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Education in the new hi-tech world

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue May, May 1 - May 31 2000 | BY John Gehl 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

UBIQUITY: Are you the first computer scientist who became president of a major university?

ALAN G. MERTEN: I'm unaware of any others for institutions of this size. I'm also a former business school dean, and there are not many business school deans who are university presidents either.

UBIQUITY: Computer science is still pretty new, so it's not too surprising that not many computer scientists have gone on to be presidents ... but what explains the fact that business school deans don't often become university presidents?

MERTEN: There was a belief that you had to be a "real academic," and that meant you had to come from the arts or the social sciences. Business schools in many universities were perceived as being on the edge of the university -- which in many cases was also physically where the business school was located. Those views of what a university president should be are changing dramatically right now.

UBIQUITY: What is causing those views to change?

MERTEN: A variety of things. First, there is more recognition that universities are large, complex organizations where the university president plays less of a ceremonial role and assumes more of a management and leadership role. The second factor is that, with rare exceptions, the university president's job is as much an off-campus, community relations and fundraising job, as it is anything directly related to more traditional academic activities. This is particularly the case at a place like George Mason -- a university serving the needs of students of all ages with a blend of traditional and non-traditional faculty that is expected to meet the needs of a booming technology community and far beyond. My background in computer science and as a business school dean seemed to match the needs of the university.

UBIQUITY: Are you enjoying it so far?

MERTEN: Very much. It's a great institution in a great location. I like being a university president where the normal academic leadership role of the president is complemented by a community leadership role and responsibility. I also particularly like the fact that this is a strong information technology community.

UBIQUITY: What's your biggest challenge?

MERTEN: All university presidents share one major challenge -- to keep building the quality of their institutions by attracting increasingly better faculty and students. But at George Mason I have to go beyond that, and it's because of the kind of university we have to create here -- an institution built on a strong alliance between business, government, and our community. Our biggest challenge is to take two unique entities, George Mason and this community of Northern Virginia, and make sure they come together in such a way that both reach their full potential. To do that, we have to both meet the needs and gain the support of a community that is relatively new and unformed. Thirty years ago Northern Virginia was a bedroom community for Washington D.C. and the Pentagon. Now it is home to two million people and buildings are popping out of the ground every place you look. I have to make sure the university supports that environment. The second challenge is to establish relationships between those booming organizations and the university. In more established communities, the universities were there first, and the economic development came later. In this case, the university grew with the economic activities of the community; it was designed, in a sense, to support the community.

UBIQUITY: And what's the consequence of that?

MERTEN: That there must be a high degree of interaction between George Mason and its region. Our challenge is to convince employers and the state and local government to invest in us: give us the scholarships and the professorships we need for excellence; help us build buildings. How we can help the community is clear. How they should help us isn't quite as clear to them.

UBIQUITY: How they help you is not so clear?

MERTEN: They know how to hire our students, but they're short-term oriented right now. They know how many people they need to hire in the immediate future, but we need to convince them to provide us with financial support so that we can do the research that generates new ideas and educate the people that they will be hiring three or five years from now. Of course, you can understand their short-term focus from their business perspective. But more and more of them understand that a successful business community, particularly a successful IT-based community, needs a strong teaching and research-based institution.

UBIQUITY: Do you find that it's easier or harder to recruit faculty nowadays?

MERTEN: It's always hard to recruit the best and the brightest because they've got multiple options, particularly in areas like information systems and computer science. They're in great demand. What's easier here than other places I've been is that faculty see the value of being within thirty minutes of companies of all sizes in the telecom and IT business, and being half an hour from the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress and close to the NSF, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, etc. We are finding location is a major advantage to us in hiring administrators and faculty.

UBIQUITY: You probably know that there has been some discussion recently in Ubiquity about the subject of ageism. Do you see much of that problem?

MERTEN: I am chairing the National Research Council Congressionally-mandated committee on the future of the IT workforce. We have been asked to assess the global supply and demand for IT workers, and investigate both the need for foreign workers and whether or not age discrimination exists in the IT industry. Joel Moses of MIT is on the committee, along with noted economists and industry representatives. We have to report to Congress by October 1 and we are expected to propose solutions for individuals, government and industry.

UBIQUITY: Do you have any thoughts about whether or not ageism exists to any large degree?

MERTEN: We have heard claims of age discrimination in formal testimony and in open meetings. If widespread discrimination does exist, it is hard to find the data to support the charge. The fast-moving, hard-charging nature of the IT industry and leading-edge IT enabled companies can lead to the conclusion that it is an industry and profession for the young. With or without age discrimination, I am concerned that we are not using the full capacity of the IT workforce, in particular, those who have plenty of experience and skills but not the specific skills that the company needs right now. I am also concerned about the hiring practices of smaller firms. The good news is that they rely on their network of friends; the bad news is that they may not be aware of the need to avoid hiring practices that are discriminatory.

UBIQUITY: And are the large corporations generally doing right by their older workers?

MERTEN: I expect that there is a failure on behalf of IT companies and IT-enabled companies to adequately utilize the older worker. I'm disturbed when I ask executives about their hiring, and they state that they "only hire people who can hit the ground running." That phrase implies "I only hire someone who has exactly the skills and tools I think I need" and it is a mistake not to find a way to invest in someone who has a broader set of experiences.

