What is it like to chair an undergraduate program in an Information School?

Scott Barker, the former chair of Informatics (left), and me, the new chair (right)

I just told 623 young adults that they don’t get to learn what they desperately want to learn.

In other words, my committee just sent admissions decisions out to all of the undergraduates who applied to Informatics, the second most popular major at the University of Washington. As the new chair of the admissions committee and the new chair of the undergraduate program in general, I can’t tell you how simultaneously proud and shitty I feel about our decisions.

That’s just a glimpse of what it its like to be an administer of an academic program. It’s my job to not only shape what students learn, but who gets to learn, and who teaches them. Ultimately, academic administration is where the most powerful secular ideas in human civilization collide with the gritty reality of limited resources, time, and attention.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to unpack more about my experiences, giving a deeper sense of why administration is so emotionally difficult, but also why it can be so empowering.

How did I become chair?

I’ve only been chair of Informatics for about 6 months. Our former Dean at the Information School asked me to do it after I returned from sabbatical. I kind of knew it was coming, and welcomed it: I’d always been most engaged with our undergrad, was always passionate about great teaching, and had recently pivoted to doing research on computing education. I was an obvious choice, and I happily accepted.

But this actually isn’t my first administrative position. Just one year ago, I began chairing our Masters in HCI+Design. That was my first experience, and where I first learned some of the complexities of administration.

Yes, I’m currently both the chair of both a masters degree and an undergraduate degree. That’s a bit insane, but fortunately temporary.

Note that although I’m a program chair, it’s really only 20–25% of my time. I still do all of the research and teaching I would normally do (minus one class a year). I won’t pretend it’s not more work, but I’m also getting paid more to do it.

What’s an academic program chair?

Academic titles are often ill-defined. Whereas many departments have Chairs who lead entire departments, I’m the kind of Chair that just leads our undergraduate program. Because The Information School is a School, it has a Dean, and lots of Chairs to help administer each program. There are people who do my same job in departments and aren’t called chairs.

Yeah, it’s confusing.

So here’s what my responsibilites actually are:

  • Develop a vision for our academic program
  • Refine and implement the vision
  • Synthesize feedback from students, faculty, and industry
  • Run admissions
  • Make policy about pre-requisites, ethics, graduation, scholarships, etc.
  • Decide what we’re going to teach each year
  • Assign the courses my fellow faculty teach
  • Recruit guest faculty to fill teaching gaps

To do this, I lean heavily on our excellent student services and academics staff. Generally, I make decisions and they implement them.

Of course, it’s not that simple. We have a fairly robust shared governance culture at the University of Washington, so I can’t just change curriculum. I need the faculty’s approval and the university’s approval, and that can take months and even years.

Our former Informatics chair Scott Barker liked to describe the job as no power but all the responsibility. This is mostly true for any democratic process. That means that my default stance is a persuasive one, and I rely heavily on social capital to make positive change. That means stopping and having that hallway conversation with that critical colleague and building coalitions around decisions I’d like to make. Does it sound like politics? It basically is.

Well, it’s not all politics. There are tons of decisions, especially outside the real of the curriculum, where I’m basically a benevolent dictator. For example, for the admissions decisions that I mentioned earlier, I unilaterally devised the process and had my staff and admissions committee follow it. I didn’t evaluate the candidates unilaterally, but I devised how we would evaluate each candidate. This was an exciting chance to express my values unilaterally, in a way that is also consistent with my school’a values.

What’s an undergrad degree in information about?

That’s actually the question I was most excited about answering, and one of the key reasons I accepted the position. Whereas computer science departments have had many decades to refine this, I feel like Information Schools are right at the beginning of defining the big ideas in information, and my information school in particular is leading this envisioning. How cool (and terrifying!) is it to shape foundations that might still be around fifty years from now?

