March 17, 2018

Drexel Rolls iSchool into New College of Computing and Informatics

Drexel's Mario the DragonEarlier this month, Drexel University announced the formation of a College of Computing and Informatics, a new educational hub that will act as a home for the school’s computer science and technology programs—including the University’s ALA-accredited iSchool. It joins the growing ranks of MLIS programs that have found themselves under new organizational management recently, for reasons from increasing collaboration between departments to cutting administrative costs.

The new college will provide a unified base for computer and information science students on Drexel’s campus, bringing together staff and students from the Department of Computer Science, Department of Computing and Security Technology, and the iSchool College for Information Science and Technology. David E. Fenske, the current dean of the iSchool, will take the helm of the newly formed school, which will open its doors in fall 2014.

According to Fenske, no classes in Drexel’s MLIS program will be eliminated by the move to the new college. Indeed, by bringing the MLIS students and faculty under the same umbrella as other data-driven programs, new electives or specializations could grow out of those collaborations. The range of the MLIS program won’t diminish as a result of the move, said Fenske, but increase, as faculty members are encouraged to self-organize and teach outside their field, eschewing the traditional departmental model. Computer science professors will have the opportunity in the coming years to teach classes for MLIS students, while library professionals will be able to pass on their training to aspiring computer scientists.

“These new departments are designed not to be traditional silos. There’s a hope this college will be as interdisciplinary as the causes that drove its creation,” said Fenske. “There are parts of the computer science programs that can slide very nicely over to the new college, such as human interface, where faculty on both sides have different interests in the same topic.”

The new college—and the iSchool’s place in it— mark a natural next step in the evolution of Drexel’s already tech-centric MLIS. After all, while this is a big move, modifying a program to keep pace with changing technologies or respond to student demand is not a new concept.

For example, about a decade ago, Fenske points out, Drexel—long a tech-driven library school—saw an increase in student interest in archival studies. At the time, the school didn’t have much of an archives department, often directing prospective students interested in studying archiving to Temple University, which had a more cohesive program for aspiring archivists. That student interest drove the creation of an archival studies program within Drexel’s MLIS program in the last ten years. In keeping with Drexel’s technology focus, though, about half of the program focuses on digital records, offering students the chance to study both the history of the book and the finer points of information architecture. That’s the kind of interdisciplinary cooperation Fenske hopes to see in the new College of Computing and Informatics.

The evolution of the program also marks a broadening of scope for Drexel’s MLIS program. While many grads are happily ensconced in library work, Drexel MLIS alumnae are working in a wide range of other fields as well. Fenske says the increased focus on interdisciplinary collaboration aims to prepare Drexel MLIS students not only for careers in rapidly changing library environments, but outside of them as well. “What we’re seeking to do is provide the most relevant educational framework for graduates to have a career and be able to adjust to changing societies and professions,” said Fenske. “There is a huge variety of careers in the LIS field and we should think of LIS as having a diversified portfolio.”

Consolidation for cost-cutting, too

While Drexel’s creation of the unified college was meant to foster collaboration, the reasons behind moving a library science grad program under a new organizational roof aren’t always so high-minded. According to Deborah Grealy, associate dean and director of the MLIS program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, saving money provided the impetus behind the school’s MLIS moving from the auspices of the now-defunct School for Professional Studies to its business school last year.

According to Grealy, the decision to eliminate the School of Professional Studies—which also housed St. Kate’s schools for social work and education—was made at the upper levels of the administration, where officials found the school no longer made financial sense. “That decision was made without a lot of forewarning or due process from the faculty,” said Grealy.

Though Grealy reports that the transition has been a reasonably smooth one, the lack of consultation rubbed some students and staff the wrong way. Paul Lai, a recent MLIS graduate from St. Catherine, blogged about the transition and his problems with it last fall. While he didn’t notice any changes in the curriculum of the program—indeed, Grealy notes there have been none—Lai’s still uneasy with the new order of things. Just because changes to a program are administrative, he said, doesn’t mean they don’t have a long-term impact.. “There are decisions, like hiring, that are made at the school level, and it matters there how they make decisions,” Lai said. “It concerns me that the dean of a business school might not have the best understanding of the needs of a MLIS program. I worry about the program being overseen by a dean from a very different background.”

Rather than cursing the darkness, though, Deborah Grealy is taking the move as an opportunity to light a candle, looking for places—like digital resource management—where the MLIS program and the business school can work together or take lessons from one another. She even hopes the new organization might help the program attract a wider variety of students. “I see the need for business management skills in libraries,” said Grealy. “I’d like to diversify the kinds of students coming in, because librarianship is so diverse and the needs are so diverse that I’d like the breadth of our program to reflect those new needs.”

Challenges of consolidation

As the situation at St. Catherine shows, when programs move to different departments and get reshuffled administratively, there can be hiccups and hurt feelings. Fortunately for students and faculty, ALA accreditation isn’t generally on the list of worries, as an administrative move won’t generally change a program’s accreditation status, according to Laura Dare, assistant director of the ALA’s office of accreditation. An ALA accredited program is accredited through its next review—which occurs every three to seven years depending on the program’s accreditation status—no matter where it lives on campus, provided that the program meets it reporting obligations and continues to comply with ALA’s standards.

At Drexel, David Fenske admits that he anticipates a few bumps on the road ahead. While most of the faculty understands the reasoning behind the move, understanding something and being comfortable with it aren’t always the same thing. “Everyone is used to their own professional labels, born of their PhDs and honed in their professions in academia, and they’re being asked to make adjustments now,” said Fenske. “My challenge is to build a new college that works well and collaborates.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.