[What follows is a guest post reporting on a very disturbing situation at King's College London involving the sacking of senior computational linguists and others in a secretly planned, tragically stupid, and farcically implemented mass-purge. The author of the post is currently employed at KCL, and for obvious reasons must remain anonymous here.
Although it is clear that KCL is suffering from severe budgetary problems, the administration has reacted to the problems inappropriately and unconscionably: the administration is sacking some of KCL's most successful, academically productive and influential scholars, showing arbitrariness and short-sightedness in its decision making, and acting with extreme callousness in the manner by which the decisions have been imposed on the victims.
For those out of the field, I would note that I and other Language Loggers are intimately acquainted with the work of those under fire at KCL. It is among the most important work in syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and computational linguistics, presenting ideas that many of us cite regularly and have absorbed into our own work, and which nobody in the field can ignore. - David Beaver]
Philosophers have been aghast at recent developments at King's College, London
where three senior philosophers, Prof Shalom Lappin, Dr Wilfried Meyer-Viol and Prof Charles Travis, have been targetted for redundancy as part of a restructuring plan for the KCL School of Arts and Humanities. The reason for targetting Lappin and Meyer-Viol has been explained to be that KCL is `disinvesting' from Computational Linguistics. One of the many puzzling aspects of this supposed explanation for targetting Lappin and Meyer-Viol is that there is no computational linguistics unit in Philosophy to disinvest from. (For detailed coverage see the Leiter Report here, here, and here, and these letters protesting the actions taken in the humanities.)
In contrast to the explicit targeting of the non-existent computational linguistics unit in the school of Humanities, in the sciences a more stealthy approach was adopted. Already last June Dr Jonathan Ginzburg, a senior lecturer in the Computer Science dept, whose research spans formal semantics, logic, and dialogue, was informed that computational linguistics would be omitted as a domain of research in the Informatics dept into which Computer Science was mutating. However, in contrast to what happened in the Humanities, in Computer Science the disappearance of computational linguistics was not explicitly proclaimed. It was an indirect speech act: the spec of the Applied Logic and Theory of Computation group simply omitted any mention of computational linguistics. By doing this, Ginzburg could be declared as not fitting the declared areas of research of the group, and more generally, the department.
And indeed in December, Ginzburg was informed that a panel comprised of Professors from the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering, including a number of Computer Scientists, as well as some external members, had decided not to select him for membership of the new department. There were no complaints about his productivity or standing in the field—his research was acknowledged to be of an international level (indeed his g-index of 42 was the 4th highest in a department numbering 25 permanent staff.). The grounds for non-selection were lack of `research fit'. Consequently, he is at risk of redundancy.
Luckily for Ginzburg, in a way, the panel contained not a single person from his own research group or anyone with competence in the area of NLP or formal semantics of NL. The panel's 'expert witness' was an expert in software engineering, Prof Paul Layzell of Sussex University (a university that pioneered the wholesale laying off of its academic staff; see here, here, and here for details). He, and his fellow panel members, were apparently entirely unaware that Ginzburg's research, centered on the formal analysis of dialogue interaction, actually fits the spec that had been drawn for the group of applied logic and theory of computing rather well. That, supported by expert testimony of a number of leading AI researchers, is the basis for his appeal against the decision, an appeal that is still pending.
The situation at King's is a worrying development for linguists of all stripes, but more generally for all academics in the UK—it seems clear that the moves by the KCL administration, far from being an aberration, will be aped by university administrators throughout the UK. In contrast to universities that have undergone similar budgetary pressures in the US (e.g. in the UC system), at KCL firing permanent staff has been the move of first resort. No attempt is being made to seriously explore alternative ways of reducing the College's budget deficit. Indeed, KCL has just announced it is in the process of buying a wing of the palatial Somerset House to the tune of > £20,000,000. No less ominously, these moves usher in an environment where administrators impose their quite arbitrary visions of what constitute acceptable areas of research. So while computationally-oriented linguistics is flourishing in academia in the US and Canada, with increasing numbers getting hired out of graduate schools, with both Google and Microsoft boasting big teams of researchers in this area. And while a significant number of successful graduates have emerged in this area from Philosophy and Computer Science, with its staff pioneering research in areas such as dialogue, logic, and language acquisition, the administration at King's has decided it has a different vision. Why? No reason has been given.
But why target linguists? Of course linguists are by no means the sole target of the various restructuring exercises. In the sciences at King's the entire division of Engineering was shut, whereas a host of other disciplines have been targeted in the humanities (including Classics, Paleography, and American Studies). Linguists at KCL are scattered across a number of depts, so are an easy target for slogans like `only units with critical mass will be retained.' There had been discussions several years back about forming a linguistics department from the dozen or so linguists spread across CS, Philosophy, Greek, German, Education etc, but the administration decided against it.
Still, it's probably true that the marginal position of the field (neither hardcore humanities, nor hardcore science, nor hardcore engineering) and the widespread lack of awareness of what linguists do or why is an important contributing factor. Mark Liberman has, with some justification, been castigating linguists for their part in this over the pages of this blog. How critical this problem is is illustrated by the current crisis, though alleviating it is of course a long term project.
In the short term, the situation at King's might still be reversed if the administration is reminded that its boast of being 'one of the top 25 universities in the world', proudly embossed on , will become an empty one if it gains a reputation for treating its staff with the disdain it has shown in the current crisis. (On how to remind them, see e.g., this page, which relates solely to the humanities restructuring, and this page for details concerning CS.)
[Note that by classifying the above guest post as "Linguistics in the news", what I mean is that it *should* be in the news. -David Beaver]