Here’s a historical way that I’ve been positioning informatics to academics:

  • In the entire history of human civilization, computing and information have both central to communication and decision making, but they generally were embodied in different ways.
  • Computing was process, and therefore mostly invisible (sorting a list of things, finding an object, making a decision). Because these processes were invisible, people didn’t study them.
  • Information was speech and documents and therefore quite prominent. Because everyone could see it, people studied information actively, as literature, communication, etc.
  • With the invention of computers, everything changed. Shannon and von Neumann envisioned a world in which information and process were data and algorithms, and in fact, algorithms were data too. And the world began to think of computing as both of these things.
  • But computing isn’t both of these things and never has been. Information is a separate and distinct phenomenon. Computing mostly doesn’t study data or information. It studies algorithms that process information.
  • Information schools study information. They understand what information means, how it’s represented, and how it’s meaning is lost when it’s represented as data, but also how data is transformed into information, and into knowledge.
  • These views are entirely complementary to computing, in that they focus on everything computing inherently ignores. Where computer science is abstract, information science is concrete. Where computer science is quantitative, information science is qualitative. Where computer science is formal, information science is informal. Where computer science is concerned with algorithms, information science is concerned with data.

Now, that might work for academics (it doesn’t really; it just leads to arguments). But it doesn’t really work as a pitch to the public or employers. Here’s a more economic vision that usually does:

  • Computing produces back-end developers who can create robust, scalable, correct information technology.
  • Informatics produces data scientists, UX designers, and front-end developers who can create useful, usable, meaningful information technology.
  • You need both computing and informatics to design and engineer great products.

At least in Seattle, this resonates. Our Informatics students quickly find these jobs and thrive. Employers love them not only because they fill a gap, but because they’ve been educated in an inherently interdisciplinary context, they’re excellent teammates from day one.

For students, there’s an even better framing that focuses less on jobs and more on meaning, which is what most young adults are looking for:

  • Computing is a basic science like physics, focused on the inherent properties of what is computable. Choose this major if you’re intrinsically interested in what computing is and what computing is possible.
  • Informatics is an applied science like mechanical engineering, focused on how to apply computing to solve human problems in the world. Choose this major if you’re interested in what you can do with computing to help the world.

While this is an inherently false dichotomy (CS departments also think about problems in he world, just less so), this resonates strongly with undergraduates. So much so that nearly 1 in 5 students on campus apply to our program.

How do you scale access?

We don’t. At this point, we’re only admitting about 1 in 4 applicants, and 4 of 5 of those are well prepared to succeed.

Like computer science, we struggle to meed to demand. The reasons for our inability to scale are really frustrating:

  • We have an aversion to teaching large classes.
  • There’s a lot of competition for a small number of large classroom spaces on campus.
  • We don’t have enough faculty to grow. (In fact, nearly half of our courses are already taught by guest faculty).
  • We don’t have enough physical space to hire more faculty. (Many of our lecturers already share offices).
  • It’s hard to fundraise for new space (especially now that CS already got big donations from Seattle philanthropists and a chunk of money from the state of Washington).

Most of these are tradeoffs between quality and quantity. We could teach 300 person online classes, cram two faculty into each office, and increase every faculty member’s teaching load to meet demand, but it probably wouldn’t be the same degree, and students probably wouldn’t learn as much. For problems like this, it’s all about balancing tradeoffs.

Because of all of these things, I expect to be working quite hard with our new Dean to find that balance so we can grow.

Is administration a distraction from research?

In my case, no. Since I’ve pivoted to doing more computing education research, I find that many of the things I’m studying in the lab are directly relevant to policy decisions that I’m making about instruction and learning objectives.

While there’s a strong conceptual synergy, this also leads to some frustration, since I can’t quickly implement what I know would be better ways of teaching. It does give me grounding though: I feel much more confident in the choices I make because they’re based on research and evidence, not hunches.

Of course, the role is a lot of time, especially as I onboard. I’ll probably spend the next year just implementing operational efficiencies and learning how to better delegate before I feel like it’s actually the 20–25% of my time it’s intended to be. (Or I could just not care, but that’s not likely to happen).

Do you like this job?

Quite a bit. I enjoy making decisions, expressing my values, and having an outlet for all of the ideas I’m exploring in my research. My three roles in research, teaching, and service have never felt more integrated. I’m crazy busy all the time now, but in a way that aligns with my interests and my values. I couldn’t be happier!

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