Interview with the Dean: IT&E Looks Forward with Strategic Planning

Posted: July 15, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: Over the summer, the Daily Gazette will publish interviews with 11 deans, 2 institute directors, and the vice president for University Life focusing on what was successful in their departments last year and what the George Mason community can expect this year. This is the first article in the series.

By Robin Herron

Following on the heels of a successful year, major goals for the School of Information Technology and Engineering (IT&E) in the near future are updating the school’s strategic plan, hiring a substantial number of new faculty members, and improving the quality of student applications, says Dean Lloyd Griffiths.

In reviewing the highlights of the past year, Griffiths points to the tremendous success of the B.S. in Information Technology (B.S. IT). The new major was introduced last fall and now has more than 500 students confirmed for the 2003-04 academic year. “To see so many students attracted to that program and the growth in the Prince William side is most exciting,” he says.

Lloyd Griffiths
Lloyd Griffiths

Another achievement for the school was continued growth in research funding, which was up 20 percent over last year and leads the university at a level of more than $12 million in annual expenditures.

In addition, Griffiths points to the continued growth and strength of the school’s Advisory Board, whose membership now stands at 55 senior-level corporate executives. “At a time when many companies are going out of business and being merged we continue to grow the number of people on the board. Our connections with industry have definitely continued to improve,” he says.

These corporate relationships have led directly to a rising level of donations to the school. “We went to companies and explained to them that the state budget cuts were seriously damaging our ability to maintain a high-quality program. We asked for their immediate financial help with our budget, and corporations have responded by giving us cash. These contributions are up 70 percent over last year,” he says.

Overall student enrollment in the school has continued to grow. In addition to the growth in the B.S. IT, student interest in the Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering Department is also very strong. The department has expanded programs in the area of infrastructure protection and continues to provide an innovative curriculum. This is in contrast to many other college campuses where civil engineering enrollments are shrinking, Griffiths says.

One department that has seen a drop in student interest as a major is Computer Science, which mirrors a national trend, Griffiths says. “We’re trying to better understand the root causes for the decrease. Under the leadership of its new chair, Arun Sood, the department is exploring some ideas for broadening the range of undergraduate offerings through partnerships with nontraditional elements such as computer science and history, computer science and geophysics, computer science and the arts, etc.”

One idea to broaden the appeal of computer science and attract new students is to offer specialized courses in computer game development and computer techniques for the movies. “We’re in some preliminary discussions about a laboratory and possibly some educational activities,” Griffiths says. “We’re not in Hollywood but we have all the technology here that one needs, and we have an incredible arts school. So I’ve been in conversation with Dean Bill Reeder in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and said I could see this is an area where we could productively interact.” Even if that idea doesn’t work out immediately, Griffiths says the school is poised to develop gaming technology for the military, which uses computer games for training.

Looking to the future, Griffiths says the school is at a crossroads. “The state reduction in funding is a serious issue for the university. Should we maintain our current size or should we continue to move forward? What I would like to see is controlled growth in selected areas. Modest controlled growth in the presence of these fiscal realities is going to be the challenge.” He cites the B.S. IT as an example. “We have great difficulty handling the rate of growth we’ve had in the B.S. IT. We cannot continue at this rate. For one thing, the funding is not there; secondly, it stresses the system with respect to providing the right kind of infrastructure.”

When Griffiths arrived at George Mason as dean six years ago, the school had just completed a self-study, and he devoted his efforts to fulfilling the plans laid out as a result. He has asked the departments for a status report on what has been accomplished since the last self-study and for detailed strategic plans for the next 6 to 10 years. Over the summer each department and the school as a whole will hold a retreat to develop a road map for the future. The process should be completed by early fall, he says.

A major topic that he expects to surface in the plan is improving overall school quality.

SAT scores of the school’s entering freshmen continue to rise, as does average GPA. Griffiths also notes that several faculty members were recognized during the past year for excellence in teaching and research. Griffiths wants these quality indicators to continue to rise.

“Student entrance requirements must continue to go up, and we need to attract the very best faculty. Substantial reductions in class size are an absolute necessity. We now have over 4,200 students and we have fewer than 100 full-time faculty. When I came here in 1997, enrollment stood at 3,100 students and we had essentially the same number of faculty as now. Fortunately, we have the help of about 85 active and very good adjuncts. You need adjuncts–they add the ‘juice.’ But you need many more full-time committed faculty for the students.”

As an example, Griffiths points to the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India, which has 4,800 students and 400 faculty members. “They’re producing some of the best students in the world, and they’re in the process of increasing to 450 faculty. I would love to have twice their student-faculty ratio. Going to a level of 25 students per faculty member instead of our current level of 42 would have a dramatic and immediate impact on overall quality,” he says.

Griffiths is committed to hiring 20 additional full-time faculty members in the next two years, which he estimates will cost $2 million. “We’re going to leverage our research support; we’re going to leverage our donor support. The degree to which we succeed in reducing class size and increasing the quality–and I don’t think we can do one without the other–is going to define what the school is like in the future.”

Raising quality will be done not only through faculty but also through students, Griffiths says. The school is making efforts to establish closer ties with students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. IT&E already participates in the high school’s mentorship program but would like to have students work closely with IT&E faculty on projects supported by industry.

IT&E would also like to see an increase in female enrollment. While women have been attracted to the B.S. IT, other areas are not doing as well. “There are a lot of talented young women over at Thomas Jefferson,” Griffiths points out. “We’re going to have some of these projects targeted at women and have scholarships targeted to them. We have a large number of women in the faculty here; we have some extraordinary women as students, and we’ll be taking them to Thomas Jefferson to meet with younger students.

“We’re going to see some important changes here,” Griffiths concludes. “In the past it was primarily about growth. Now the emphasis is on providing high-quality, leading-edge IT education and research.”

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