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School of Informatics Dissolution June 22, 2006

Posted by jennimi in About me, Informatics, Library School.
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By now folks are talking and blogging about the dismantling of the University at Buffalo’s School of Informatics. LIS will be going to Graduate School of Education, and COM will go to College of Arts and Sciences. The brand new MA and BA in Informatics? You can read more here at the Buffalo News. Though I have had one-on-one discussions about this sad news I have purposely avoided blogging about it or reading other blogs addressing it other than Ben Hockenberry’s post urging some action on the part of students. As a former employee and student of the School, I have two years of close observation upon which to reflect. I have many feelings, but I honestly don’t have enough information to provide much insight into the situation. Judging by the article in the News, I am not the only one left in the dark.

In late 2003, when I was investigating a career in librarianship, I sat down with a trusted friend who said, “… you should look at UB… they’re doing something different up there”. I wanted to learn how to use technology to do what I did best: empower people (clients, coworkers, family, students, friends, strangers) by helping them not only find information but learn HOW to find information. I wasn’t looking for a computer science degree, or an education degree, I wanted to be a librarian of the future. I did some research, began to reach out to SOI alums, students, faculty and staff, and made my decision. The reason I came to UB in the first place was that its library science program was cutting edge. The venn diagram I have posted above, taken from the SOI web site, explains in simple terms what the School is was all about.

Had I found the degree in GSE I am not sure I would have come. Now, that’s just me talking. And dare I assume, faculty (and new faculty, there are many) would say the same? SLMS (School Library Media Specialist) students perhaps fit in with this restructuring due to the education focus, but not the rest: corporate, academic, law, music, public… Not if you look at the field today. Not if you look at job postings (which, I looked at OFTEN as part of my job, and now as part of my life).

Anyone who would come in and move our LIS faculty, staff, and students over to an Education program, hasn’t truly looked at what the field is doing practically or philosophically or otherwise. This is not a knock against Ed-u-ca-tion, ed-u-cators are my favorite folk (Dan Bern reference for my music people out there)… it’s just an observation based purely on my personal and professional experience and goals. Hockenberry is right to ask what other students are saying, feeling, asking. Perhaps I have this all wrong, but without an adequate explanation by Provost Tripathi on why this decision was made, and made so suddenly without a conversation with the School’s most valuable assets: its students, as well as a discussion of HOW LIS specifically fits into the mission and values of GSE, I am left to my own devices to form my opinions.

It remains to be seen what will happen. For my part I am proud that I earned an ALA accredited MLS from the University at Buffalo’s School of Informatics. There is talk on the liblogosphere about students and recent grads finding passion for our work. There is was passion at the SOI… everywhere you looked. In lab, in class, on the discussion boards, in Dean’s open door luncheons, in restaurants where LIS students met and talked… but you needed to look, and listen. Library Science students (and faculty?) are busy and at times quiet. Their passion is not always found in their voices but in the work they create. (Perhaps, in the blogs they write, or should write, to get the word out about what they we do?).

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Update: Dr. Alex Halavais, former Informatics professor and blogging guru, offers some insight here. Complete with (at times extremely heated) discussion thread.

Update: A SOI student has started a discussion board to explore the matter: http://informatics.wnyhost.com/phpBB2/index.php

Update June 26: Gone is the SOI student discussion board. I received an email this morning from the moderator stating she was taking the board down due to conflict of interest. Apparently she works for Development and Alumni Relations, a division of SOI’s Division of External Affairs. Fair enough, but your humble blogger fails to see how students discussing what’s hapenning to their school is a conflict of interest with the school! At any rate it’s her call. Perhaps someone more neutral could step in and moderate. It was a good idea, though not sure how well it was working.

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Comments

1. theory.isthereason » “Game Over” for School of Informatics… - June 23, 2006

[…] Jenn Graham: School of Informatics Dissolution […]

2. liberlibri - June 25, 2006

Jenn, I can’t agree more with your evaluation that: “Anyone who would come in and move our LIS faculty, staff, and students over to an Education program, hasn’t truly looked at what the field is doing practically or philosophically or otherwise.”

I feel dismayed SOI was clearly not a part of the UB2020 vision. The decision to join LIS with ED is short sighted, a clear instance of the tyranny of the marketplace. I’m a SLMS students and I *still* believe it is a wrong move.

