A UF engineering team won $2 million as a contest prize last week, but it won’t know until December if it will receive the money or if UF will keep it.
GatorWings, UF’s electrical and computer engineering team, competed at the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge for the third time on Wednesday and won first place. The competition was hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops technology for national security.
In September 2018, UF changed its established practice regarding prize money from allowing faculty and students to take the money to having the university keep it instead. Two months later, GatorWings won $750,000 for a preliminary event that was part of the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge. UF kept the $750,000.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency still hasn’t released the $2 million, said Eric Lindstrom, an attorney with the United Faculty of Florida, which represents the faculty and graduate assistants at UF and other public universities.
The team was threatened with disciplinary or legal action if it did not give the money to the university, Lindstrom said.
As of Sunday night, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando could not provide details on the prize money policy but confirmed that it exists.
John Shea, an electrical and computer engineering professors who participated in the event, said a university administrator told him on Thursday that the prize money would go to the university. Typically, the professors would decide how to split the prize money among team members.
“It’s just really disappointing because our students and ourselves have worked really hard,” Shea said. “DARPA told us that the money goes to the team.”
In response, UF’s faculty union filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge for changing established practice without bargaining with the faculty’s union. The union is asking for the university to rescind the change in policy and to return the prize money.
Lindstrom said it is a violation of a state statute known as the Public Employees Relations Act for UF to change policy without first notifying the faculty union. The university has to notify employees of a change in policy and bargain to work out a new policy before it is changed, Lindstrom said. Shea said UF did not do this.
The Public Employees Relations Commission, which hears cases filed under the Public Employees Relations Act, has a hearing for the first of two Unfair Labor Practice charges scheduled for Dec. 4, but the team hopes to have the cases consolidated so they can be heard together, Lindstrom said.
The team expects to get back all of its prize money after the hearing, Lindstrom said.
“It’s crazy for the university to come in to change the established practice without going through the required process and without letting anybody know in advance and just act like this money is theirs,” Lindstrom said.
GatorWings, a team of two professors, three doctoral students and one undergraduate student, won the competition for proposing a solution to the misallocation of space on the radio spectrum, which is used in telecommunication.
Tan Wong, a UF professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the team won because of its strong professors and students. He said it is fair for students to be paid for their hard work.
“We have a team of very, very dedicated students,” Wong said. “We have to treat the students fairly.”
Team GatorWings (left to right: Marco Menendez, Dr. John Shea, Tyler Ward, Dr. Tan Wong, Caleb Bowyer, and David Greene). Photo emailed to me from John Shea.
Meghan McGlone is a UF junior majoring in journalism and English, and this year she’s the City and County Commission reporter. In past years, she’s served as the University Editor, the Student Government reporter, and other positions. Her favorite past time is eating gummy worms and reading a good book.