This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

FSEC supports dissolving informatics school

Published: November 30, 2006

Contributing Editor

The former dean of the School of Informatics directed financial and teaching resources from its two constituent departments—communication and library and information studies—in an attempt to build an informatics program that was in danger of collapsing from its many problems, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee was told yesterday.

Lucinda Finley, interim dean of the school and vice provost for faculty affairs, told the FSEC that what initially was conceived of as a cornerstone degree program that would draw "on the research and teaching synergies of the two fields wound up being what I call the orphan child that neither one wanted."

Finley outlined some of the problems that prompted Provost Satish K. Tripathi to propose dissolving the school, a proposal that the FSEC voted to support following yesterday's report on findings on the matter by the senate's Academic Planning Committee.

The differences between the departments' degree programs offered few opportunities for collaboration between their faculties, Finley said. Library and information studies offers a professional program without a research focus, while the communication program is research-oriented.

At the same time, according to Finley, the informatics master's program "created primarily by grabbing some courses and adjuncts from Millard Fillmore (College)" was experiencing multiple problems.

"It was a master's program that had very low admissions standards, it was almost exclusively adjunct-taught, it had an insufficient number of UB faculty to supervise capstone projects; thus, many of the students were just sort of left to flounder without any real guidance on their capstone projects," she said. "It was also a graduate program that didn't have a coherent core curriculum and any opportunities for specialization. The courses that were offered, it seemed to me, basically, as one of the people studying the program put it to me, were 'what body was available in what semester to teach whatever they wanted.'"

Finley said that faculty members from the school's departments told the Academic Planning Committee during its review of the matter that their areas of study suffered because they were required to support the informatics degree program.

"I heard many complaints about 'We had human and financial resources stolen from us to support this informatics degree program,' so that in itself was indicative of the mindset that the department's leadership wasn't committed to contributing to a supposedly core interdisciplinary degree program that might have been the raison d'etre of the school.

"The communication faculty I spoke to that had been teaching (informatics) courses said that they, after a few semesters, pretty much wanted nothing more to do with it because they found the quality of the students, quite frankly, so way below their standards and expectations. They said that what was happening to the students who were admitted to the informatics master's program was their initial required courses were all adjunct-taught, they were getting coddled and getting 'As' from the adjuncts, and then coming into the courses taught by the regular tenured and tenure-track UB faculty, who were applying the expectations that they would apply to graduate students in communication, and flunking the informatics kids or giving them 'Ds.'

"It got to a point where the informatics grad students didn't want to take courses taught by the communication faculty because they were 'too hard' and the LIS (library and information studies) chair didn't want her faculty teaching informatics courses, and the program kept getting more and more adjuncts. So this sort of cornerstone degree program that was initially conceived of as drawing on the research and teaching synergies of the two fields wound up being what I call the orphan child that neither one wanted."

Finley said she believes "the informatics program would be better off as an interdisciplinary degree program within the College of Arts and Sciences where full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty from throughout the departments and schools at the university would be drawn on to contribute to it."

Diane Christian, chair of the Academic Planning Committee, distributed a report of the committee's findings, which stated that the two departments "have separate senses of their work and in general are happy to separate."

"Most of them (faculty and staff members) have said to us that they are happy to separate, but they weren't happy with the way in which the dissolution of the school was announced," she said.

Christian acknowledged that the Academic Planning Committee, which is charged with reviewing mergers and dissolutions at UB, should have had the chance to consider the matter before any announcement about the school's fate.

"Normally, we serve as basically coroners. We just look at the bodies and see if they were properly killed," Christian said. "We don't do nearly enough that is proactive and ideally it would have good if we'd all been thinking about it ahead of time."

Tripathi announced in June that the school would be dissolved, after having spoken with Dean David Penniman about investigating the school and after the dean resigned within days of that discussion. The provost later changed his announcement to a proposal and asked the Faculty Senate to consider the matter and make recommendations.

Originally envisioned as a merger of four departments at UB—communication, library and information studies, computer science and engineering, and media study—the School of Information Studies, as it was first named, began in 1999 with just the first two departments, the other two having declined to be part of the merger. The school was renamed the School of Informatics in 2001.

The Academic Planning Committee reviewed numerous documents, emails and letters, and interviewed faculty and staff with regard to the proposed dissolution. Christian noted that for the most part, those interviewed have stated "separately and independently and privately and publicly that, in fact, the synergy that was maybe imagined or hoped for did not really occur."

In the midst of this process, the library and information studies program received a "conditional accreditation" which, Christian said, "the committee feels is serious."

The report that the FSEC voted to support also states that the communication department should be relocated to the College of Arts and Sciences, but notes that the new home of library and information studies is still to be determined. The department is considering merging either into the Graduate School of Education or the College of Arts and Sciences, while some of its faculty members proposed "in fact, that they stand alone as a school," Christian said.

"The problem is it's a small group of people," she said, adding that "they really are faced with a very serious pressure in terms of the temporary accreditation of the library association, which requires a plan to be in place by Dec. 1 to address the criticisms. So it was our decision, then, that they didn't have time. They have to move forward in answering the library certification issues because they are very important."

Judith Adams-Volpe, director of university and external relations for the arts and sciences libraries, expressed her "significant desire for consideration for the College of Arts and Sciences to be included as a possibility for relocation." Finley said she is "very open-minded to any proposals" and will await the final proposal from the department, which is meeting early next week to discuss a new location.