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Losing Informatics




Robyn Baxter thought she was getting into a hot new major when she joined the School of Informatics. But after being involved in the program for three years, she was shocked to learn that the major she thought would be the ticket to her future was being closed down by the University at Buffalo.

As if seeing her major blow up wasn’t bad enough, the way she found out about it was. “I received an email in July,” said Baxter, president of the Communication Undergraduate Student Association. She received the email from a communication department listserv.

She’s not the only one who was dismayed when they learned that UB was breaking up the program that it founded with much fanfare in 2001. With stories about a cryptic summer email and a lot of unanswered questions circulating, Baxter’s plight mirrors that of many of her peers.

The ax fell without much warning, and the University has moved on. That much is clear.

Some former faculty members have suggested that the Informatics program never got the money and people it needed to thrive. The administration has defended its actions, downplaying the drama.

But questions remain among former students and faculty of the school. UB personnel haven’t openly spoken about why they chose to “reorganize” the Informatics majors and close the school, or, why they did so without warning. Why did the School of Informatics close? And what does this mean for UB students and UB as a whole?

In 2001, UB opened the doors to its exciting new School of informatics. The much anticipated program was one of the pioneers in its field. The School of Informatics promised to introduce students to the exciting new world of Informatics and to completely immerse them in the information sciences.

According to studies published by the Princeton Review and the College Board, informatics careers are among some of the fastest growing in the nation. In 2001, UB became the second major university in the United States to have a School of Informatics—one of only two schools to realize this growing field early on, getting its foot in the door as a leading research university with an entire school dedicated to Informatics. There was hype and frenzy. UB was going to become the gem of the SUNY system.

But on June 16, 2006 UB Provost Satish K. Tripathi announced to the UB faculty that the school would be closing, or rather, “realigning academic programs.” The department of communication would be sent back to the College of Arts and Sciences, and the department of library and information studies would settle into the Graduate School of Education. This “reorganization” is to be complete by the end of this fall’s semester.

According to Tripathi, this arrangement makes more sense and it will allow academic departments to collaborate more freely. As for the impact on the students, Tripathi was quoted in the Buffalo News as having said, “This is really an organizational change, not an academic change. The impact to the students will be almost nothing.” This statement has been raising eyebrows all over campus. Baxter said, “Dr. Feeley and other professors keep saying it’s not an academic change.” But she feels that to say there will be no change is misleading. “Networking with professors and administrators will be more difficult.”

There are many similarities between the mission and vision statements of the informatics schools of UB and Indiana. Both schools stress the importance of education, research, and an understanding of information in society. The difference is that Indiana’s informatics school is thriving. They keep publishing new informatics research, as well as offering an extensive networking opportunity with career services and internships.

How could two schools with almost identical ideals have ended up on complete opposite ends of the spectrum?

Funding—specifically, funding to hire faculty and staff. Indiana has over 50 full-time faculty members in its informatics major alone while UB has only 26 full-time faculty in the entire informatics program. UB’s informatics program included 1,350 students, while Indiana’s program has an enrollment of a similar number, nearly 1,500.

As former UB informatics professor Alex Halavais stated in his blog at alex.halavais.net, and confirmed via a telephone conversation to Manhattan, “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 [Masters of Informatics] program never got a regular faculty—it had to borrow from the library school and from the communication department.”

Lucinda Finley, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and interim informatics dean, disagreed, saying that the school’s reorganization was “not a resource driven decision. It was more of an academic driven decision.” She maintains that in a review of the school there was “not a lot of intellectual symmetry” between the departments, which had nothing to do with resources. It was an environmental drawback, which alluded to the need for a collaboration of majors in a larger school, Finley said.

In addition to an alleged lack of funding for faculty members, there has also been talk of UB’s new administration lacking interest in the school.

Dr. David Penniman, former informatics dean, preferred not to speak about the issue, directing this reporter to a public statement he wrote in June 2006 after he was asked to step down as dean. It said he and Provost Tripathi had “frank discussions” in early 2006 on the subject of Tripathi’s “unwillingness to release the faculty lines committed in our last budget cycle.”

He continued to say that Tripathi “had repeatedly refused to free up the resource, indicating he was not ready to invest more in the school when he felt its focus was unclear.”

Informatics is a broad subject. Its definition covers everything from technology to communication to society. Tripathi took this very expansive definition as a lack of concentration, Penniman said. Without concentration, how can additional staff know what to teach?

