Saturday, July 01, 2006

Buffalo News: Closing School of Informatics is a terrible mistake

Earlier this week I posted about the impending dissolution of the University at Buffalo School of Informatics. This op-ed appeared in today's Buffalo News.

Closing School of Informatics is a terrible mistake

I am a member of the Founders Committee for the University at Buffalo's School of Informatics. Our committee serves as an advisory panel to the dean, and for the past three years, I have had the privilege of working with Dean W. David Penniman and his staff. I was shocked to learn of Penniman's recent dismissal, and the subsequent announcement by UB's provost that the school will be dismantled.

Closure of the School of Informatics represents a reversal by UB, which established the school in 1999 to focus on the growing field of informatics, of which bio-informatics is an area of specialty. It seems contradictory that UB would be celebrating the opening of the Center of Excellence in Bio-Informatics on one hand, while completely dismissing the broader subject of informatics on the other. This reality can only be reconciled by considering the disparity of public funding between the School of Informatics and the Center of Excellence. As with all things, money talks.

The study of informatics goes beyond the technical aspects of information technology, and focuses on human interaction with information, and information systems. As these systems become more complex, it is critical that we deepen our understanding of the societal implications of how information is disseminated and utilized. This was the school's primary focus. Penniman often describes informatics as the intersection of people, information and technology. It's no accident that he always uses "people" as the first part of this description.

UB's commitment to informatics met with praise from the Western New York community. Its positive impact to organizations has been embraced by prominent national and local businesses through significant corporate financial backing and interactions with the school and Penniman. The school successfully obtained financial support from the likes of AT&T, M&T Bank, Welch Allyn, Rich Products and Inergex, to name a few.

Given its supporters, one may think informatics is a widely taught discipline. However, UB's School of Informatics was one of only two such schools in the nation. Attracted to Buffalo by this program, 15 top-notch research and teaching faculty came to UB. With a vigorous faculty, support from the business community and a new undergraduate degree set to be unveiled this fall, the School of Informatics was certain to play an important role in the university's quest to become a leading research institution, the core of President John Simpson's UB 2020 initiative. Up until last week's announcement, UB and Buffalo were leading the way in the study of informatics.

Administrators may argue that the informatics program is not going away, but will be distributed to other schools in the university. However, without the focus and resources that accompany a school of the university, informatics at UB will die, along with the leadership position our region was enjoying. Indeed, the local private financial support informatics enjoyed will also leave.

Informatics at UB needs to survive, and UB needs to rethink its decision.

Jeff Carballada lives in Buffalo.

One sign of the success of the UB School of Informatics is the lively blogging community to which it has given rise. Students and alumni of the School are posting continuing news and opionion at Library Matters, theory.isthereason, washtublibrarian, LSJ Editors' Blog, and Epa's blog place. The story is also getting national attention via LISnews and Library Stuff.

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