School of Informatics Letter

A letter from Jeff Carballada appeared in the Buffalo News regarding UB killing the School of Informatics. As a member of the Founders Committee, he concludes “Informatics at UB needs to survive, and UB needs to rethink its decision.”

I doubt they will. While the business reaction to the decision is giving the administration a black eye, the president was brought in for just this. A couple of people have noted that there is some dark conspiracy in John Simpson coming in and killing programs, but he has made his career on cutting through bureaucracy, and making universities into profit centers. There can be little doubt that the UB, as with many universities, was stifled by an ineffective and top-heavy administration, and many faculty were quietly pleased about what appeared to be slash-and-burn administrative changes.

But that wasn’t enough at previous universities and hasn’t been enough here. I noted in an earlier post that as a two-department college, Informatics probably didn’t look great on a balance sheet. The dean had recently centralized the staff under the college (rather than department)–much to the consternation of the faculty. However, this concentration did not, I believe, substantially reduce the number of employees or hours being used on the staff side. And at least as one of the clients of that staff, it also didn’t seem to increase effectiveness. To the contrary, the faculty were being asked to take on work that had been done by the staff.

I have no idea what the staff sizes of the other Colleges are, but my guess is that they are proportionally much smaller. So, an adjustment of resources may have been necessary. But this hardly necessitated the killing of the School. While the costs of doing so may not show up on the balance sheet right away, I suspect the two Schools who will be “absorbing” the faculty and students of Informatics are going to be wasting a good deal of time and energy figuring out how to deal with these new programs. And the faculty of the effected programs are going to end up spending a lot of time they could otherwise be devoting to funded research instead re-organizing their curricula and policies to fit their new homes. All of this means a lot of invisible costs, with little discernable payoff.

In any case, suggesting that such slashing and burning approaches were somehow unexpected is a bit disingenuous. But it certainly looks as if they cut heavily into their own foot on this one. They perhaps did not anticipate that the local business community actually likes the idea of a School of Informatics, and our informatics programs, and that they had supported the School financially. The administration has tried to suggest that support from business and alumni are really for UB as a whole, but that simply is not true in the minds of those giving the money, and those are the minds that matter. One of the reasons people were willing to put money behind the School is that they thought that there was some promise there, that the School was a worthwhile venture.

In order to deflect criticism, Provost Tripathi has claimed that the programs and departments of the School will continue to be supported. Until he clearly states how this is to occur, these are empty promises. Especially for the Masters and BS programs in informatics, which were largely supported by the School itself, rather than a department, there has been no indication of how funding or faculty lines will be applied. Apparently, the administration has wasted no time in contacting alumni and encouraging them to continue giving money, but this is a lost cause. Librarians are not going to continue to support a library school not supported by the University, and the same is true of each of the other programs.

As I noted in an earlier post, I can understand the administration’s reasoning in targeting the School. There was room for improvement. But the way that they decided to end the program showed not only a lack of understanding of how decisions should be made collectively in a university, but a lack of business judgment. In three or four years, they will leave UB worse than they found it, off to another university under a mandate to control costs. They will show that they have cut costs at UB, while maintaining a rhetoric of excellence, backed up with little more than words.

The timing (summer) has ensured quiet acquiescence from most of the faculty and the students. Even if there were a more substantial outcry, university administrations’ have always had the luxury of time. They will remain ambivalent about the non-affiliated programs long enough to see them whither and die quietly, slowly strangled by lack of funding, and blamed for their own demise. Communication may weather this a bit better than the others, if only because they continue to have a substantial number of undergraduates, and continuing demand for the major. Meanwhile, a group of young faculty and new students will scatter to the four winds, leaving behind the refrain in another field that you already hear too often: “Buffalo–they used to be a top university. Whatever happened to them.”

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  1. Posted 7/5/2006 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    The virtue of education is lost when it’s confused as a business. Because of this, I’d shudder on the thought of recommending UB to friends, especially under the current administration. :(

  2. Posted 7/6/2006 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I would actually go as far as saying that UB has been a business for far longer than President Simpson has been here. Even under William Greiner, UB was run like a business. Maybe this was not as obvious to faculty and staff, but as a student I have seen too many examples of UB being very frugal and acting as though spending a little more to help students a great deal would have hurt the university irreperably.

    This problem is quite pronounced in the area covered by the office of Student Affairs. If it weren’t for Sub-Board I, Inc., they would let the student associations die and would not replace any of the services offered by them. They also don’t seem to care too much about student input. You know UB is a business when the likes of Mr. Black are still around.

    Also, the business mentality seems to trickle down, except that as a student I have had more instances of being treated like a nuisance than as a customer.

  3. Sarah
    Posted 7/9/2006 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    What is most sad is that this entire fiasco does nothing to improve UB’s overall image. Professors and professionals at other colleges hestitate to recommend going to UB for anything, despite their rankings simple b/c the students are not seen as anything more than dollar signs instead of focusing on providing a solid education with actual requirements (like grading writing abilities, something COM 101 refuses to do.) I’m glad I decided not to stay (for a variety of reasons) but also b/c I felt that so much time was invested in certain people bickering with each other about this that and the other instead of providing a solid and safe community. Too many faculty were too open with saying who they did or did not like in COM, LIS or Informatics and it didn’t seem like people were communicating–which is shameful considering our field.

    In the end none of what happens gives the students the freedom or ability to trust that their best interests are at heart and that UB is actually trying to move forward in something other than it’s medical fields. Boy wouldn’t that be nice.

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