Like you, I was attracted to UB because it appeared to be forward thinking. While, as Judith Robinson stated: “[the department] will have the same talented, dedicated faculty with the same office addresses.” I can’t help being wary about the long-term impact of LIS’s place as a subordinate department in the School of Education. Wasn’t there a reason the LIS faculty was willing to join the School of Informatics in the first place?

In this era of spin, Tripathi’s statements fall on cynical ears. I believe that “This administrative change provides a more robust context for our faculty in the Department of Communication and Department of Library and Information Studies to collaborate across departments so that their educational and research objectives and potential may be fulfilled” about as much as I believed that there were WMD. Is this a move of financial exigency? If not, then lets see them apply the savings realized by elimating Dean Penniman towards creating this “more robust context.”

As for Alex’s statement that what SOI needed was a “general, not a general manager” I can only say that such truths (if indeed it is a truth) simply provide further evidence that higher education is more about business than ideals. I’ve known that was true for a long time, but getting smacked upside the head with it yet again is decidedly unpleasant.

I’m sad.

3. Jenn Graham - June 25, 2006

Kate! First, I want to welcome you to Library Matters. I also want to thank you sincerely for your insights. You have added to the conversation here just by being willing to share your thoughts. Please consider participating in Jim Milles’ podcast to be announced. I’ll be writing a separate post about it, and I am sure you saw his post on the list.

I think that when all is said and done the quality of students and faculty are what will count. I think we both can agree though that we need more info! Beautiful blog, btw. 🙂

4. Jenn Graham - June 25, 2006

One more thing I wanted to clarify…. while I mused that I could see SLMS fitting into the GSE because of the education model (student teaching etc.) I in no way meant to assume that all SLMS students would want this move. Kate thanks for bringing your perspective.

Nor do I assume other students are displeased with the restructuring. I merely state my initial reactions based upon what info I have. What do others think? There has been good collaboration in the past between our two schools. Is there potential here?

5. ladyofthelake - June 28, 2006

Hey Jenn,

If you’re talking about DLIS and GSE, I don’t see it as much more than a death sentence for the MLS program. Burying it in GSE further minimizes the importance of having a professional program for librarianship. My understanding is that “what the hell is happening in Buffalo?” was a common question to UB attendees of the ALA conference in New Orleans. A colleague told me that those at ALA aware of the situation were predicting that UB’s library school will be the first to close in the 21st century. I do hope they are wrong.

If you’re referring to the relationship between COM and DLIS, well to say that it hasn’t been contentious at times would be a lie. But much of that has to do with personality differences and the attempts by both departments to get enough of the very little funding provided to the school to keep their individual programs running. Also, consider that they are departments that emphasize very different aspects of graduate education. DLIS is a professional program that uses ALA standards to provide education and training to librarians. There is little if any emphasis on scholarly research, which is THE primary focus of COM. Also, with the third largest undergraduate enrollment the teaching load for COM faculty has always been 4-5 times higher–an average of roughly 150 students per class vs. 37 per class for DLIS (looking at the enrollment reports made available by the Provost’s Office.) I suspect that this has always been a source of contention among some of the faculty.

But I think the lack of funding has been the most influential source of strife. I know faculty in both departments who have been denied grants because of the lack of seed money that would be needed from the University to support any grant awards. If anything, UB’s minimizing of the school, despite it’s respectable enrollment, is what really lead to this point.

Was/Is there potential for COM-DLIS collaboration? Absolutely. IF you allow yourself to look beyond the focus of the individual departments to see it. COM has some incredible research happening and the methods they use to study communication phenomena are SO applicable to LIS. At the same time, UB’s DLIS needs to put more emphasis on research (this is a University after all) and adopt some of the components of traditional graduate education. For instance, requiring a thesis for thise focusing on academic and special libraries. Also, LIS is is an area in need of more research as the field continues to transform at an incredible rate. How many jobs do you see for electronic resources librarians yet UB does not even offer a course in serials management, let alone electronic serials management. They need to get with the program and update the program.

The very existence of informatics as a field is evidence that there is common ground between COM and DLIS. Informatics involves the stud and practical applications of information and communication technologies, social aspects of computing, information seeking–this is all stuff that researchers in both departments in SOI do. So yeah, collaboration is possible if the principles are willing to see it. It is unfortunate that the dean was unable to make it happen. Perhaps another dean could if the University were to think beyond next week. Imagine what the SOI could become by 2020. Then again, perhaps the parochial thinking is too strong. I really do not know. I do know that I am terribly bothered by the way this “dissolution” came down. The arrogance of this administration is infuriating and everything that has been happening on campus lately suggests that there are “other” forces at work.

