COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Nuclear engineering professors at the University of Missouri have spent the past year wondering why the school decided to shut down their program and instead move its functions elsewhere on campus.
Now they think they have the answer: the lure of international graduate students - and their tuition dollars - from China and other countries.
Opponents of the planned closure of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute point to a fall semester meeting of graduate faculty at which electrical and computer engineering professor John Gahl touted the benefits of foreign student recruitment.
Gahl works in the College of Engineering, which would take over the functions of the institute from the university's graduate school. Graduate dean George Justice gave the research institute's four professors just three days' notice in March 2012 that their program would close, though the school later eased away from the timeline to allow currently enrolled students to complete their degrees. The university has stopped accepting new nuclear engineering students while it attempts to resolve the dispute.
"This is all being driven by dollars, not standards," said institute professor Sudarshan Loyalka. "They saw they could make money off nuclear engineering."
The institute's fate has escalated into broader debates about faculty governance, with critics comparing the university's handling of the matter to the contretemps over phasing out the University of Missouri Press' operations - a decision that was later reversed by University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe in response to the unanticipated public outcry.
Gahl and university administrators counter that the institute, which was formed in 2002, has long been a concern.
In May 2010, an external review of the program by three professors from other universities concluded that the NSEI suffered from a "lack of leadership ... is not focused in research and academic direction, does not have any true strategic plan (and) has no strong national profile or recognition."
The review called NSEI "a rather dysfunctional organization that has not lived up to its original promise" and noted "considerable personal bitterness between the NSEI current faculty and other units and individuals across campus."
On Thursday, the university's Faculty Council voted to ask Chancellor Brady Deaton to re-open admissions to NSEI while preserving its academic and research functions. That comes after Loyalka and two colleagues wrote to Deaton asking for Justice's ouster for "working consistently behind our backs."
Loyalka called the College of Engineering's desire to boost international enrollment a cash grab that could harm the university's academic rigor. As foreign student enrollment on U.S. campuses continues to surge, some worry that those universities will attract poorly prepared students with limited language skills, often aided by profit-seeking recruiters hired by student-hungry schools.
"They have some motivation to generate tuition dollars by recruiting foreign nationals," said Ryan Myer, a private contractor in Washington state who earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering at Missouri in 2007. "It really seems like an effort to steamroll this through."
On Friday, Gahl said his comments from the October 2012 graduate faculty meeting were being taken out of context. The university is interested in luring foreign students to study nuclear engineering, he acknowledged, but not at the expense of crowding out students from Missouri and elsewhere in the U.S.
"We ought to have one of the biggest and best nuclear engineering programs in the country," he said, citing the university's nuclear research reactor, the nation's largest on a college campus. "Right now, we don't have that."