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May 12, 2016

Plans for CS/IS school proceed

The merger of the School of Information Sciences (SIS) and the Department of Computer Science (CS) in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences into a new school has passed several conceptual and administrative hurdles, report Ron Larsen, outgoing SIS dean, and Taieb Znati, computer science chair.

The plan will be made public following approvals by the Provost’s office and the Board of Trustees, the latter likely in February 2017, they say.

After a proposal for the new school was formulated by committees with members from CS, SIS and other University units, an interim report was completed at the end of 2015. Together the committees produced a draft proposal that has been approved by both CS and SIS faculties, their councils and planning and budgeting committees (PBCs) and the PBC at the Dietrich school. This fall the proposal will face the scrutiny of the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs and the University Council on Graduate Studies.

Znati and Larsen anticipate launching the school on July 1, 2017, with the first students matriculating in the fall 2017 term.

Current CS and SIS students will be grandfathered into the new school and current programs will be guaranteed for five years following the new school’s opening. But figuring out how to give potential students a picture of the new school in time for them to apply for September 2017 admission is “very much a work in progress,” Larsen allows.

However, he says of the planning, which has been underway since April 2015: “It has crossed a critical threshold. People recognize that this is something we are going to do, and that it is in the long-term interest not only of the University but of their discipline.”

Znati says: “The idea is to move now and start making it happen.”

The new college’s name, at least temporarily, is the School of Computing and Information. “The majority seems to think that is the right name,” Znati says, while industry contacts believe it’s the right moniker as well, Larsen adds.

Placing the school in one location is “a critical factor for success,” Znati says. “It’s hard to collaborate because of the physical separation” currently, but the pair can’t say more about the final physical shape of CS and SIS consolidation.

After Provost Patricia E. Beeson called for the move a year ago, following ideas set out in Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s strategic plan, four committees were formed to plan the new academic unit.

The education and curriculum committee, Larsen says, developed “consistent, coherent and joint” plans for combining CS and SIS and linking the new school’s programs to broader University needs and opportunities. The research and collaboration committee met with faculty from the health sciences and the arts and sciences and was “extraordinarily productive,” he says, while the organizational structure committee, examining the pragmatics of the merger, looked at incorporating ideas from other universities that have made a similar recent shift, such as the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The final committee, vision and identity, worked on staking out the new school’s identity on campus and throughout the country, so that its new academic emphases “become a signature strength,” Larsen says.

One emphasis of the new school, says Znati, will be programs that teach contextually situated computing. The role of computers long has been to serve other disciplines — at least, that’s been their image, even in academia. Computer and information scientists worked in a vacuum on their software or hardware, after which the new machines or applications were recruited to aid projects in other domains, from the health sciences to English.

Now, Znati says, computing has entered aa new era in which computer scientists, other scientists and humanities scholars cannot afford to work in such isolation.

Programs in the new school thus will take into account the need for computer and information students not only to learn how to code but to learn how to collaborate directly with, say, biomedical science researchers or history PhDs, to understand the latter’s academic endeavors.

School faculty will develop new degree programs and new certificates, Znati says, incorporating two years of basic computer and information science education interwoven with courses related to specific disciplines to which students will be applying these basics, in various sciences and humanities domains. “We’re expecting that organically, as a result of that conversation, new degrees will emerge,” Larsen said, and some current programs may be ended.

In particular, says Znati, the new programs may emphasize such up-and-coming fields as privacy and security, cyber-physical systems (designing hardware and software together), the internet of things and data stewardship (how data technology is supporting scholarly communications and how such new scholarship is curated, particularly in an era when scholarly publications now can take the form of large databases with nothing physical for a library to shelve).

“It also will bridge to other schools” and their computer science and information pursuits and needs, Znati says. “It’s going to change a little bit the culture by opening doors for new collaborations … and sets this new school apart from the crowd. That is what for me is exciting.”

Has the mutual CS/SIS planning been smooth so far?

“Is anything smooth?” Znati says with a smile. “We know it’s going to be difficult … but I have to applaud the faculty for their resiliency and continuing to work with us.”

Larsen says: “They recognize that the challenges are great but the opportunities are even greater.”

And, adds Znati: “The process is far from over.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 2

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