Dean's Blog: One Year On

March 25, 2021

It’s been over a year since the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Data Science (SDS) was approved by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). Where are we today?

The short answer is we are growing very fast, even in the midst of a pandemic. Rapid growth brings with it a sense of excitement, but also a sense of caution. Let me explain. The digital transformation of society creates great demand for our products – an educated workforce, innovative, translatable research and service to our communities. We could just let it happen and there are economic pressures to do so, but what would we become? My guess would be a characterless, nondescript, run-of-the-mill school. This is not in keeping with the University of Virginia writ large, nor is it what the Commonwealth of Virginia and their taxpayers deserve. We must strive for excellence even at the cost of rapid growth. This will not be easy. How will excellence be achieved?

The answer lies in the people we hire, the collective vision we strive for and the support structure we put in place to achieve that vision. Let me say a little about each of these critical elements as we move forward.

The people we hire. We need the best teachers, the best researchers, the best community advocates and the best administrators. No one person will have all these characteristics, it will take a diverse team with a variety of skills. Further, all must be willing to be team players and be part of a startup culture. That means undertaking tasks and being flexible in a fast changing environment with lots of demands not part of a standard job description in a well established organization.  No small challenge given a workforce in high demand and nowhere nearly as diverse as it needs to be to fully express what we wish to and must represent. To illustrate the difficulty in achieving diversity, consider that when hiring a data scientist with expertise in the biological sciences we had approximately 160 applicants – not one African American and only about 20% women. I will come back to the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion in a later blog. Here I will say that in discussions with the university leadership they are supportive of slowing the rate of growth in an effort to maintain a diverse workforce. Thus far we are not where we want to be. While culturally diverse, our current team is only 39% female and 5% African American, while the population of Virginia is 20% African American. Changing a culture once established is very hard. There are still less than 50 people in the School and we still have the opportunity to do better. There are multiple ways this can happen, and again, a subject of a later blog.

The collective vision. It is interesting to watch how, in a small organization, the dynamic changes with every new person who comes in with a viewpoint derived from past experiences. If I had a dollar for each time I heard a team member say, “well in my old department/school/university we did …” I would have a tidy stash. That is not a bad thing as a frame of reference. However, is it the right way to think about an interdisciplinary field within the higher education system of the future which has new and evolving expectations of its workforce and needs to solve societal problems we have never encountered before? Maybe yes, maybe no. But there needs to be at least a willingness to think about alternatives. That thinking is easier when there is a well documented and described vision for the school that is constantly in front of all team members. Something helped by a well functioning communications group which we are fortunate to have. How do you measure if team members appreciate, believe in and contribute to the vision? What do you do if they do not? Are they wrong or is the vision wrong? The convictions of the leadership, starting with the Dean come into play here, followed by the support of university leadership, President, Provost etc. If leadership is not convinced of the course of action inspired by the vision of the school, it will not be great. I, of course, believe in the vision we have laid out as a School without Walls and eventually if others do not I will be replaced. I certainly do not claim to have the answers to how you measure the impact of the vision, make corrections and so on. I and our team know enough to consult experts and we are beginning that process. What I am convinced of is that the answers do not lie solely in School accreditation or News and World report rankings. Answers come in the form of how well our students do in the workforce, the impact of our research in areas of societal need, how widely the products of our research are used and how our communities benefit from the work we do. All are well underway and we need to start measuring these outcomes in earnest.

I do take heart in our recent Open Access Guidelines as a sign that there is indeed a collective vision. Broadly stated, data science would not exist if not for open data, methods, protocols and workflows. As Dean, with the help of the university library, we proposed a set of guidelines for how to distribute our scholarly publications that was open to all. As part of our shared governance this went before our faculty, who agreed to further broaden the mandate to all of our research output – data, software, protocols etc. The vote was unanimous, for which I am exceedingly proud and pleased. The vision of the School is to be as open as possible, and faculty just endorsed and even expanded on that vision. It does not get any better than that. Except when I say this development is now before the faculty senate for the whole university and may influence how the university acts as a whole.

Support structure. A startup culture is not sustainable as the organization grows. People burn out, quality of the product is impacted, morale plummets, people leave. The answer lies in putting an appropriate evolving support structure in place and only growing at a rate that is sustainable. That structure must support the vision and associated goals that the School sets for itself. That takes us back  to having the right people onboard and having them organized in a way that maximizes their value to the School as well as represents the best career path for every one of them.

As we think about how to organize ourselves much of the traditional academic structure makes sense – Associate Deans Directors of our Academic Programs, Chief of Staff, Directors of various administrative functions, such as student services, career services, communications, IT etc. After all, academia has had hundreds of years to figure this out. Then again other aspects of historic precedent do not necessarily translate well into what a modern society needs. Greater interdisciplinarity stands out in this regard. Departments tend to silo people and resources and hamper interdisciplinarity and the ability to operate effectively on large, complex projects. At the same time individuals need to identify with their domain of expertise. How to achieve that balance? We are embarking on an experiment to try and achieve that balance. No departments, rather areas of concentration that map to our own interpretation of data science. Faculty move freely across areas and are evaluated at the School not the Area level. The jury is still out on how well this will work. Similarly, we are making a significant number of dual appointments across Schools. More difficult to set up, of some risk to those holding the appointments, but the promise of greater interdisciplinarity. Again, the jury is out.

As we think about the people in this new kind of organization we must account for a sense of worth within the organization, the opportunity to grow and a sense of inclusion. This starts with the notion of “Team”. Not just as a noun, but as a verb. We action the notion of a team in the way we make decisions through shared governance – everybody has a say on major decisions before the Dean has the final word. Proof of that is in how we are designing our new building. Those who encounter us for the first time consistently comment on our team spirit and camaraderie. Encouraging, but something that requires more quantitative evaluation going forward. A sense of belonging and inclusion is crucial, but more is needed. All team members need career coaching, goal setting and an opportunity to express their needs, aspiration and concerns. When you are moving very fast as an organization it is easy to neglect the individual. We are starting to redress this shortcoming beyond meetings with the Dean and other senior team members as ad hoc mentors. We are putting more formal evaluation mechanisms in place, using university services such as Faculty Development from the Provost’s Office and the Center for Teaching Excellence and surveying the needs of our faculty. A positive career trajectory for all team members will be synonymous with developing the best school by any measure.

As you can tell, it’s been quite a ride so far and we are only just getting started.