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Informatics job 'special' to dean: New leader of prominent IU school says no other offer could have lured him away from Colorado

May 7, 2007

Even before Bobby Schnabel became a candidate to take charge at the Indiana University School of Informatics, he knew enough about the program to know he wanted to lead it.

By ending his 30-year affiliation with the University of Colorado at Boulder, Schnabel, 56, officially exchanges the black and gold of the Buffaloes for the cream and crimson of the Hoosiers on July 1.

But of even greater significance is the fact that IU sought Schnabel to succeed J. Michael Dunn, the founder of a school renowned as the first of its kind in the nation. Established in 2000, the school has risen to national prominence.

The results of a simple "informatics" search on Google lists the IU school second, trailing only the Wikipedia definition of the term.

"While I knew the school well, I didn't know it from having been there," Schnabel said. "But this is probably the only dean's job in the nation that would have interested me. It's that special."

His knowledge of the school stems from his and Dunn's membership in the Wash- ington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association, whose mission is to strengthen research and advanced education in the computing fields. The two became acquainted as members of a dean's committee, giving Schnabel an appreciation for the school even before it opened.

Dunn made it clear he had no influence on the selection committee.

"I had absolutely no role in picking him," he said. "I actually felt a little strange. He was the first faculty member I wasn't involved in hiring, but he's somebody I think the world of."

Demand for grads is great

Schnabel is Ivy-League-educated, earning a math degree from Dartmouth College and a master's and doctorate in computer science from Cornell University.

Luring him away from Colorado was no easy task, as he has spent his entire 30-year career there. For the past 10 years, he has served as vice provost for academic and campus technology.

Since 1998, he has led three campuswide information technology initiatives, including the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society, known as the ATLAS Institute. Schnabel likened the institute to the IU informatics program, albeit on a smaller scale.

Informatics differs from related disciplines such as computer science, library and information science, and cognitive science in that it applies the core of those studies to a specific field.

Students pursuing an informatics degree choose another field such as biology, economics or journalism to study. A background in biology, for instance, might lead to a degree and career in bioinformatics.

The school includes the Department of Computer Science in Bloomington and the New Media Program at IUPUI that is dedicated to the study of digital communications. Three-dimensional digital animation might help physicians and their patients better understand Alzheimer's disease, for instance.

At the time of its founding seven years ago, the school was the first to be created at IU in more than a quarter-century and was met with much fanfare from university and business leaders.

The results so far have exceeded expectations, said Dunn, who provided figures to bolster his argument. Enrollment has leaped from fewer than 100 in 2000 to 1,650 this academic year. Since 2003, annual employer job postings have increased from 80 to 285. And, since last year, the average starting salary for an informatics undergrad has risen from $43,000 to $51,500.

Jim Jay, president of local IT initiative TechPoint, lauded IU for recognizing the need to provide Hoosier companies with students versed in various fields.

"[Students] aren't just in the School of Informatics, but [they] have exposure across all sectors of the economy," he said. "They are cutting across all those sectors, and that makes students very well-rounded when they come out."

Yet the leader of an Indianapolis-based Web site developer thinks the demand is even greater than what the school can provide.

"Overall, programs such as informatics cannot produce enough graduates in the fields they seek to serve," said Ron Brumbarger, CEO of Bitwise Solutions Inc. "There's a shortage of that talent for this market and in the Midwest. They can't crank them out fast enough, in my opinion."

Plans aplenty

Schnabel is eager to begin his new assignment, noting he has more plans "than you can shake a stick at." For starters, he wants to craft a strategy to examine programs and activities, expand upon its research to bolster external funding and visibility, explore potential curriculum revisions, and perhaps most critical, build relationships with the business community and the school's supporters.

The laundry list of items should not be construed as a knock on the school, or his predecessor, Schnabel cautioned.

"It doesn't mean that things are bad at all," he said, "but that I and the faculty, and the school, welcome taking a look."

Schnabel said the strategy would be less about creating entirely new activities than providing prioritization, focus and review of existing programs. Any revisions to the curriculum would be made to make them more relevant and appealing to students.

Current enrollment numbers are healthy, said Schnabel, noting that there is room for, and interest in, growth without compromising the quality of the program.

Brumbarger, who said he needs raw talent that's ready to contribute immediately, said it's critical that the school continue to challenge students.

"The tougher the better," he said. "It's the real world. If you water it down, the graduates coming out won't be ready."

Besides Bloomington and Indianapolis, the School of Informatics offers academic programs on IU campuses at South Bend, Kokomo and New Albany. The program also has been approved at Gary and Richmond.

The formation of the Laboratory Informatics Graduate Program has further raised the school's profile, as well as the offering of a doctorate in informatics.

Schnabel's selection follows a search that began last May with the appointment of a 15-member search committee led by Brad Wheeler, chief information officer and dean of information technology at IU Bloomington.

There are at least 40 informatics schools in the nation, but only a handful that Schnabel would compare to the program at IU. They are at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and the University of California, Irvine.

"It's pretty clear that-after just a few encounters-that the Indiana community, and the sense of community, is pretty strong," he said. "And that's a real plus coming into this."

Meanwhile, Dunn will retire June 30. He arrived at IU in 1969 to teach philosophy and rose through the ranks at the College of Arts and Sciences to become its executive associate dean.

Despite coaxing from headhunters to apply for other dean positions, Dunn said he plans to continue his research, travel and enjoy the luxury of an open schedule.
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