SOI Dissolution: Dean Penniman’s Story

Dean Penniman vs Provost Tripathi
It’s turning out to be more dramatic than Beverly Hills 90210 (how about Buffalo 14260?)

Earlier this month, the School of Informatics (SOI) was unilaterally dissolved by UB’s Provost, Satish Tripathi. This sad news was blogged by many of us.

Just yesterday, affected students voiced their concerns through a podcast organized by Jim Milles.

Today, we get forwarded a personal statement by the now ex-Dean of SOI, David Penniman.

While SOI students have been waiting to hear official word on why the school was dissolved, Penniman has come forth to tell his side of the story. His statement is currently circulating on various mailing lists, but do remember to take this with a grain of salt since this is his own personal account. Now there’s just one person left to give us the last piece of the puzzle… I’m waiting to hear what Provost Tripathi has to say about the school’s closure, as I believe that SOI students deserve accountability for such non-consensus action.

Here’s the forwarded personal statement from David Penniman:

Statement from W. David Penniman
Dean, School of Informatics
University at Buffalo
June 25, 2006

Earlier this year Provost Satish Tripathi and I held frank discussions at my request regarding his unwillingness to release the faculty lines committed in our last budget cycle. He 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. He consistently rejected arguments regarding the broader definition of informatics that took us beyond the computing domain into a broader perspective of informatics. His view is consistent with hard-core computer scientists who consider this emerging area to be limited strictly to computer technology. He refused to see the broader implications of this emerging area concerned with technology and its interaction with many other aspects of application and implementation as well as society at large. I had repeatedly shown him accepted published definitions of the field of informatics appearing in scholarly literature that recognized the domain of informatics as a much broader field and he consistently rejected these definitions. He continued to say that our School lacked focus.

Decanal Review
At the same time that this dialogue was going on, a decanal review process initiated early in the year (I had volunteered as one of three deans for this process) was nearing completion. This review was done by a committee of faculty headed by a senior engineering faculty member, Andrei Reinhorn. I had wanted a review as I was nearing the end of my fifth year. The Provost was given the report sometime in late April or early May. I repeatedly asked him to go over the results with me. He had already completed the two other deans’ reviews (Law and Education) and renewed their appointments. I asked why theirs were going so rapidly and mine was not. He informed me my situation was different.

Due to subsequent events, I have learned that the review was overall quite positive with some areas for improvement noted – including being more inclusive of faculty in decision making. With such improvements, the report noted that I could be a top-tier dean. The provost would not show me the report nor give me a written summary as originally stated. He instead indicated he was still studying the report, but that it indicated I was below average. I told him I found that difficult to believe. A review of one of our degree programs by an external accrediting team done in April and May of 2006 found me to be “well qualified and visionary”. I shared this result with the Provost after our May 24, 2006 meeting described below.

May 24, 2006
On May 24 the provost met with me and said he wanted to discuss in secret three options: 1) Keep things as they are with me running the School 2) Change the leadership 3) Close the School. I provided him with arguments as to why closing the School did not make sense. I urged him to speak to the process consultants out of the President’s Office who had been working with me on strategic planning issues within the School. I also proposed that at our next meeting (June 5, 2006) we focus on questions
around the School and not me. These questions included: a) why was he considering closing the newest and most innovative School at UB where a promising new faculty and a growing externally funded research agenda existed, b) why wasn’t he considering how to make our School even better and c) what metrics would he use to evaluate any of the schools at UB and how did they apply to our School? He acknowledged that these were good questions, but said he wanted to do my decanal review first.

May 24 to June 5, 2006
Between May 24 and June 5 I decided I could not abide by his request for secrecy and discussed his three options with a few senior faculty. I sought their advice on how to respond. They felt my assessment of the situation was correct. He was not listening to the information I was presenting and had likely already made a decision concerning the School.

June 5, 2006
At my June 5 meeting with the Provost he informed me that he intended to change the leadership of the School, but said I could remain as dean for one more year. He added that the year would be used to decide what to do about the School. He indicated that his decision was based on the decanal review, the presidential consultants I had used as process consultants within the School, and his own opinion. I felt it was not consistent for him to say he would search for a new dean while “deciding what to do about the School”. I asked to be allowed to think about what he had told me overnight. He agreed. After consulting with a few senior faculty aware of the situation, I considered what I felt would be best for the School.

June 6, 2006
On June 6 I informed the Provost that the School would be better served by placing someone in charge whom he would listen to, and I would go on leave for the year instead of continuing as dean as he had suggested. He agreed that day to my suggestion and immediately appointed Lucinda Finley (a distinguished faculty member of the Law School and currently vice provost for faculty affairs) as interim dean effective August 1, 2006. He indicated a desire to meet with the faculty – many of whom were not on campus for the summer.

