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Margaret Mia

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William & Mary professors cry secrecy on data school, more


Faculty members at the College of William & Mary are concerned that the institution is purposely excluding them from conversations about the future.

Take the college’s recent announcement that it’s exploring opening a computing and data science school. Some professors describe this as an end run around the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which voted in early 2021 not to approve department status for William & Mary’s then year-old data science program. The vote at the time was 45 percent opposed, 38 percent in favor and 17 percent abstaining—not necessarily a landslide against the department concept, but no endorsement, either. So the institution’s disclosure that it briefed the Board of Visitors on not just a department but a possible division-level unit of computational and data science stunned many on campus. William & Mary has long had a liberal arts orientation and strong tradition of shared governance.

Maria Donoghue Velleca, dean of arts and sciences since 2020, said in a Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting this week that even she had been left in the dark on plans for the possible school and that this had influenced her decision to leave her post not at the end of the academic year, as previously announced, but at the end of 2022. Donoghue Velleca was part of a universitywide design team that William & Mary has said discussed these issues.

“I was not aware of that exploration until the day before the Board of Visitors meeting, when I learned about it because of a press release,” she told her faculty colleagues.

Deanships work when there is alignment between “all stakeholders,” she also said. “You need disciplined processes, you need clear communications, and you need few surprises. Those are the kinds of organizations that I do best in, and I regret that this was not one of them.”

Later in the meeting, multiple professors asked the Faculty Affairs Committee to push Provost Peggy Agouris, who briefed the board on the school plan, to respond in writing to a standing list of faculty questions about it.

“It’s critical to evaluate how these growing units can be best organized, because it can have serious implications on our ability to provide resources for the education that W&M is offering across disciplines and to attract and expand key partnerships,” Agouris told the board’s Committee on Academic Affairs in September. “The right organizational structure can reimagine our value in the computational and data space. It can foster important relationships at the state and federal levels, with other institutions, with friends and donors, and with like-minded organizations that might be new partners to us. It’s my hope that it deepens our strengths and expands our horizons.”

Also this fall, faculty members learned that William & Mary’s board approved an update to the capital plan that includes $43 million for constructing a Data Science Innovation Hub. The suspicion among some on campus is that this, in part, is the planned home for the data science division. William & Mary’s announcement about the school says that the “model and action plan are expected to be finalized in the spring, with a goal of submitting them to the Board of Visitors and the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia in the fall of 2023.”

Brian Whitson, college spokesperson, told Inside Higher Ed this week that “we are in the very early stages of developing a plan and we do not have a definite timeline to submit a proposal to [the state council] or our board. A lot will depend on the work of the universitywide design group and the feedback we receive along the way from faculty and the community, in addition to the president’s review of the plan.”

Faculty concerns about turning data science into a department have centered on how the college will pay for more data science faculty members, who earn relatively high salaries given the market for their skills, and why and how data science jumped to the front of the line of programs that are would-be departments. And some professors have quietly questioned the appropriateness of Agouris, the provost, promoting the new school idea while her spouse, Anthony Stefanidis, serves as director of the college’s data science program (Agouris previously served dean of the College of Science, chair of geography and geoinformation science, and professor of remote sensing and spatial informatics at George Mason University).

Whitson said that this latter criticism was “irrelevant to the work going on exploring the computing, data science and applied science initiative,” that Stefanidis became director of the data science program by a faculty vote, and that William & Mary “fully supports dual-career couples, and to indicate that the performance of their duties, as faculty in this case, should be limited because of their marital status is misguided.”

Faculty proponents of a data science department argued in 2021 that the program’s bachelor of science degree initiative had been so successful that it was outgrowing the computer science department, that there were state funding opportunities for hiring faculty in this area and that William & Mary had an opportunity to distinguish its data science curriculum from others in Virginia by infusing ethics and social consciousness coursework.

According to information from the college, computer science degrees conferred increased from 78 to 93 in the past two years, and degrees conferred in data science—established as a program in 2020—jumped from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022.

Dan Runfola, an assistant professor of applied science and the college’s original director of data science, said the data science program resulted from students wanting to “craft degree programs that paired the liberal arts education they were getting here at William & Mary with data science–oriented curriculum that would make them more competitive when they entered the workforce.” Several years on, he said, student demand is such that faculty teaching overloads “have been the norm, rather than an exception” and “we are now faced with the challenge of how to sustainably serve this burgeoning population of students.”

William & Mary is currently configured so that academic units “as disparate as music, biology and computer science all report to the same dean,” Runfola continued, and while this breadth is “awesome,” it’s “challenging for a dean to advocate on behalf of any particular domain’s needs. A new school can help mitigate this challenge, giving us a voice where we’re currently lost in the noise. Speaking as a faculty member, I can see huge potential. Imagine a school which can promote the design of physical spaces conducive to computational pedagogies, support computational infrastructure to aid new faculty in securing grants, and give us a visible anchor that will allow the outside world to appreciate the incredibly cool—and applied—computational research going on here at the country’s oldest public research university.”

Evgenia Smirni, chair of computer science, said, “The entire department is very excited for the new school, and we see tremendous potential that is in line with our undergraduate and graduate mission.”