UBIQUITY: Are you bothered by anything else in the human resource policies of high-tech companies?

MERTEN: I'm becoming more and more convinced that we have a technical management shortage. Companies are hiring more and more people to meet their needs but too often neglect to invest in the managers of these people so that they get more out of current employees.

UBIQUITY: Let's go back to your comment on hitting the ground running. Does the search for people who can do the job the moment they're hired also hurt the young people?

MERTEN: It hurts just about everybody. It minimizes the size of the pool for the company doing the search, and it minimizes the opportunity for people who are trying to get hired or to advance.

UBIQUITY: What do you think of the various Internet resume-distribution services?

MERTEN: The services can be very useful. The challenge is for companies to use them properly. Accepting or rejecting a resume simply because it does or doesn't have the right number of acronyms is bad policy. It affects workers of all ages, and it affects the companies.

UBIQUITY: Do you find that companies complain to you that students come out knowing too much theory and not enough "real life" kinds of things?

MERTEN: We don't hear that as much now but we in higher education do get complaints about the communication skills of our graduates. When you have a good computer scientist -- who may be very theoretical in some respects -- and put him or her in the right environment, you can get a productive worker in a hurry. Employers are concerned both about the specific knowledge of employees and the ability of those employees to work on teams and their ability to write and speak. Another concern is that people do not have good project management skills. The demand for people with IT knowledge and skills is so high that a person with modest communication skills is not only going to be placed, but placed well. But very soon the "softer skills" will become increasingly important.

UBIQUITY: So how would you sum up what's needed?

MERTEN: To me a good computer scientist must have a strong theoretical background, a deep familiarity with contemporary practices and tools, and must have a high level of conceptual and problem-solving skills and a strong attention to detail. The latter skills will also be vital if the computer scientist wants to move into management.

UBIQUITY: If those qualities will bring success, what ones will bring failure? What would you say are the most important failings for an information technologist?

MERTEN: People fail when they become enamored with the current round of technology, whatever that may be. They become "the solution in search of a problem." We fail in computer science or information systems education whenever we encourage people to operate from the technology out, as opposed thinking and speaking like the people around us who have the problems we are to solve with the aid of technology.

UBIQUITY: And speaking of the people around us: how do you rate the current success of information technologists fitting in within the university?

MERTEN: The most exciting part of university life right now is watching the infiltration of information technology in the teaching and research of faculty from all disciplines; for example, we use technology to help make students better writers, to make science more understandable, to connect students and faculty to the creative work of others, and to totally change how we teach and do research.

UBIQUITY: How did that change? Not too many years ago, one out of every five papers written in certain kinds of publications had the title "How Do You Overcome Resistance to Technological Change?" Nobody seems to resist anymore.

MERTEN: The personal computer had an enormous impact. In the corporate setting -- up until the arrival of the personal computer -- if you wanted something done in an organization, you had to get in a long line in front of the data processing department, which would, when they got around to it, solve your problem. Whether that problem was big or small, you had to get in the same line. The personal computer gave people alternatives. It allowed someone who understood the problem to come up with their own solution. The next change was not a technological change, but a mindset change. The computer became a competitive weapon. It allowed one company to provide better or cheaper products or services to their customers. It became the source and vehicle for innovation. And the most dramatic recent change is, of course, the Internet.

UBIQUITY: And on that point, what has been the impact of the Web on George Mason?

MERTEN: On the administrative side, it is allowing us to be more customer-oriented in dealing with our students -- for everything from applying to George Mason, to requesting financial aid, to obtaining tickets for campus events. All the services of an institution can now be made available on a desktop.

UBIQUITY: What about the academic side?

MERTEN: The academic side is seeing dramatic change. Students are now using e-mail to communicate with professors and other sources of knowledge, and faculty now post lecture notes and tests on their personal websites and include links to related websites. There are chat rooms among the faculty and among the students. It has eliminated distance and time as the barrier to a great education. What we used to do in education was fix a time and place and learning was variable. Some learned a lot and some learned a little.

UBIQUITY: Whereas now --?

MERTEN: We've made the time and place the variable. You don't have to be in the same place at the same time and you don't have to all get the same information at the same time. It's also dramatic in the sense that some of the most innovative uses of the web are coming from the most "traditional" disciplines.

UBIQUITY: What about the general state of health of the traditional university as a whole? Peter Drucker, for example, is one among a number of people who have suggested that maybe the university won't really even exist in thirty years. MERTEN: I disagree strongly with that. First of all, we use the expression "distance learning" poorly and in an unfortunate way. I prefer the phrase "technology enhanced learning." Technology has a major role to play even when all the students are in a room at the same time and the faculty member is there. If we separate the students from the faculty member in both in space and time, then technology has another role to play. We are going to be most effective when we combine technology with human contact. It's going to be possible for people to get a complete undergraduate degree off the Internet, but I personally wouldn't want to hire them. You can hire them if you want to, but I want someone who has had a technology-enhanced education and the face-to-face experience of a faculty member and students of all ages and diverse backgrounds.

Very few of us think we're going to be able to do everything over the web. That's not the kind of future anyone should want. What we need to aim for is the blend you get when a great motivational teacher uses technology to enhance the information content and presentation format of the learning environment. That's the real future and it's a very exciting one.


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