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Bloomington Herald-Times

June 17, 2007

Retiring informatics dean Mike Dunn 'took a rough outline . . . and gave it life'
By Steve Hinnefeld 331-4374 |
June 17, 2007

BLOOMINGTON -- Mike Dunn was well along in an academic career as a professor of philosophy when he got an opportunity to lead the first new school established at Indiana University in a generation.

Now he is stepping down, having established the School of Informatics as a national leader in the study of applied uses for computing and information technology.

Dunn, 65, will retire July 1. He will be succeeded by Bobby Schnabel, chief information officer and founder of a multidisciplinary IT program at the University of Colorado.

"I've said this on other occasions: I had no idea I was a risk taker, but I was," Dunn said.

Informatics, still a little-used word outside of tech circles, involves the application of information technology to other fields, including health, science, arts and humanities and professions. It also involves the study of human aspects of technology.

The IU school, established in 2000, has grown to about 70 faculty members at IU Bloomington and 35 at IU-Purdue University at Indianapolis. Some 1,500 students are enrolled in courses in the school, which offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and also has programs at IU South Bend, Kokomo and Southeast.

"Mike took a rough outline for a new school and gave it life and vision," said Dennis Gannon, former chairman of the IU computer science department, which became part of informatics in 2005. "His ability to convey the concept of the school to the university and the state was pure genius."

Dunn said the school grew out of a deliberate effort to create a strong applied-science program at IU that could compete for state support and external funding from government and business.

Conceived during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, it was launched with funding from then-IU President Myles Brand's strategic directions initiative and the Lilly Endowment. Then, even though the nationwide tech bubble had burst, the state Legislature came through with millions in base funding.

Dunn, an IU philosophy professor and logician who developed an early interest in computer science, worked with faculty and funders to get it off the ground.

"It's been very much like a (business) startup," Dunn said. "The way I look at it, Myles Brand gave me my angel funding and Lilly gave me my bridge funding. Then the state provided public funding."

He said several faculty from other IU departments came on board and played key roles for the school, including executive associate deans Marty Siegel in Bloomington and Darrell Bailey in Indianapolis. Later, the school recruited more than its share of stars, adding 18 Bloomington tenure-track faculty in a single year. Six of its faculty are winners of the prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award.

"We have, in a very short time, acquired some of the best faculty in the world," Dunn said.

Larry Yaeger came to IU from Apple Computers, where he designed a neural network-based handprint recognition system. Alessandro Vespignani, from the University of Paris, was "the absolute leader on complex networks in Europe," Dunn said. In the IT security field, Markus Jakob-sson was principal scientist at the top security firm RSA Laboratories, and L. Jean Camp came from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Erik Stolterman headed the top informatics department in Sweden and now directs IU's human-computer interaction design program. Christopher Raphael, a mathematician-oboist who is developing a unique musical accompaniment program, heads IU's musical informatics program.

Dunn said faculty have been drawn to creating something new and doing research they're excited about.

"I think it's the pioneering aspect -- that's my own theory," he said. "And they behave that way. I sometimes say, if I told them we're going to put up a barn tomorrow, they'd say, 'What time should I come?'"

Each undergraduate majoring in informatics takes from five to seven courses in a "cognate" area -- the field to which they're learning to apply information technology. About half choose business as their cognate, Dunn said, but some do music, science, art and design or other fields.

They are required in their senior year to complete capstone projects, in which they apply what they've learned to real-world problems. "They learn project management, how to work in a team, how to bring together diverse skills and applications to actually make something work," Dunn said.

He said IU informatics graduates do well in the job market, with several landing high-paying jobs with Google and Oracle. Citing data from Microsoft Corp., he said it's a myth that technology jobs are no longer plentiful. Four of the fastest-growing jobs for college graduates -- not to mention some of the best starting salaries -- are in IT-related fields.

"And employers are increasingly looking for skill sets that involve something beyond the technical aspects of computing," Dunn said. "We positioned ourselves just in the right niche."

In its early years, the School of Informatics faced some resistance from faculty in other departments who feared it would take money and academic talent away from other programs.

"I studied logic. It's the poorest training I could have had for academic administration," Dunn said. "It should have been anthropology. I see tribes everywhere."

He believes those concerns were unfounded and have largely disappeared, and informatics faculty often work closely with IU researchers in other fields.

Dunn said he's retiring with mixed feelings. He will miss the work, but he looks forward to being an emeritus professor and having more time for research and consulting, not to mention travel and gardening. His wife, Sally Dunn, is retiring this summer as dean of IU's University Division.

"Would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat," he said. "Did I know what I was getting into? No."