Update on the annihilation of Computational Linguistics at KCL

« previous post | next post »

[What follows is a guest post from Robin Cooper, Professor of Computational Linguistics, Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, and Director of the Graduate School of Language Technology, University of Gothenburg. He reports on the ill-considered and appallingly executed destruction of the Computational Linguistics group at King's College London. — David Beaver]

The crisis at King's College, London and in particular the targeting for redundancy of its computational linguists and logicians has stirred significant international protest (see http://sites.google.com/site/kclgllcmeltdown/). Many hundreds of highly distinguished scholars from around the world have organized letters of protest querying the rationale behind these moves, which have happened at the same time as the College invested more than £20 million in acquiring Somerset House, a prime piece of central London real estate. Moreover, in contrast to universities that have undergone similar budgetary pressures in the US (e.g. in the UC system where senior faculty have been asked to take pay cuts in order to preserve jobs), at KCL moves towards firing permanent staff has been the first resort.

As discussed previously in Language Log, in December Jonathan Ginzburg was informed that a panel comprised of Professors from the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering (PSE), including a number of Computer Scientists, as well as some external members, had decided not to select him for membership of the new department.  This panel is referred to in the documents cited below as "the School panel".  He was told that the reason for the non-selection had nothing to do with the quality of his research, which the School panel acknowledged to be of high international standard. The grounds for non-selection were alleged lack of "research fit" with the plans the administration drew up for the new department.  Here is a relevant quote from these plans for the new department of Applied Logic and Theory of Computation (ALTC):

The focus of ALTC should be on the following domains: The general theory of applied logical systems, with a particular emphasis on applications in Artificial Intelligence and in Agents and Intelligent Systems. Of key importance will be logics for spatial and temporal reasoning, for reasoning about beliefs, belief revision and defeasibility, and for reasoning about actions, intentions, preferences and norms.

Ginzburg lodged an appeal (for which there was a hearing on 25th January), based on two main points:

A. There was noone on either the departmental or school panels who is familiar with work in the areas he specializes in and who could properly evaluate its fitting with the specification of the ALTC. In particular, the external member of the panel who decided not to select him for the new department, Prof Paul Layzell (University of Sussex), is a software engineer whose specific areas of research are remote from logic and artificial intelligence oriented aspects of computer science. There is also public evidence that Layzell has a history of collaborating with members of another research group in the dept of computer science, Software Engineering, all of whom were selected for membership in the department. Layzell is also the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Sussex University, whose treatment of its own academic staff (detailed e.g. in the Times here, and here, and on the web here) is not unlike the KCL administration's actions.

B. Ginzburg's work covers the areas outlined in the specification of the restructured department. Ginzburg argued this case by pointing to various of his articles that directly addressed the departmental specification, as well as pointing to his other professional activities.  Three internationally renowned experts in the area of Logic and AI wrote detailed and highly cogent letters arguing that Ginzburg's work fit the specification.

The appeal panel consisted of Prof Keith Hoggart (dept. of Geography, KCL), Prof. Simon Howells (Biomedical Science, KCL), and Ms Claire Harrington (an independent legal adviser). The specification of the terms of reference of the appeal panel indicated the following:

The decision of School panel has been reached following due consideration and having made an informed judgement and the appeal   panel will not change the decision of the School Panel unless it can be demonstrated that there was not due consideration or an informed judgement had not been made in which circumstances it will be remitted back to School panel for review on the specific point(s) of appeal identified by the Appeal Panel.

This sentence appears to assert part of what the appeal panel is meant to determine (whether the decision had been reached following due consideration and on the basis of an informed judgement).  Furthermore it appears that the appeal panel is only empowered to hand back the case to the School panel (i.e. the people who made the original decision) for review if problems should be discovered.

Concerns about the composition of the appeal panel and its terms of reference were raised in a letter to the principal of KCL, Professor Rick Trainor, by myself and Professor Ruth Kempson. That letter was answered by Mr Brent Dempster, the KCL director of Human Resources, on Professor Trainor's behalf.  We were assured that

Dr Ginzberg (sic) has had an opportunity to present his case and  full and appropriate consideration will be given to his submission.  The College is confident that the appeal process is both robust and fair and that the correct decision will be reached  following these proceedings.

(The misspelling of Ginzburg's name appeared twice in the email we received, suggesting that it was not simply a typing error…)

The panel took a considerable amount of time to come up with their verdict. It was announced on February 19, some 10 working days later than the KCL statutory deadline and a considerable amount of time after the date stipulated in the terms of reference: 29th January. Hence, the decision could not be deemed to be a rushed decision. But despite their claims to have considered Ginzburg's evidence carefully, the panel did not address any of the points he or the three experts who wrote for him raised beyond saying that he had not made his case.  Nor did they indicate any response by the school panel, to whom they indicated they had passed on the material.  In part the letter Ginzburg received read:

By means of background to your appeal, the New Departmental Panel considered that, while your research was considered to be of a very high standard, your case was not made on grounds of research fit and this recommendation was agreed by the school panel, as detailed in the letter from Chris Mottershead dated 18th December 2009….

