Update (6/16): The official word has come down. Communication will be going to Arts and Sciences, Library Studies will be housed in the Graduate School of Education. The informatics programs will continue, it seems, though where they will call home is still in the process of being discussed.
I’ve been at a couple of workshops lately, and I’m surprised at how quickly news travels. Last week, David Penniman, dean of the School of Informatics was promoted to teaching and research as regular tenured faculty, and an “Interim Dean” appointed. Speculation was rife that this was a prelude to dismantling the School, and the scuttlebutt is that this is–at least at this stage–the plan. Several people I’ve spoken with at other universities have mentioned that all it takes is me leaving and an entire college falls apart.
I was in another program that was scheduled for the chopping block, and the experience of that program, which is now often ranked among the top five communications programs in the US, demonstrates that the best laid plans of university administrators can sometime go awry. Nonetheless, the current president and provost were brought in largely to “clean house,” and as the newest college on campus, and (I believe) the smallest, it is hardly surprising that the School is caught in the sights of the administration.
More importantly, it is difficult to clearly articulate the successes of the School. I think that the Department of Communication improved in the time I was there, though–as I have noted in earlier posts–it took a direction that didn’t really mesh with my interests. One of the reasons that I came to Buffalo is that I was excited about the School of Informatics. I had seen what had happened at the iSchool at the University of Washington and at similar programs, and I always considered myself to be an informatics guy. So, when a Communication Department within a new School of Informatics sought me out and recruited me for the program, it sure felt like a perfect match.
Sure, there were some gaps in vision. I remember meeting with Gary Ozanich and explaining that I was excited about the Masters in Informatics program. I saw it as an opportunity to develop a professional program with a strong practical, creative component: a kind of MIT Media Lab, with a focus on social technologies. Not right away, of course, but that was the ultimate vision I had in mind. “No,” he said, “you’ve got it all wrong: the program is a cash cow.” The idea was that it would be a large-enrollment program with a set curriculum that would fund our Ph.D. program and keep everything afloat with tuition dollars. The provost at the time had placed a funding amount on the head of each new student we could bring in, and so emphasized large class size over anything else. Eager to please, we quickly grew our undergrad program in size and started up a Masters program on little more that a hope and a prayer.
The trick is, the program was never properly resourced. I was under the impression that it was something of a bootstrapping operation–we get things rolling and then hire a faculty to teach in the program. But that wasn’t the plan: the MI program never got a regular faculty, it had to borrow from the library school and from the communication department. As a one-year program, it didn’t do as much as we would have liked for the students, and there was always something of a disconnect between their expectations and our own. Perhaps worst of all, the capstone project (which was required by the state during the approval process) might have made perfect sense in a two-year program, but in a one-year program with little in the way of advising, it led to some really embarrassingly bad work.
I have a feeling that when I look back on my life in a few decades, the MI program will be one of my greatest personal failures, and Buffalo not the smartest move I could have made. As the Director for the last couple of years, I went from idealism, to merely wanting to shore things up and keep them running. Initially, I was to be taken off the tenure track for a couple of years to help administer the program, but was told by someone in the School that this wasn’t possible–once the paperwork was already filed. Luckily, thanks to this staff person’s willingness to step forward, I managed to move myself back to the tenure track, but it was a bit of a mess. Here I was alienated from the department in which I was appointed (Communication), spending way too much time teaching and trying to formalize a program that seemed to run largely on rumor and crisis. My own future at the university was tied closely to the success of the School, largely because I made the mistake of putting the School ahead of my own career from an early stage. We had a reputation in the Graduate School–well earned–of ineptitude when it came to managing the flow of students, and we didn’t have anything approaching a faculty culture within the program. Largely in spite of this, we have graduated some really excellent students. Particularly in the early years, we also graduated some people that had no business receiving a graduate diploma.
I gather that the faculty and staff of the School has made a united plea to the provost to keep them together as a School. Frankly, I think that would be great if, and only if, the university was willing to make a concerted effort to place social informatics at the core of its mission, and provide the necessary resources. That means faculty hires, physical facilities, and a new dean that is willing to make the School her mission. The university has not to done this so far, and instead arrived at a set of areas of focus that it thinks will make UB’s reputation. Good for the president; the university needed shaking up. Too bad that he, and the provost who is a computer science guy, missed the boat on social computing. There are some interesting people in this area at Buffalo, and they are not being well supported. If they are not going to fish, they need to cut bait. Dragging Informatics out while starved for resources won’t work.
Part of this was that the School failed as an entrepreneurial project. While I like Dr. Penniman personally, his management style was not one of leading from the front, breaking new ground, and battling things out in public. His style was evolutionary change, and I think he may have tried too hard to make friends rather than to make waves. The success of other schools has required a rain maker, as well as a visible leader with a clear vision. Penniman knew we wanted a vision, but thought that it had to come organically from within. I applaud his democratic approach, but particularly for a School that was struggling to survive (and I don’t think the idea of us struggling was well conveyed), we needed a general, not a general manager. Too much time was spent trying to bring everyone under the tent–it wouldn’t have hurt if a few people got wet, as long as we were making good speed.
The other thing that I think would have helped very early on is a set of quantifiable performance measures. Strangely, for a department that prides itself on quantitative approaches, my fellow faculty in communication did not seem interested in charting our own progress. I think so much could have been accomplished if we clearly indicated what our goals were and measured progress toward those goals. This wasn’t done, though, and as a result the progress of the School seemed always to be measured in negatives. Why weren’t we attracting more funding? Why weren’t we publishing more? Why weren’t we doing more of everything? At the same time, we were sprouting new programs, a legacy in many ways of a previous provost.
It is much easier to think about this when no longer part of the School. As I noted, I came to UB in the hope that the School of Informatics would be the thing that people thought about when they heard “University at Buffalo,” and that the Masters in Informatics program would be the jewel in that crown. When I look at it now, particularly from the perspective of the university administration, I see redundancy, inefficiency, and lack of focus. I only wish that we could have gotten our own house in order when the writing was on the wall. I am sorry for whatever turbulence this causes in the programs, but in the end, it may very well be the best thing for each of them. UB will have missed its chance for a strong informatics program, and may, two decades down the road when they realize that they missed the boat, end up trying again. But what is needed now is either a commitment to excellence in social informatics, or to remove it from the agenda. Half-measures do no one–students, faculty, staff, or administration–any good.