June 8, 2006
When the announcement went out on June 8 that I had agreed to step down, the faculty on the decanal review committee, I was told, were dismayed. They felt they had submitted a very positive report with some areas identified for improvement and could not believe I had been removed.

June 14, 2006
On June 14 the Provost stopped in my office immediately prior to his planned meeting with the faculty (I had not been invited). He told me he was closing the School and would be informing the faculty in the next few minutes. He then met with the faculty and told them of his decision. The faculty were stunned at his decision and his lack of collegial involvement of them or the Faculty Senate in the process. Their objections caused him to say he would “sleep on it”. He then went next door to met with the administrative staff and told them the same thing, but said he had agreed to sleep on his decision. He subsequently implemented his decision and intends that the process of dismantling the School will be completed by the end of the Fall semester.

Opinion Statement
What appears above are the facts as I have documented them during their occurrence. As to my opinion, any dean serves at the pleasure of a provost, but serves first the faculty. I believe I have done that. A provost may fire a dean for reason or not, but he must not be allowed to fire a school. I will continue to object publicly to this administration’s motives and means regarding the School as well as their end objectives. This administration has failed to act in the collegial manner expected by the faculty and has taken dramatic action when most university faculty are away for the summer. They have misused their power and have discredited an innovative school, the university, and me. This entire debacle brings real doubt as to the credibility of the collegial process supposedly underlying their administration, including the UB2020 process. Shame on them.

W. David Penniman, PhD
Dean, School of Informatics
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-6481 x-1176
Fax 716-645-3775

9 thoughts on “SOI Dissolution: Dean Penniman’s Story

  1. Their objections caused him to say he would “sleep on it”. He then went next door to met with the administrative staff and told them the same thing, but said he had agreed to sleep on his decision.

    I think he just went to sleep.
    LOL, this is worthy of national news reporting, man.

  2. iWant: I’d think so too… if it were verified true first, then it could spell trouble for a State University. Kinda reminds me of leaked memos from the White House… except that our equivalent of the NSA would be the UB 2020 plan, which they use as the reason for all their changes. Not very transparent now is it?

  3. We certainly do need to hear Dr. Tripathi’s side of things here…at this point, this is the clearest (and darkest) explication of the process this decision has taken in coming down the pipeline. There’s a lot here that the provost will need to refute.

  4. It’s interesting–Dr. Cassatta was on the decanal review team and she gave indication (while working on it) that it was a tiresome process but that he was a good dean who cared a great deal about student satisfaction. (something that certainly cannot be said about certain faculty members).

    I also remember hearing much conflict btwn him and other comm faculty. About how the SOI wasn’t really formed for the right reasons anyways and many protested it’s original formation. About how Com was threatening to sucede from SOI. (granted this is all hearsay, but what isn’t at this point?) I also know how many com students couldn’t understand what the SOI meant for us, no one could explain it to us and no one bothered when asked. I stopped trying to teach informatics in 101 b/c I couldn’t explain that which no one could explain to me.

    I was told by Ben E. that the dean was trying to make SOI computer science based and he and Barnett were fighting that. Sounds like that wasn’t really true.

    While I feel that Com alone belongs in CAS b/c we’ve lost touch with many IMPORTANT things that need to be studied, (and lost valuable faculty–I wanted to study under Jacobsen and never got the chance) I feel that regardless of how things should or shouldn’t be the deceit is shameful and feeds into the reputation that UB already has about not caring about students. It just makes that reputation seem all the more true

  5. Sarah: I also get the feeling that UB is beginning to be run more like an business enterprise than actual academic institution.

  6. I find it hard to believe that the Dean of the School of Ed got a better Deconal review than Penniman. Penniman was one of the most accesible Deans I have ever seen at UB, whereas the first time I even met Dean Gresham was at my graduation. I have to wonder if this is due to some of the strategic partnerships that Dean G has with City leaders. There is something fishy going on over at UB and this debacle is just further proof.

  7. Maybe it is a cost cutting strategy…

    Simpson brought Avcro Consulting from UC Santa Cruz (student population 15 000) to UB but refused to disclosed how much they are paid. However, using an unscientific (but mathematically sound) method, I estimate that Avcro is paid approx $40-70 000 for their work at UB.

    Avcro’s strategy is simple… Cut cost. They helped UCSC save $3 million but cutting employment and logistics (but making most operations electronic [or so they claim]). (More here: )

    Avcor’s boss Scott Nostaja seemed to have a BIG heart (last interview):

    And pretty fit :10km in under an hour:

    As for Scott Morris, he probably did some work here (where there is separation and merger [hmmm… sounds familiar]:

    But he is no longer here:

    I would put more details but I’m tired… so I think I’m gonna sleep a little bit…

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