Following consideration of the feedback on the additional information, it is with regret that the Appeal Panel concluded not to uphold your appeal i.e. the original rejection remains.

A final piece of evidence that procedures concerning restructuring decisions at KCL are not all they should be is given by the experience of one of the academics who wrote on Ginzburg's behalf on 10th December, the day that he was handed his letter stating that he was at risk by Chris Mottershead, Vice Principal (Research and Innovation). A few hours after Ginzburg's supporter had emailed the principal with a cc to Mr Mottershead he received a reply from Mottershead:


Problems always occur where you least expect them! I have spoken on a one-to-one basis to most people in PSE in the last two days, and everybody who is at risk – expect Jonathan, who has been away. I am due to see him at 2:30 today.

I am concerned how he and others have found out what we decided before I give him his letter today. As background – we would agree with these comments.  The issue is that we still have too many theoretical computer scientists, although far fewer than before – and Jonathan's work does not relate to the other activities of the Department, and is at the periphery of computer science.

The decision about Jonathan was strongly supported by our external advisor on computer science – Paul Lyzell – who is PVC for research at Sussex and was on the CS RAE Panel.

Chris Mottershead

It is unclear why Mr Mottershead sent this letter to Ginzburg's supporter (who is not named Rick). Perhaps it was inadvertent and meant for the Principal of KCL who is so named. Interestingly, this letter appears to indicate that the case against Ginzburg and his logician colleagues was quite different from what had been stated publicly and that the real motivation was to reduce the number of "theoretical computer scientists", an issue that was never raised in the restructuring plan of the department or mentioned to Ginzburg in connection with his redundancy risk or appeal.

A further point of concern, which could have legal consequences, relates to discrimination. Ginzburg, as well as the other two people who were identified for redundancy in the Computer Science Department, and the three people selected for termination of employment in the Philosophy Department are all foreign born and raised. There is a clear matter for concern that the College may be discriminating against them on the basis of national origin. While this may not have been an explicit criterion for selecting employees for dismissal, it is clear that whatever criteria have been used have given rise to adverse discrimination by virtue of national origin.

It is indeed worrying to see an institution of the stature of KCL not only make foolish decisions to make some of its leading world-class scholars redundant but also pursue these decisions with what appears to be administrative ineptitude of sitcom proportions.  It would almost have been funny if it had not involved our valued colleagues.

[Guest post from Robin Cooper.]


  1. Rubrick said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    Phrases like "The College is confident that the appeal process is both robust and fair" always make me gnash my teeth. The College is accused of acting in bad faith, under an unfair process; what shred of worth are we supposed to place in their "confidence"? I always mentally translate this to "We're confident we can thwart your efforts to stop us."

    This came up (still comes up) incessantly during the U.S. debate over government-authorized torture: "We are confident that the interrogation techniques used were legal and appropriate."

    A motorist may as well proclaim "Officer, I'm confident I was driving below the posted speed limit." Said officer, quite rightly, won't give a shit.

  2. Luis said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    I sympathize with Dr. Ginzburg, Dr. Lappin, and all the others affected, but I am starting to wonder if there is much point in appealing. It's not really a matter of whether the appeals stand on good grounds (which I think they do); I'm just wondering whether one should stay at an institution where the administrators are actively trying to make you miserable. I can hardly think of a worse work environment for an academic.

  3. James C. said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    At what point can you say that you have shown “due diligence” in pursuing the case via internal means, from whence you can take the case to higher judicial authorities? It sure sounds like that point has been reached to me. As Luis said, it seems like a good idea for Ginzburg (et am.) to hand over this problem to the courts and start looking for a position somewhere else where he would be actually wanted and hence less miserable.

  4. Rodger said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    Luis, James, plenty of UK academics stay at institutions where the administrators make their life a misery because it's not that easy to find other jobs right now. Those universities which are not sacking people are not hiring either, and the financial situation is expected to get worse after the forthcoming election.

  5. A visitor said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    " Vice-Principal Chris Mottershead believes creativity, healthy, secure and ethical are four terms that do well to summarise the characteristics of King’s that differentiate it from its competitors, both in terms of its history, and its future."


    What do linguistics experts call this phenomenon?

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 5:14 am

    Two replis to Luis — (i) If no one stays and fights through to the end on such matters, the administration gets a free hand to become increasingly arbitrary. That's an altruistic reason to stay, at least if you can stand it. (ii) One's local environment is determined more by one's colleagues than by the administration. If your colleagues are behind you in your fight, as I believe they (and the students) are in this case, that makes a huge difference.

  7. Rodger said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    " Vice-Principal Chris Mottershead believes creativity, healthy, secure and ethical are four terms that do well to summarise the characteristics of King’s that differentiate it from its competitors, both in terms of its history, and its future."

