The State of the iSchool

A response from an unarmed alum

My Masters degree is from the School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS). I have a lot of love for SIMS — South Hall, the faculty, the staff, my former schoolmates. But part of love is being honest, and I’ve got some tough love for SIMS that I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a while. Not too long ago, Dean Anno Saxenian delivered her first State of the School address (big thanks to Joe for recording it). Between that, my experience at SIMS, conversations I’ve had with people, and some reflection, I now offer this response to the State of the School.

During my time there and even today, I could never explain what my degree represents or what SIMS does. I can explain my website, my company, my job, and even the scar in my eyebrow in one sentence, but for my life I can’t summarize SIMS in under seventy words or three sentences. One response to this problem is that SIMS has been renamed the UC Berkeley School of Information — the "iSchool" for short. To borrow from David Spade, "iSchool? Yeah, this is Apple. We want our little ‘i’ back." If there’s anything more zeitgeist than the iSchool then the new name would be the eSchool. Sure, I understand the need for branding; most of the schools in this discipline have now changed their name to "School of Information." But iSchool? Only if it comes with a free iPod.

I’m willing to forgive the poorly written mission statement which sounds more like a pitch to businesses than a school training future professionals and academics. However, I won’t forgive this explanation of the school’s "five areas of concentration." For those of us who went there, we know how those fields fit together, even if we only focused on one or two of those areas. For people who don’t know anything about information science, how can they possibly understand how "human computer interaction" fits together with "information economics and policy?" (Quite frankly, I can’t figure that one out myself.) The iSchool is a place where those parts fit together, but through the explanations on that page (and in practice) it seems more like five little schools than one big school.

Here’s my best attempt to explain the iSchool ne SIMS:

The goal of the UC Berkeley School of Information is to understand the nature of information in our society by combining the best practices of Computer Science, Business, Economics, Law, and Sociology. The result is an academic and professional program that educates the future leaders in technology development, management, and research — leaders who can use their knowledge to drive the changes that will become part of our everyday lives.

Yeah, it sounds marketing-ish, but at least it gets the point across — and I didn’t even bring up the PhD/Masters program division (more on that later). I still gotta try to make it one sentence shorter than twenty words.

Let me give you some specific examples about the iSchool’s lack of a coherent brand. Every Wednesday, the school hosts a guest speaker who gives a presentation about something related to the iSchool (many are listed here). While usually informative and interesting, the topics seem random and unrelated. People unfamiliar with the iSchool may think SIMS took people off the street and let them speak for two hours. Putting them under the umbrella of the iSchool isn’t enough to help people understand the connections between "Content Creation by Massively Distributed Collaboration" and "Cryptanalysis Machines through 1950." And for the love of all things holy, please find any guest speaker other than Brewster Kahle. A speech by Brewster about information storage and access at SIMS is as stale as starting a State of the Blah speech with the phrase "The state of the blah is good." (Sorry Anno and GWB — you should hire new speech writers.)

The other massive problem with the iSchool’s brand is how the faculty associate themselves with the iSchool. Most of our best faculty, including Hal Varian (information economics superstar), Pam Samuelson (information law superstar), and Doug Tygar (information security superstar), are professors in both the iSchool and another school (business/economics, law, and computer science respectively). I know writing "School of Information Management and Systems" takes up lots of space in an article, and especially "professor of business, economics, and information", so maybe these professors can now change over to the much more succinct "[professor name here], professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information." Nonetheless, citing "School of Information" still won’t make sense to most people. Maybe people will get the idea that one UC Berkeley Haas School professor got in his head — that SIMS is the place where they "smoke pot and talk to themselves." I may not have recalled that quote correctly, but the sentiment lingers around the iSchool like the smell of… pot?

To solve these problems, SIMS hired a marketing firm to help refine the school’s image. Parts of the firm’s results were leaked to students, including a swath of quotes from students, alumni, campus leaders, and "thought leaders." The quotes pointed to a lack of school identity, lack of knowledge about what we do, and generally a lack of publicity about the school’s existance. Given the tone, I think these comments were inadvertently made available to the students. Maybe part of the plan is to keep everyone unaware of the real state of the school.

All that being said, the iSchool is definitely on the right track. After years of complaining, they are putting more resources into recruiting and they’re revamping the curriculum. The curriculum has always been questionable from the perspective of the students. On one hand, I can understand the reason why the faculty thought encryption should be a required part of our education. But in practice, that knowledge does very little for me.

