“Game Over” for School of Informatics…

For the first time since I started this blog, I’ve to change the blurb above about me because:

The School of Informatics is now officially dissolved… ka-pish… game over…

Not surprisingly, I got the news from third-party sources (even through Buffalo News) faster than my department could churn an email out to their own students. It’s ironic since we’re really still in the business of communication.

In chronological order, here’s what has happened so far:

  1. The University at Buffalo’s School of Informatics (SOI) has been in the midst of controversy.
  2. Dean of SOI, David Penniman, was demoted to faculty teaching position.
  3. Lucinda Finley, Professor and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, was assigned as Interim Dean of SOI.
  4. SOI faculty were told last week that the fledgling school will be disbanded.
  5. Provost Satish K. Tripathi, the No. 2 official at UB, informed faculty members last week that the department of communication will return under the umbrella of the College of Arts and Sciences, while the department of library and information studies will become part of the Graduate School of Education by the end of the fall semester.

Why was the School of Informatics dissolved?
There are many ideas on this, but there’s no one better than the last director of the program to talk about the plight of the school. This brings us to Professor Alex Halavias who left UB months earlier. He recently provided a great post-mortem on the School of Informatics. To peak your interest, you should read it and see why he had this to say…

“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.”

Here are a few thoughts based on what I’ve seen and heard:

Education is still a Business
The school was timely and pretty popular, but realistically it just wasn’t making enough money for the university. Unfortunately, education is still a business and when UB brought in consultants to improve the entire institution’s efficiency, SOI probably didn’t make the cut. Citing Alex’s recollection of what he was told, “the program is a cash cow” which could have worked, except that the right resources (e.g. dedicated faculty, funding) just didn’t come soon enough:

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.

Lack of Communication
Alex wanted to do a lot to improve the school which in itself held great promise, but perhaps the most salient point he made was that the school never got the resources it needed to take off. He goes into the gory details into what went on behind the scenes which even I as a student only saw glimpses of. As a student in the School of Informatics AND the Department of Communication, I think I can vouch for the rest by saying that we’re often kept in the dark about the school’s inner workings. He proposed a school newsletter, and I even remember hearing about having two student representatives at faculty meeting to improve faculty/student relations, but I never saw either happen. This includes bad public relations, such as an incident involving the circulation of a critical (confidential) review of a grad student via the departmental mailing list, then taking a while to respond kindly about it. There seems to be no protocol for handling such situations. If keeping mum’s the word, then it’s really hurtin’.

Poor Identity
As Derek commented, simply ask any Informatics graduate to explain what informatics means and you’ll probably get that elevator pitch we’re trained to say but can’t go deeper into. Informatics is often cited simply as the intersection of people, technology and information. The rest of its definition can be found here, though it really doesn’t tell the public anything impressive. Part of the problem I see is that we’ve been looking at the intersection too much from the periphery, instead of diving right in and seeing what essentially drives informatics as a discipline. A suggestion might be to look at the philosophy of Web 2.0, whereby bloggers have clearly laid out key principles which make Web 2.0 tick. They lived and breathed it, rather than point to it from the outside. I joined the Informatics program and told Alex H. some time ago that I wanted it to be like our own MIT media labs, a place where we can play and produce tangible social technology. It’s hard to talk about something if you haven’t experienced it first hand.

No Dedicated Informatics Faculty
Adding onto the identity crisis, the School of Informatics didn’t really have a dedicated faculty. Forged from a rather uneasy alliance between the Communication and the Library & Information Sciences departments, borrowed faculty taught combined courses which made some of my classmates feel quite segregated. Students from each department would be intermixed, but rarely worked together.

Having been with the University at Buffalo’s Department of Communication for around six years, it’s natural for me to see faculty come and go. I had planned to return to Singapore after my undergraduate studies in Comm, but was enticed into the brand new School of Informatics program after talking to some of my favorite professors about it. Little did I know that once I enter grad school (SOI), the same professors whom I liked as my mentors started leaving (some not on their own accord). I felt that these were personable, diversely talented people who taught and applied communication technologies in their real life. These were really techie people, not just academics: Gary Ozanich was a tech investor, Alex Halavais was a blogger/blogologist, Thom Jacobson applied tech in his social work, Carole Tutzauer digged Computer Mediated Communication.

There are all kinds of intellectuals here, and not all share similar overarching research interests. As you can guess, those who get booted out are those usually who don’t get along with the inner circle of traditional quantitative academics. Political culture like such exists in most organizations so it wasn’t really surprising to me. Still, it’s sad that these people left because I felt that these faculty members best represented the mission of the informatics program. Alex Halavais is perhaps more valuable than anyone in the department realized, amongst all the blogologists in the academic circle, he is perhaps the most well-recognized. Like some bloggers, I felt that the letting go of Alex was all SOI needed to crumble down.

What happens to me now?
Having earned my Masters in Informatics, I’m not so worried. As Alex mentioned, most employees look at the university you came from, less so about the school. Furthermore, once I complete my doctoral program in Communication, it really won’t matter. Besides, I’m eternally grateful that the program existed. In fact, I’m thankful that I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I think it really works best when you believe that… “It’s not what the program can do for you, but what you do for the program on your own which makes the experience most rewarding”

Like Alex said, I really hope the School of Informatics resurrects in the near future. Heck, maybe next time it can be called the “Web 2.0 School” or something visibly relevant to the times. Just a thought!

Before you go, here are related must-reads for context (lots of juicy stuff!):

UPDATE: An interesting tidbit was recently discovered as seen in the comments on Alex’s blog. Back in 6th April 1995, the University of Washington had a series of cutbacks involving their School of Communication. Almost by accident, we found out that the Dean of UW’s massive College of Arts and Sciences at that time was none other our current UB President, John B. Simpson!

5 thoughts on ““Game Over” for School of Informatics…

  1. Well, Kevin welcome to the sad little club to which I and fellow Ed Tech’ers are also members. If you recall back when I was working with you, my program, Educational Technology was also ended, after only one year. However, the light at the end the tunnel was for it to move to Infomatics, a guess that hope is shot. I’m sorry to hear about this.

  2. I couldn’t tell you what Informatics is and the people supposedly doing it (Ben in particular) couldn’t define it for me. however, upon reading the dean’s statements and thinking of Ben and George’s issues with the dean–they were really on the same wavelength of what informatics was but too stupid and stubborn to see it.

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