Penniman goes on to say that he showed Tripathi many “accepted published definitions of the field of informatics appearing in scholarly literature” as well as “the broader implications of this emerging area concerned with technology,” but Tripathi “consistently rejected these definitions. He continued to say that our school lacked focus.”

Is a lack of focus the reason why the school closed? Not according to Finley. She noted that the main question was, “Is a big university best used to support a small school?” Reorganizing these majors into larger schools allows for more faculty collaboration, Finley said, which allows more resources for students. She says the decision was made based on what was best for the academic programs.

“A school is just an administration,” said Finley. “Closing a school is not the same as closing academic programs.” She insisted that nothing is going to change for the students and that the caliber of academics will not decline. She explained, “What makes a school excellent is faculty, students, staff, and alumni, and none of that is changing.”

Since nothing except administration is supposed to change, why did UB officials wait until the summer when most faculty and students aren’t around to announce the school’s closing?

The administration says that’s just where it fell in a timeline, while students and some faculty suggest it was to soften the angry feedback. “The timing has ensured quiet acquiescence from most of the faculty and students,” said Halavais in his July 5, 2006 blog post. Faculty members who remained on campus were notified via a meeting with the provost and a press release, but how were students notified?

Ashica Ambu, a senior communication and Asian studies double major, is another former informatics major who said that, like Baxter, she doesn’t know what happened.

Both have their theories, of course. Baxter guessed money was scarce. She said, “If it’s about money, then that’s sad,” while Ambu, who is the Student Association’s Academic Club Coordinator, said she thinks the informatics majors “might be more efficient under a larger school.”

Students also seem to be concerned about their networking opportunities, as this is an important tool for a career in informatics. “It was disappointing to hear about the school’s closing because it was so unique,” said Baxter. “The school was small, so there was a personal relationship with the faculty.” Ambu agrees that the small atmosphere was great, and remembers that Dr. Penniman would hold luncheons where students could get to know him as well as the rest of the faculty.

What does this academic realignment mean for UB? Halavais proposes that “the two Schools ‘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.” He also suspects “a lot of invisible costs, with little discernable payoff” as the faculty from the school will have to adjust their curricula to fit the policies of their new homes.

A question on many people’s minds is, if the school wasn’t properly funded in the first place, how will this influx of students into existing UB colleges affect these institutions? Where’s this money coming from?

The Buffalo business community liked the school because it was so fresh and innovative, so some of the school’s money came from private donors, like a $600,000 donation from AT&T. Halavais points out that UB anticipated that the “support from businesses and alumni are really for UB as a whole.”

Halavais also suggests that these donations will terminate without the informatics program. He said that in the minds of the donors, the school was their main interest. “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.”

Finley, on the other hand, does not seem concerned about this change. She says that all the majors will “continue seamlessly” as part of the larger schools. She did not mention money as an issue in this transition.

Though money may or may not be the core cause of the school’s disbandment, this break up does have something to do with President Simpson’s mission statement for UB. UB 2020 is a plan for academic progress that involves moving around academic programs and placing them where they will experience the most growth. According to the UB website, UB 2020 “will advance academic excellence, making our university one of the nation’s leading public research universities during the next 15 years.” The site goes on to describe a course of action that is very similar to what has happened to the School of Informatics. It says, “UB is creating a comprehensive plan to support the university’s academic programs and best position them to realize their potential.”

Finley pointed out that the informatics majors were not “flourishing on their own” and therefore, were realigned. “The [UB 2020] plan will be a roadmap that the university will follow to realign resources, make strategic investments, develop partnerships, and recruit new faculty,” denoting the collaboration between different majors and faculty that was stated by Provost Tripathi in his announcement. The school was apparently only one stop on this roadmap to UB success.

Where does the School of Informatics stand now? According to Finley, “the decision has been officially referred to the Faculty Senate Committee.” The Provost has asked that all the loose ends be tied up by the end of the fall semester, which will mark the official closing of the school. Finley also explained that while this decision is being finalized, she’s “now in the process of scheduling open meetings for all students.” At these meetings she is prepared to answer questions and clear up any concerns that students might have.

Sometimes things are better in theory then they are in practice, as seems to be the case in the informatics story. As Finley aptly put it, “the whole was not bigger then the sum of its parts.” So, by choosing to target the School of Informatics in the UB 2020 plan, UB is hoping its realignment will strengthen already top-notch academic programs.

Some still stand firm in their belief that the informatics school is a necessary tool in strengthening informatics academic programs, pointing to personal relationships with faculty and networking opportunities. Halavais suggested as much, posting, “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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