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April 19, 2007

SIS reorganizes to reflect evolving disciplines

In her nearly 40 years as a Pitt staff member in the School of Information Sciences (SIS), Theresa Benedek has worked with six deans or acting deans, seen the name of the school change three times, witnessed a revolution in information technology that spawned entirely new disciplines and lived through several school-wide structural overhauls.

The do-it-all Benedek, manager of personnel and administrative services and unofficial school oral historian, has run the gamut from typewriters and IBM punch card machines to word processors and computers to e-files, Bluetooth and PDA technology.

Now the school, under a plan launched last summer by Dean Ronald Larsen, is reorganizing once again, this time to better reflect modern information professions. Distinctions among the primary disciplines of SIS — library science, information science and telecommunications — have blurred in the 21st century: Librarians, for example, now need to master information technology, while systems designers need to understand how to organize information for efficient use and retrieval.

“The lines of communication have really opened up,” Benedek said. “Now it’s a lot better. People are working together, working on proposals together and research, and they’re finding out they actually have many of the same ideas. When I see the synergy between the faculty now, it’s really turning around from the way it used to be.

“I always felt that the school was doing great things and that people on the outside were seeing that, but we on the inside didn’t always realize the good things we’re doing, because it was something in another department,” she maintained.

The school’s reorganization includes a change in governance style and structure to better align degree programs with evolving demands, that is, to meld traditional principles of information organization, management and utilization with advances in networking and information technology.

A newly established SIS Council, a group of faculty, staff and students from across the degree programs, now oversees traditional academic responsibilities such as maintenance of instructional standards, development of programs and degree requirements and policy recommendations.

In a nutshell, departmental structure was eliminated in favor of programs. While the six degree programs remain the same, the school is being administered differently, Larsen said. “Instead of departments implicitly constrained by disciplinary boundaries, rules and processes, we are moving to a governance structure based on the degree programs that encourages collaboration across the disciplines,” he said.

Faculty also are encouraged to form cross-pollinated research groups, or clusters that engage members from other degree programs.

Larsen, who became SIS dean in 2002, said that observations by the school’s board of visitors over many years suggested that the departmental structure created a “silo-ing” effect that particularly inhibited research collaboration among the 30 faculty. Given the scarcity of sponsored research at the school, Larsen concluded that the departmental structure was creating barriers to faculty interaction.

The problem was how to introduce the idea of restructuring in a way that would not launch turf wars. To get faculty to buy in to the reorganization, Larsen presented his plan at a school-wide faculty meeting and then asked that it be evaluated, dissected and voted on the departmental level.

Simultaneously, Larsen sought to improve faculty performance. “If you are trying to improve the performance of an organization, you don’t do it by trying to address people’s weaknesses. You find out what people are good at, you encourage them to be the best they possibly can, and you build in incentives to let them excel,” he said.

So Larsen set up a system of measuring performance that veers from the canonical model of a faculty member’s responsibility as 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service.

“I don’t want to push everybody into a 40-40-20 model. I want to create an environment that allows them to move and build on their strengths,” he said. “If your passion is teaching and you’re good at it and you love doing it, why would I want to force you to pretend that you’re also doing research?”

Ditto for those whose strengths lie in research, he said.

“My job as dean is to ensure that as a school we’re operating at about a 40-40-20 level, whereas each individual might be widely variable from others.”

Larsen designed a reward system based on a 1,000-point scale that assigns credits to faculty for those areas that are essential to the school’s function.

For example, a typical teaching load is four courses per year, so Larsen assigns 100 credits per course. With 100 as the baseline credit score, Larsen then evaluates courses primarily for kind of course (core or niche), instructional difficulty and number of enrolled students.

A similar model is applied to faculty research, with the primary measurements being a faculty member’s ability to attract funding and produce scholarly output.

In evaluating the service component of a faculty member’s duties, Larsen said, “We assign a number of credits for each of the major committees in the University and the school, and for external service, like program committees, or organizing conferences or workshops.”

Service evaluation will change from year to year, he said. For example, last year credits for the peer review of teaching, which was a school priority, were intentionally inflated, Larsen said.

In sum, the credit system of evaluating faculty performance is a measure of time spent in an area. “As we try to set criteria and credit value we look at that, how much time did you need to devote to this? That’s the essence of the model,” the dean said.

As part of its reorganization, SIS created a new governing body, the SIS Council, with 11 elected voting members, including two student representatives, and a group of non-voting advisers. The council, which meets monthly, serves as the primary voice of the faculty, staff and students with regard to governing the school.

