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June 11, 2015

Forum set up for discussion of IS/CS merger

Will all disciplines eventually have computing at their core?

That’s what Alex Labrinidis, Department of Computer Science (CS) faculty member and co-director of the Advanced Data Management Technologies Laboratory, believes. And it’s why he created a forum ( for faculty to discuss Provost Patricia E. Beeson’s April 10 call for faculty in the School of Information Sciences (SIS) and Labrinidis’ department in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences to develop a proposal for a new unit that will involve both faculties. (See related story this issue.)

While Labrinidis has no official role yet in the effort, he says it is important that fellow faculty begin to identify stakeholders for the proposed academic changes and keep each other in the loop about proposals and developments.

“There’s a lot of fragmentation,” he allows: The computer science department has more undergraduate majors and more research funding, he says, while SIS has more graduate students seeking professional degrees. CS faculty members also teach computer engineering and students in bioinformatics.

In fact, looking University-wide, “if you start listing all the departments that have ‘computer’ or ‘information’ in their titles, it’s a long list,” Labrinidis notes. He is skeptical about bringing them all together under one unit in part because not all of them are under the provost. But Beeson “wanted us to think what it would be if we created a center of gravity,” Labrinidis says. “I’m very optimistic about someone taking a more active look at computing on campus.”

As Labrinidis and several co-authors noted in a white paper drafted in October, called “Big Data Science Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh,” such campus-wide collaborations would “eliminate research fragmentation and redundancy across units and bring people together, capitalizing on complementary strengths” as well as increasing coordination on teaching.

What might be the result of upcoming faculty consultations for the provost’s proposed move?

Labrinidis says one possibility is that existing departments will remain but there could be a new research institution specializing in research and education concerning big data, human/computer interaction and other salient subjects, pulling faculty under one roof for individual projects, as the Learning Research and Development Center does now for education, psychology and other disciplines.

“You can get a tremendous amount of benefit from just coordinating people,” Labrinidis says.

Maybe all of the above will be done — or something else entirely. The new effort may require freshly recruited leadership as well, he believes, and a larger faculty corps. He notes that the CS department has had about 25 tenure-stream faculty for the past quarter century, while 38 is the average for such departments; Carnegie Mellon, where he also is an adjunct faculty member, has 120 CS faculty.

“A little bit farther down the road, we would need some introductory courses in computer and information that need to be taken by every student,” Labrinidis opines, as Harvard and other schools have devised. Not only would these new courses be a good way to attract students into the program, he believes, but they would demonstrate how far beyond programming computer education is advancing. “There are lots of things that have a big societal impact,” he says.

In the recent past at Pitt, he adds, “We’ve been told to do more with less, but … I’m hoping we can do much more with a little bit more” funding for whatever changes are proposed.

—Marty Levine