The annihilation of computational linguistics at KCL

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[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]


  1. A British academic linguist said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 4:56 am

    Recently, government responsibility for the universities system in the UK was transferred from a department basically responsible for education to one basically responsible for business. We are no longer officially in the education game here in the UK – the government minister responsible seems to see universities primarily as a support system for business. Universities seem to be becoming factories for training future employees and engaging in immediately commercially-relevant research. Humanities-style and pure science-style research for its own sake is very out of fashion among our lords and masters, chief among them Peter Mandelson. However, the government has also decided to prioritise science, technology, engineering and maths departments, so most subject areas which are obviously pure science can (almost) breathe a sigh of relief, whereas many subject areas which tend to live in humanities are under threat – even if a lot of what they do is basically science, as is the case for much Linguistics.

    I feel the same as your anonymous contributor in that I suspect most ordinary people haven't a clue what Linguistics is about and so we're an easy target. The way funding for teaching students in the UK is going, it is becoming more sustainable for universities to concentrate on fewer, bigger departments – playing to their strengths, if you like. Which sounds good at first: perhaps a smaller spread of academic disciplines would acceptable at an individual institution. But I can't see how we can avoid having much the same smaller spread at all institutions (because they're all acting independently but under the same constraints) – and that would clearly be disastrous for relatively -small, relatively-unknown subjects like Linguistics. I suspect there might be a noticeable reduction in the number of Linguistics departments in the UK over the next few years.

    And the story of a university investing 20 million pounds in buildings while almost clandestinely threatening the future of whole subject areas will be depressingly familiar to most UK academics.

  2. Matthew said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    As you have noted above, David Ganz, present occupant of the Chair of Palaeography at the same institution is also being made redundant in these shocking cuts, and the Chair itself dissolved. I'm sure I don't need to remind linguists of the great importance of the discipline of palaeography to so many intellectual endeavours. There has been a huge international outcry against this move and a petition has been started which already has huge numbers of signatures (please click on my name above to sign).

    The whole thing is a shameful indication of the ignorance of, and hence disregard for the value of the humanities in academia in England, especially where funding is concerned.

  3. Rodger said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    As a previous commenter noted, governmental policy in the UK is to favour science, technology, engineering and maths over the humanities – yet the recent behaviour of King's management makes little sense even from this perspective. Linguists may not know that King's is closing its division of engineering – this has already lost one friend of mine a senior admin job, though luckily she has found a position at another London institution. My own institution closed its Maths programmes early in the past decade, apparently seeing no cause for embarrassment in a so-called University failing to offer specialised teaching in this bedrock subject.

  4. KDS said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    Although this news is distressing in its own right, it is strange that this post does not mention student numbers or study programs affected. In fact, the word 'student' does not occur at all in this post. Can anyone contribute with information on how many students will be directly affected by having course offers in their chosen degree programs reduced? Also, have there been significant changes in enrollment in computational linguistics, or in program structure, in recent years? It would be interesting to get a look at this matter from the perspective of current and prospective students.

  5. Raquel said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    Regarding the issue of how students may be affected by some of the planned cuts (in response to KDS' comment above), see the petition by the students of the Philosophy Department at KCL:

  6. Spartan said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Low student numbers and problems in student recruitment (see comment posted by KDS) are not the reason for these forced redundancies. At least two out of the three scholars at King's Philosophy (Lappin/Meyer-Viol) have been targeted because the School is 'disinvesting' in their supposed area of research expertise (Computational Linguistics). The same is true for Ginzburg (CS), who has been declared 'as not fitting the declared areas of research' of the new Informatics department. There hasn't been a CL programme for a number of years in either department and all these scholars are integrated in the regular teaching offerings of Philosophy and CS.

  7. Acilius said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    How bizarre. I'm used to seeing thriving Classics departments zeroed out by administrators who never bother to look at enrollment numbers or anything else, simply assuming that Latin and Greek courses must be empty and the faculty teaching them superannuated misfits. I'd have thought that the word "computational" alone would have been enough to buy CL some measure of protection; apparently not.

  8. rech said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    Look I agree this is a disaster but are you all aware of the state of the UK economy? The UK simply isn't any longer the sort of first world economy that can afford public funding of this sort of research. The country will be insolvent within ten years. I agree that the Afghanistan war, say, should be axed before linguistics is but this is a nation facing a descent into bleak poverty.

  9. Anne H said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 4:14 am

    I studied abroad at KCL!

    And yes, they really do love to "boast of being 'one of the top 25 universities in the world,'" it seems, on the bottom of every single news item they publish on their web site.

  10. Sili said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    Other sciences are not exempt from persecution in UL.

    David Colquhoun, pharmacologist at UCL, has been very curmudgeonly on his blog about the destruction of his department.

    [(myl) Links are here, here, and here.

    Readers may also be interested in the case that prompted this letter.]

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 3:15 am

    I think Randall Munroe needs to retract an earlier comic:

    [(myl) Actually, that one was always a bit off — the title text, for example, refers to "Chomskyans and generative linguists" as if they were subtypes of computational linguists, which is a strange misreading indeed. But maybe some key KCL administrations have this strip pasted on their office doors?]

  12. John Sowa said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    The claim that computational linguistics is not "fitting the declared areas of research" of informatics is extremely short sighted. The EU has been dumping millions of euros on the Semantic Web, whose semantic foundation is extremely limited. The hope of annotating billions of web pages with many more billions of triples cannot be achieved without automated and semi-automated methods for extracting the semantics from natural language texts.

    By killing research in computational linguistics, KCL is destroying their potential for the future. Other universities with more enlightened leadership should take advantage of the opportunity to hire some outstanding professors.

  13. N said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    This is rather more interesting in light of the news from Linguist List that phonetics and computational linguistics are being shut down in Bonn, Germany as well. There goes some of the more grounded and nearer to industry work.

  14. Dafydd Gibbon said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    I was and am proud to be an alumnus of King's College, London (albeit in pre-Computational Linguistics days), and follow developments there closely. I am all the more dismayed by the increased dominance of an ill-informed and self-important college management there (and not only there), and a failure to identify the scale between 'currently useful' and 'foundational' features of each of the disciplines which characterise our educated society.
    Some of the factors mentioned in the posts and comments (commercial interest; lack of external funding; student numbers; misunderstanding of the discipline) are significant but, in my experience, less important than lobbying and personality based factors at all political levels, from department to ministry: intrigues and elbows are surely familiar to all of us, and those disciplines with a background of massive managerial infrastructure (particularly in the laboratory and large scale instrumentation oriented 'hard sciences') have a head start over less coherently organised disciplines. But there is no one-to-one mapping from this category to a fixed set of disciplines. Alliances coalesce differently in different places. Hence, I assume, the chopping of Engineering at King's, prima facie a contracyclical development.
    An 'intrinsic' factor which needs consideration, as far as Computational Linguistics and (at other institutions) Phonetics are concerned, is that many of the achievements of these disciplines – from the Chomsky Hierarchy of Formal Languages in the 1950s through nonmonotonic logics to Dialogue Modelling and Experimental Phonetics in more recent decades – have simply been absorbed by other disciplines, from Theoretical Informatics through Software Engineering (which has also largely absorbed Artificial Intelligence) to Language Engineering and Speech Technology. How far this paradigm dissolving development has also played a role in the current job chopping wars I do not know; some of the comments on the post indicate that this role may be significant.

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