In the state of the school address, Anno took time to note that the curriculum changes were influenced by her conversations with people in the industry and by a project that completed two years ago called the SIMS corpus project . The results of the corpus project were, more or less, that there’s a difference between what SIMS students think SIMS is and how SIMS is marketed to the world (much like the marketing firm’s results… hm….). The results of that project accurately reflect the state of SIMS from two years ago. While I do agree with their conclusions, the SIMS faculty and staff need to take into account how the goals of the student body change over time. I know that my class and previous years are much more focused on a professional track, but future Masters classes seem more academically oriented.

As for getting jobs, I can’t tell you the amount of complaining we students had to make before we had a SIMS career fair. Our faculty have always stressed that the SIMS Masters degree is constructed to make us look very attractive to employers. If that’s true, then why didn’t all the Masters students have jobs lined up before graduation? Why are companies begging for more Berkeley MBAs and CS students but not iSchool students? How difficult is it to do a Google search for companies in Silicon Valley and send them an email asking if they’ll come in and interview some great students?

The people in the industry Anno referred to (whatever that industry is) may know what they want in SIMS graduates. However, only us alumni are truly fit to say what parts of our SIMS educations are relevant to our careers. I was especially frustrated when Anno didn’t mention alumni taking part in this re-evaluation of the SIMS curriculum. I really hope that was an oversight in her speech. How can you change the curriculum without consulting former students to see what parts helped them most and least? SIMS should take alumni accounts over those of current students and industry experts. While I have great respect for those other people, my fellow graduates and I are the ones shaping how SIMS is perceived in the world. You can show us some respect by letting us take part in the future of the school (and by not mailing us requests for donations every three months).

And now word on the split personality of the iSchool. It’s a great place for people to get their Masters degrees and drive technology changes in the world. Masters students become consultants, user interface designers, information architects, engineers, managers, and someday CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs. Some become PhD or law school students or even librarians. But SIMS also has a PhD program, and since there’s only been 6 PhDs conferred by SIMS, I can’t really say what they become. However I do know that the PhD curriculum is almost entirely academic (as in future professors) rather than professional (as in future managers). All my comments (except these) should be taken with respect to the Masters program.

The amount of PhD/Masters student interaction is… well… drinking, and even then I can’t recall PhDs attending the ritual Thirsty Thursday binge. Maybe they really are that busy, but if so then that still doesn’t explain the lack of PhD/Masters interaction in classes and research. Masters students are treated just like PhD students in terms of access to classes, professors, and so on. It’s just that PhD and Masters student are two very separate vocations at the iSchool. Appropriately, the door between the Masters’ work area and the PhD work area was almost always closed during my time there. And when it was open and we started talking, a bitter looking PhD student would come over and slam the door shut. Not exactly the nicest way to make friends…

The one part of Anno’s speech that stuck with me most is this: $100 million in five years. That’s right — she’s undertaking a mega fundraising campaign for the iSchool. There’s not enough Mitch Kapors, Brewster Kahles, or Bob Glushkos in the world to give that much money to the school (I dig the hat, Bob). And where is Anno going to find time to raise that money, solve the school’s image problem, and teach a class much less run the school? I wonder if she has an open day on her schedule in the next two months. The problems at SIMS run deep, and it’s going to take something other than $100 million to solve those problems.

I still can’t explain what I learned in the last two years, but I know this. SIMS students are the kind of people that…

  • See problems before they happen. And when you ignore us and those problems happen, call us in to fix it and we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Don’t need to be told what to do. You should ask us what to do, and we’ll tell you what we think. Then we’ll make sure it gets done, let you know how it went, and tell you how to do it better next time.
  • Put the pieces together. Is there some new technology or trend that you think fits into your business? We probably already saw that link, figured out how to integrate it, and even started working on it.
  • Get it. You don’t have to explain your problems twice, much less once. We speak business, technical, or social lingo. And if you don’t get it — trends, businesses, technologies — we can explain it to you.

And above all, SIMS students are the kind of people that you want working for you. You don’t want us working for your competitors because we know your business better than you do, and we’ll put you out of business before you can say, "How do they keep beating us to the punch every time?"

I really love SIMS… er… the iSchool. My time there has opened my eyes to the ties between technology, policy, sociology, and business. Nearly every time I have a conversation with an alum, we end up at a point where we say, "someone should build that." That’s the kind of people we are — innovators. And before you know it, our influence will be everywhere.

Still don’t get it? Think that someone from SIMS can help you with your problems? Feel free to email me.

Update – Feb. 22, 2006, 9:57pm:  Comments are working again.  My apologies to anyong who was trying to write one and couldn’t.  Thanks to everyone who emailed me feedback about this rant.  I’ll write more on my post-SIMS experiences in the future.

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