    Well I suppose some at King's are creative, at least when it comes to finding pretexts for sackings, some are secure, and some are no doubt ethical. Though the latter may be fearing for their jobs.

  8. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    " Vice-Principal Chris Mottershead believes creativity, healthy, secure and ethical are four terms that do well to summarise the characteristics of King’s that differentiate it from its competitors, both in terms of its history, and its future."


    What do linguistics experts call this phenomenon?


  9. Paul Booth said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Trainor and his allies are a disgrace to academia. Not only is this an appalling way to treat a colleague, but it wholly undermines what a university is supposed to be about. What price independence of thought and freedom of enquiry at King's now? All academic staff will have to slavishly second-guess what those in authority want them to do, and conform to those expectations. King's has no financial emergency to cope with – this is all about establishing an authoritarian regime in the College. If savings need to be made, make a start by reducing Trainor's bloated salary, and those of his vastly overpaid 'Central Team'.

  10. A vistor said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    More thoughts on Universities from the Principal of Kings.

    "The many of us in this room who experienced the philistine attacks on the universities mounted by the British Government in the 1980s should not forget that sometimes ideals need defending even when particular outmoded practices do not. Nor should we be blind to the fact that even the long-term changes in university life of the last generation – which I believe on balance to have been beneficial – have been brought about at considerable academic and personal as well as financial cost. Likewise we must be energetic in attempting to rid British academic life today of the simple-minded government-imposed bureaucratic excesses which commentators such as Maskell and Robertson rightly deplore." Professor Rick Trainor Commemoration Oration 11 Feb 2005, What are Universities For?


  11. Justin said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 12:30 am

    If you don't mind an American giving you a break from British understatement: This is terrifying. University research programs are increasingly myopic, evermore oriented towards what will have immediate, direct, economically profitable technological application. I imagine it's going to get much worse before it gets better.

  12. Rodger said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 3:38 am

    I think the nub of the problem can be summed up in one observation: the government department responsible for Higher Education is not the department of education, but the department for "business, innovation and skills".

  13. Luis said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    @Barbara Partee: you are right, those are good reasons to try and keep one's job. I retract what I said.

  14. Philosopher said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    Excessive power can corrupt leaders and turn them into egotistical and megalomaniac tyrants. But such stories rarely have a happy ending. Trainor’s descent into complete academic indignity has just started and he will spend the rest of his life trying to fight off the pathetic remnants of the once prestigious College he vandalised.

  15. Observer said,

    March 7, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    I hope the scholars fired by this short sighted move get jobs in the US, Canada, Australia or other institutions of higher education.

    Your loss will be their gain.

  16. Eve Aldridge said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    It all sounds as if the new department is being financed by the branch of the FBI who used to look for non-identified flying objects, which I believe has now been shut down …

  17. Cardinal Newman said,

    March 9, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    It's about structures, I should say, which transcend any individual's will, even his or her (possible) good will.
    A "Principal" of an academic institution in Britain today is obliged to do roughly the kinds of things that Trainor as "Principal" is doing. Of course it is comical to compare his present policy and its effects with his earlier statements, but this is par for the course in politics (which is what this is).
    If I may quote from a posting on the THES site: "[It's] about HYPER-bureaucracy, about out-of-control bureaucratic tendencies, themselves fuelled by the same kind of social neurosis (or is it a psychosis?) that now plagues practically all other spheres of public activity. The whole point about hyper-bureaucracy is that it is in the hands of those – the middle and "top" managers – without any knowledge (except by accident) of the content of what they are administering: in hospitals they are not doctors, in universities they are not historians or classicists or physical chemists etc.: they are New Public Managers. So they need *quantitative criteria* which *they*, in their ignorance of content, can handle and apply in order to make what is called policy. Thus the audit culture. Since their decisions can always be questioned (the essence of a legal-bureaucratic system) and since the common-sense of peers has largely been sidelined, they must demand ever greater quantities of formalized information, in order to cover their backs. There is no end to this bloated progression. Which means hyper-bureaucratization and the consequent destruction of academia – together with many other spheres of civilized life. There is no political party or policy which can correct this tendency (a few politicians bleat about the symptoms, but none can remove the causes), so the universities too are probably doomed. Which doesn't mean that resistance-to-the-end is not a deontological duty."
    An ex-academic can become a "top Administrator", in which case he is obliged to "forget" all the real-life truths which he previously knew.

  18. Robert May said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    If I may make one correction to Robin's fine post. At the University of California, we were not "asked" to take pay cuts, we were told. (It is true that we were asked how we would like our cuts – as furloughs or straight pay cuts, but this is irrelevant.) And it was not done on any justification of saving jobs of either faculty or staff, although it may have saved the jobs of senior administrators as they served the wishes of their masters (the Regents of UC).

RSS feed for comments on this post