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May 16, 2002

New SIS dean named

A national leader in information technology and digital library initiatives has been named dean of Pitt's School of Information Sciences (SIS), effective July 1.

Ronald L. Larsen, 55, executive director of the Maryland Applied Information Technology Initiative, where he directs the activities of a consortium of 10 Maryland universities, will succeed Toni Carbo, who has been dean of SIS since 1986. Carbo plans to return to teaching and research as a professor in SIS and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

In announcing the appointment this week, Provost James V. Maher said, "Dr. Larsen's talent, energy and integrity, along with his national prominence in his field, make him eminently qualified to build on the strengths and priorities of the School of Information Sciences.

"I have great confidence that Dr. Larsen will provide the dynamic academic, organizational and research leadership needed to make our School of Information Sciences programs as strong as they can possibly become."

Larsen comes to Pitt with a diverse educational background, holding a B.S. in engineering sciences (Purdue, 1968), an M.S. in applied physics (Catholic University of America, 1971) and a Ph.D. in computer science (University of Maryland – College Park, 1981), and an employment history in government as well as academia.

Larsen is co-founder and deputy director of the year-old Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Lab, part of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, which develops wireless information delivery systems in the Washington, D.C., extended region.

Previously, he worked in a number of positions for NASA (1968-1985). More recently, he has helped develop and implement information management and digital library research programs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development arm of the Department of Defense.

"I think my education served me well and taught me an analytical perspective," Larsen said. "If I were to say the one thing that is consistent throughout my education and employment it is that I focus on the uses of information toward the accomplishment of a goal."

In February, Larsen came to Pitt to meet with the SIS dean search committee and SIS faculty, staff and students. "I expected the process to be exhausting, but instead it was energizing. I met fine groups of folks, who were engaging, involved and sincere," he said.

Two questions during the search process stuck out, Larsen said. "They weren't actually surprise questions," he said. "But I was asked why I didn't have a tenure-track background, which would be typical of a dean. When I was getting my Ph.D., I was working full-time and raising three kids.

"By 1981, when I got my Ph.D., I was at NASA with the ranking of GS-15, a pretty senior level, and to go into a tenure-track would have been a drop in salary. But I did go out and search for faculty positions in the D.C. area," said Larsen, who has been an affiliate associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland since 1985.

"I also was asked how I felt about teaching," Larsen said. "I enjoy it. I've not done it every year, but as for teaching at Pitt I'd be delighted to do it if it was for the good of the school. If there was something more important to the school for me to do, I'd be delighted to do that."

Does he have any specific plans for SIS as dean?

"I do have some thoughts on that," he said. "I was interested in Pitt because SIS is, if not unique, certainly distinctive for housing the combination of library science, telecommunications and information science, all of which are fundamentally important to the delivery of information. I've worked on digital library projects, both national and international, and Pitt has world-class people working in that area. I'd like to solidify that, and make SIS a place where graduates will have the best training available in that area."

Larsen said he expects the school to build on an already strong working relationship with the University Library System. "Also, several telecommunications faculty already have joint appointments with other schools at Pitt, which is a strength to build on. The other natural liaison I see is the overlap of information science and computer science. I'd like to develop joint proposals through a coordinated effort of SIS and [the Department of] Computer Science," he said.

Larsen said his plans are not limited to developing partnerships within Pitt.

"The other natural collaboration I see is with CMU, which has done outstanding work on multi-media digital libraries," Larsen said.

He added that his impression from talking to people at Pitt and from his knowledge of CMU is that the time is ripe for such Pitt-CMU alliances.

Larsen also said he expects to draw on his government connections to help secure more federal research dollars for the school.

"I'm excited about coming to Pittsburgh," Larsen said. "It's the right time for my wife and me to make a move like this. Our kids have recently graduated from college and are on their own and we're in that empty-nest mode.

"One thing that's striking and consistent: Everyone I've talked to speaks so highly of Pittsburgh, that it's a great place to live and work. Either they've all been brainwashed, or it's actually true," he quipped.

–Peter Hart

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