Beyond Data Science

Faculty concerns at William & Mary extend well beyond expanding data science. Even before the school and data hub revelations, some 180 faculty members had signed an open letter this fall to Katherine Rowe, president since 2018, expressing concerns about her commitment to shared governance (more professors signed after the data science news). Among other questions, that letter asked how the college decided to name “data,” “water,” “careers” and “democracy” the four pillars of its strategic plan, Vision 2026, announced at a Charter Day ceremony in February. The letter also expressed concerns about lack of faculty involvement in a hiring pilot that is supposed to increase faculty diversity but that also cedes more hiring power to deans. (A faculty committee elsewhere critiqued the plan as paying too little attention to retaining these new professors, among other issues.) Signatories noted increased turnover among key administrators—including Donoghue Velleca—as well.

“We write to you today to express our deep concern for the increasing distance between the faculty of William & Mary and your administration,” the faculty letter begins. “Over the past few years, William & Mary has faced enormous challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, concern over financial stabilization, and changes in public attitudes toward higher education have all created the need to rethink the missions and values of William & Mary. During this time, we have seen a disturbing tendency to centralize decision-making and exclude meaningful faculty participation in setting the direction of the institution. The faculty have seen our elected representatives marginalized, our perspectives dismissed, and our involvement in university governance largely eliminated.”

The letter asked Rowe to “acknowledge the legitimate role that faculty through our elected representatives must play in policymaking, resource allocation, and administrative evaluation”; to “fully engage faculty in reviewing the strategic plan for its alignment with the best interests of William & Mary, and an accounting of the allocation and/or redirection of resources required to meet the plan’s provisions”; and to “facilitate significant faculty involvement in discussions about the admissions goals of the university, and the faculty resources necessary to teach the increased numbers of undergraduates we have already admitted.”

The letter closed, “We all acknowledge that William & Mary faces significant challenges. If the road ahead is daunting, all of us must work together in ways that move us forward without losing our essential character. We hope you will accept this message as both a challenge and an opportunity to work in common purpose.”

Rowe responded to the letter in person, telling the Faculty Assembly last month, “I have taken shared governance very seriously since I arrived at William & Mary” and that “in one respect, I think differently than my colleagues who signed the open letter: I don’t think we can go back to some earlier mode of shared governance and be effective going forward. I actually think we need a model of shared governance that’s more robust than what we had in the years before pandemic.”

The “desire raised by our colleagues in their open letter—a desire for more faculty involvement in strategic planning and other strategic issues—is timely and welcome,” she added.

Challenging the notion that there hadn’t been enough faculty involvement in the strategic plan because the administration wanted it that way, Rowe said that her attempts to engage faculty members in person and over Zoom met “limited participation. So it’s quite true that there has not been sufficient faculty engagement—and in [arts and sciences] in particular—in the strategic plan, so far. I want more engagement and William & Mary needs more. That is our plan for this semester.”

While Vision 2026 is a “concept statement, not a blueprint,” Rowe also said, William & Mary faces the “rapid approach of the demographic cliff” related to fewer births around 2008 and therefore fewer projected college students, and “the actions we take now will determine our future competitiveness—our ability to attract terrific students. Simply put, we cannot be complacent. We have four years to position the university to be more competitive at a moment when enrollments will decline.”

Vision 2026 therefore “aligns what we do well with that imperative to secure future enrollments of amazing students,” Rowe said. “Here’s what we know about prospective students interested in W&M. They seek rigorous academics and associate that with strong STEM programs in a liberal arts context as the top characteristics of a great university. And they need to prepare themselves for future work, in relevant ways. This is the field we are playing on.”

Rowe defended the hiring pilot, as well, saying that faculty members are helping shape the ongoing process and that “the results from Year One speak for themselves: 40 percent of our tenure-track eligible hires self-identify as underrepresented; 100 percent brought demonstrated expertise in creating inclusive learning environments.”

Suzanne Hagedorn, an associate professor of English who signed the open letter, said that Rowe’s response to the faculty suggested that professors were “too tired” to weigh in on key initiatives during the pandemic, and that this was simply not the case.

“Had we been invited to any town halls about Vision 2026, we would have participated,” said Hagedorn, who served as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ secretary last year. And while certain faculty members apparently knew of the provost’s data science school presentation to the board ahead of time, she said, the full Faculty Assembly—indeed, most of the faculty—did not.

As the college looks poised to invest heavily in data science and computing, faculty members in some other fields haven’t had empty faculty lines filled, Hagedorn continued, adding that her own department’s shrinking faculty this year raised enrollment caps for most courses from 28 to 30; turned first-year seminars into classes with 17 or 18 students, based on classroom capacity; and transformed one 28-student course into an 81-person course with undergraduate teaching assistants. These are significant shifts at a college that has long differentiated itself from other Virginia public institutions with small class sizes, a feature of its liberal arts focus.

William & Mary does have some graduate programs, so it’s not strictly a liberal arts college. For many years its leaders referred to it as a “liberal arts university.” William & Mary’s emerging STEM emphasis and “premier public research university” self-description depart from that identity.

“Obviously, times change, but some of us do feel that giving up on that liberal arts university model risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Hagedorn said.



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William & Mary professors cry secrecy on data school, more
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