to other colleges.) The sole initiative of CMPS above and beyond the above baseline expectation is a college prep workshop offered in August to rising seniors. A CMPS Ambassadors Program, that once offered undergraduates incentives to participate in organized recruiting efforts, was eliminated by the Dean three years ago.

As a crude estimate of engagement in anything the campus might find newsworthy - possibly also a function of how engaged are respective college operations in feeding news to campus - a check on this date (morning of 10 May) of press releases archived at UM Newsdesk reveals 655 news items making reference to "Clark School of Engineering", 585 news items making reference to "Smith School of Business" and only 177 making reference to "College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences." By this measure, other college offices are more active in promoting their programs and activities by a factor of between 3 and 4 to one. By Dean directive, the CMPS undergraduate office is barred from sending notice of any good news item to even the home high school of one of its successful students, much less issue a press release.

6. Staff

As of January 25, 1999, CMPS advertised an office roster of 19 people, of which 6 were listed as serving undergraduate education and 2 providing career services. Today the roster shows 16 people, but with very different allocation of effort. The 8 staff who once served undergraduates are now 2 staff plus one part time Associate Dean who has been characterized by the Dean as a "caretaker." One additional staff member who is not responsible for delivering student services has title "Assistant Director for Recruitment and Co-Curricular Programs" - a misnomer since the college no longer involves itself in co-curricular programs and largely prohibits substantive recruiting activities. None provide career services, as, according to the Dean, CMPS is "not to be in that game." In contrast, the 2 names listed as directly supporting the Dean under "Administration" in 1999 swelled to 5 today. At one point during the present academic year the college had more staff capacity allocated to development (fund raising) than to undergraduate education; this lasted up to the resignation of one development officer, which brought the two categories back to parity.

7. Office Resources

In 1999, the CMPS undergraduate offices were chiefly populated with then-new Dell computers with a half megabyte of main memory and running Windows 2000. As of December 2009, the office ran those same computers, although when the development operation got new machines, two that they retired were then made available over on the undergraduate side of the office as well. The Dean's elimination of a tech upgrade policy cost the college, in FY2010 alone, many weeks of lost staff time (due to malfunctioning computers, with consequent impact on quality of services provided to students) and thousands of dollars in needless repair costs (from OIT, due chiefly to malware for which there was no protection available to such old machines.) These costs surely exceeded what it would have taken to provide undergraduate staff adequate machines in the first place. No other part of the office suffered such inadequacies, having been allocated new machines as a matter of routine.

Shortly after turn of the millennium the office adopted a "shared file system" organization so computer files could be stored, backed up and made available to one another among co-workers. Today this is a technological oddity which would have been long-since retired on campus except for CMPS usage. The rigid and overly simplistic data policies enforced by the office administrator have resulted in the absurd situation of the college paying for preservation of six and seven year old "temp" files (of use to nobody) while staff today are blocked from work because the device routinely fills to capacity. Staff can't save work (or, worse, lose work from an error during writing) because there is no available space. Because no database tools are allowed (by policy of the Dean) there is no "locking" of files, so whenever more than one person attempts to operate on a shared file, there is significant danger that one will overwrite (and so destroy) the work product of the other.

Many CMPS office policies needlessly increase the cost of running the office and reduce productivity, but a typical example is the requirement for staff to maintain an up-to-date calendar on Corporate Time. Besides precluding use of far more modern tools that could work on PDAs and boost productivity, in CMPS the antiquated Corporate Time tool is effectively a write-only system. Few people in College Park use CT anymore, so it is useless for scheduling campus meetings outside the college office, and meetings within the college office are banned by Dean's policy. Perversely, the Dean who requires CT of everyone else in fact keeps his calendar on paper and has no capability to actually access others' calendars in this Oracle product anyway.

8. Facilities

Two major facilities operations have been implemented or launched, respectively, on Dean Halperin's watch. These are the Computer Science Instructional Center (CSI) and the Physical Sciences Building.

CSI represents the success of a former Computer Science Department Chairman, the late John Gannon, in advocating for better teaching facilities for that department. The fundamental decisions were made prior to Halperin's watch, but most implementation details were adjusted at the start of his tenure. At that time one quarter of the building space became dedicated to CMPS research institute operations, e.g. CSCAMM, having nothing to do with undergraduate programs. Classrooms in the building are now "named" as part of the Dean's fund raising operation. Companies or other donors may gain the naming rights to a room by donating to an endowment benefiting the Dean's operating budget, not dedicated to undergraduate operations that justified the building in the first place.

In contrast, the Physical Sciences building, a research facility for use by our departments of Physics and Astronomy together with the college's various research institutes, is a clear priority of the Dean. It was proposed only a few years ago and rose through the state building allocation process quickly (at least as quickly as such things happen given state bureaucracy), and in the General Assembly's 2010 legislative session funding was approved so the project could move forward. Construction will begin this summer.

This research facility succeeded at the expense of critical teaching facilities. A college priority - at least prior to the present dean's tenure - has been a long-promised teaching facility for Mathematics, first identified as a need in the late 1960's. However ripe was the project then, it was clearly pressing in 1999 at the start of Dean Halperin's watch. Arguing that educational needs were not his problem, the Dean systematically buried the math project, removing it from the campus request list in order to advance the then newly-proposed Physical Sciences research building in its place.


Updated 2010-05-17 at 2:45PM