Among its functions are to:

• Represent the faculty, staff and students in making recommendations to the dean on major issues;

• Serve as the school’s planning and budgeting committee, and

• Develop and/or review policies, guidelines and procedures to support scholarship, research, teaching and service, and in areas such as personnel, conditions of employment, resource allocation, student affairs, public relations and diversity enhancement.

Council chair Stephen Hirtle, a 20-year SIS faculty member, said the council’s work has been daunting. “It’s a challenge, because the school is more diverse than many people realize,” said Hirtle, who was department chair of information science and telecommunications under the old structure. “We have faculty with PhDs from electrical engineering to humanities, and the style of working has a broad range because of that. So it’s difficult to say exactly what it means to come together.”

One thing most faculty members could agree on, though, was an effort to remove bureaucracy. “We’ve been spending a lot of time discussing what decisions can be made by individuals. And when you’re doing that for everything — admissions, financial aid, course assignments, even down to the level of how do we re-design the web site — it can be very challenging,” Hirtle said.

“Letting programs, in a sense, have more power has already opened up opportunities, like the digital libraries program and our distance learning FastTrack program,” neither of which fits easily into the traditional departmental structure, he said.

Other items on the council’s docket are establishing school-wide tenure and promotion guidelines that previously were department-specific, encouraging programs to revisit requirements to allow more cross-listing of courses and more electives, discussing whether a school-wide introductory course should be developed and reviewing teaching assignments.

“Keep in mind all this is in the context of information sciences, which is constantly changing, more so than any other discipline,” Hirtle said. “The idea that you bring out the old yellow notes for your lecture for the past 20 years — it just doesn’t work here. Every member of the faculty is in a position where they’re upgrading their courses, upgrading their knowledge, shifting their area of focus.”

To build an environment where that comes naturally is one of the main challenges of the council, Hirtle said.

“The other thing I tried to do as part of this culture change is to make sure that we’re as open as possible in our deliberations,” he said. All non-confidential council documents are posted online.

A key to the reorganization is that while academics are under programs, the research is designed along research clusters, and those can exist independently, said Hirtle, who is in the school’s spatial information research cluster.

The research interest groups were proposed and refined through an internal Wiki, a community-edited online publication. “We did it that way rather than with a traditional faculty meeting, which was reflective of our desire to move toward new models of interaction,” he noted.

His other main concern as council chair, Hirtle said, is to ensure that the school’s established programs are not diluted.

“There is a group of us who are really interested in keeping the integrity and the rigor of the programs,” Hirtle said. “So the idea to drop all the divisional requirements and just take 36 credits for a master’s is not going to work. We don’t want to weaken degrees that we think have been successful — we want to build on them.”

In some ways, SIS staff members were ahead of the recent reorganization curve, staffer Benedek said, thanks in part to staff reductions.

“We used to have about 30 staff and now we’re down to 23,” she said. “A secretary isn’t what it used to be years ago. Now you have to be everything, you have to have technology skills, you have to know what the faculty are working on to help them. When Dean Larsen came here, we started to look at what we really needed, which was higher-level staff who would help the faculty with proposals, some writing, managing the enrollment.”

The school approached Human Resources for guidance and staff representatives were led through a seminar that mapped duties and procedures to identify “disconnects” that impede work flow. That led to an internal re-structuring of staff relationships, which previously were department-bound.

“We organized into teams: a faculty support services team that would also support the school, and a student services team,” Benedek said. Both teams meet weekly and have representatives attend the other team’s meetings.

Team members describe in detail the projects they are working on with faculty, so that in a staff member’s absence the work load is covered smoothly by another staffer.

Team members also are assigned to support school events. All staff pitch in for major events such as commencement or school-sponsored colloquia, Benedek added.

The teams also serve as a forum for staff to raise concerns or make suggestions. “Sometimes you see something differently when you see the other side of the coin,” she said. “Working as a team is making life a lot easier for everybody.”

The team-oriented structure met with some resistance from longer-term staff, Benedek acknowledged. “Several of us have been here 30 and 40 years, and change is hard to do. But then we realized that we had to work together because now the staff was shrinking while the duties were expanding,” she said. “The more we did it, the more we realized how much we could do as a staff to help. That keeps the staff motivated and working hard and even enjoying it.”

Regarding the overall school restructuring, Benedek said she had heard the board of visitors use the silo analogy many times over the years.

“The board of visitors came out year after year after year and said, ‘Eliminate the silos.’ In the past year or so I haven’t heard that, and I thought: Yes, we’re finally getting away from that. The faculty have finally seen the light, that they can work together, and I think it’s great.”

—Peter Hart

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