I was here when the SOI was formed. I earned my MLS from the School of Library and Information Studies. Yeah, it was its own school and has never been part of the GSE, despite what some media state. I had hopes that the SOI would work because it was very foward thinking. And I suppose that, upon reading the comments of people like Mike Sellitto, maybe there is still a chance to save it. But I’ve lived here a long time and have seen so much potential quashed by the inability of leaders to think beyond the confines of their personal agenda. The fate of the SOI seems to be yet another example of this. 😦

6. Jenn Graham - June 29, 2006

ladyofthelake! It’s really good to hear from you and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, as an alum, student, and instructor! You’ve really added excellent insights here as you have a special perspective. I am sad to read that MLS in GSE is a death sentence. Honestly, I don’t have the history to understand what is really happening here from an historical perspective.

I wonder, then, what the Provost and President have against having a cutting edge library school at UB? I mean, are they setting it up to fail? Or do they really and truly believe it’s the right decision? Simpson was recovering from shoulder surgery at Commencement, and couldn’t shake our hands. But why he didn’t look us in the eye didn’t hit me until I read your post.

I guess what I was questioning in my ramblings was the collaboration between DLIS and GSE now that this seems like a done deal. You and I have discussed before how LIS and COM fit together logically, practically and philosophically. I guess over the last year working for the merged departments, I took that collaboration as a given. Honestly I am sad to see the two separated. But, I also think there are many who might be happy… 😦

GSE? I think there is potential with good administrative support and a welcoming positive attitude on both parts. But what to do? I look forward to hearing what other students have to say tomorrow at Jim Milles’ podcast. On a personal level, I send you my positive thoughts. You have always had a broader view of how the disciplines connect and I only wish Satish had spoken with you and others before making this huge decision.

7. ladyofthelake - June 29, 2006

Honestly, I do not think either the President or the Provost take much stock in libraries or librarians. Like many, they seem to think that everything is online and that librarians are not needed. And quite honestly, I do not think the UB librarians did much to put themselves in a positive light upon their initial meeting with him. But that’s another story entirely.

If you do not understand libraries, you will have little regard for programs designed to train them. As for COM, the president has already shown his regard for communication science in his attempt as Dean of the the Univ. of Washington’d College of Arts and Sciences back in the 1990s, to close their school of communication, which is at present, number 4 in the nation. While I am not certain of the Provost’s attitudes I suspect that as a computer science guy, he more than likely discredits the value of studying computer-related phenomena in any arena other than the CSE program. As for libraries, again, it’s all online.

Watch what happens to the physical libraries at UB over the next few years. You will see them shrink, with their prime real estate on the spine converted into “other uses.” That will be evidence of what the administration thinks of libraries and librarianship.

As for GSE, at this point it’s hard to say whether DLIS will be welcome with open arms. Perhaps their enrollment figures will put DLIS in a positive light in the Dean’s eyes. But again, I am doubtful that the administration and faculty there see the need for professional training of librarians. DLIS will only be another party with whom to compete for funds. And within this school, I suspect that any chance of incorporating informatics or information-related research will be minimized. Training for SLMS will probably be do quite well. Anyone hopeing to specialize in other kinds of libraries may best look to Syracuse, Western Ontario, Toronto or Pittsburgh.

How many times have you heard, “I didn’t know that librarians required specialized education?” UB’s moves of the past few weeks only reinforce this.

Good luck with the podcast. I had hoped to attend but will be out of town. Use the opportunity to ask questions of the administration. All students of the SOI deserve realistic answers. Personally I would like to know this. The president. provost and their CA-based consultants obviously did not identify the SOI as worth of inclusion in UB2020. Do any of them even know what informatics is? Since the members of the consulting firm used have such a [insert sarcasm] rich academic background (HR for Universal Studios, re-engineering academic ‘support’ systems, transforming business supprt systems, etc.) I wonder where they come across as experts in identifying the stregths and weaknessed of academic and scholarly research programs? Or is the primary criterion in defining UB’s strengths based on on “how much enrollment and grant money did they bring in.”

Oh, I doubt that the Provost would have solicited my opinion on anything–I’m jusr professional support staff, you know 🙂


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