Get to know Andrea Forte, new dean of the School of Information
Andrea Forte, an expert in social computing, is the newly appointed dean of the University of Michigan School of Information. She joined UMSI on Jan. 1.
Forte’s appointment as dean builds on a distinguished career as a researcher, professor and administrator. From 2021 to 2023, she led the Department of Information Science in the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University, where she began her academic career in 2010. She is passionate about aligning her research and leadership to create more equitable and fulfilling futures for students and colleagues.
As a researcher, Forte is rooted in the realities of online life. She studies how people collaborate and share information online, as well as the risks associated with doing so. Her scholarship has mined the educational potential of open collaboration tools like Wikipedia and explored the role that anonymity plays in facilitating support-seeking on social media sites like Reddit.
Increasingly, her research has turned to examine the challenges associated with sharing information online — including misinformation and privacy loss. Her research group develops new tools and theoretical understandings that can help build safer and more beneficial online experiences.
In her garden, Forte has learned to embrace “the joy in slow growth.” In the field of information science, growth is rapid — and Forte is quick to adapt. She believes the work of information professionals is more necessary now than ever.
We spoke about her leadership style, the novel she’s currently reading, and how UMSI can address some of the biggest challenges society faces.
UMSI: How did you become interested in studying information science?
Andrea Forte: I had two identities as a young person that combined to lead me to information science. First, I was a bookworm. I read all the time, and I think it's because I was drawn to big questions about what it means to be human.
But I was also a computer nerd. When I was 7 or 8, my mom taught me to program. This was rural Michigan in the mid-'80s, so I was very fortunate to have a mom who was going to college to study education. She read about Seymour Papert, who was doing research out of MIT on how learning to program was really empowering for kids. There were no computer classes in the mid-'80s in elementary schools, but my mom would put the Atari 800 in the trunk of the car once a week and drive it to my school and set it up in the classroom. She thought it was really important that we learn how to program, because it was a form of expression. It was introduced to me as something that was creative and fun.
Funnily enough, these two identities — being a bookworm and being really into computers — merged over time. I started to realize that the big human experiences and the biggest challenges facing humans all had to do with information. All of those themes that were so compelling that I was reading about — love and war and peace — that was all happening online.
When I started my PhD in human-computer interaction, my advisor ended up being someone who had worked in Seymour Papert’s lab at MIT. So, it came full circle.
Speaking of full circle, how does it feel to be returning to Michigan?
Michigan is such a great place to live. There is a wildness to it, with all the parks and lakes. As a child, we used to go up north, and that’s something I haven't been able to show my children yet. I'm so excited to be a part of Michigan again and really get to participate in everything it has to offer.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career so far?
There are so many parts to an academic career, but of course my research is something I’m deeply proud of. There's a recent paper — one of the collaborators is at UMSI, Sarita Schoenebeck, and the other was my student Nora McDonald — where we looked at a technique called inter-rater reliability. This is often a topic of confusion, not just among students but all researchers. We made a systematic effort to understand when it's appropriate to use this method, and the response to that paper has been incredibly rewarding. I just got an email the other day saying, “Thank you for writing this paper, because it's been such a help for me and my students.” You can see citations, but you don’t often get to see impact in that way. That experience has been tremendous. We've contributed something that matters.
I would also say, in the past three years that I've been a department head at Drexel University, I've really witnessed how many small decisions add up to a better learning experience for students and a better workplace for staff and faculty. Now, I’m thinking about my work in a different way. It’s not just my research. It’s also the material ways that my leadership is affecting people who I work with and collaborate with.
What attracted you to the School of Information?
It always appeared to me, as an outside observer, that UMSI has this really inspiring community — that scholars don't always agree, but they engage. There's a vibrance associated with being part of that kind of community, whether it's intellectual or interpersonal.
The field of information, however broadly construed, is incomparably important.
I also believe UMSI is in a position to make a real impact in the world. The field of information, however broadly construed, is incomparably important. That’s true of the work we do in all of the different roles that people have at UMSI, whether students or staff or faculty. I’m so excited to be a part of it, moving forward.
What opportunities do you see ahead for UMSI?
The big problems that the world is facing right now — from climate change to the question of how people and machines create information in such a way that it is legitimate — can be addressed by solving problems associated with information. Globally speaking, I see schools of information becoming even more central and more important.
What information should we share? What makes that information credible? How can it be protected? Who gets to make those decisions? There are many different pieces of UMSI that fit together to help solve these problems — from privacy to human-computer interaction, from a healthcare context to a library context. We have a robust community of scholars and students that is well-positioned to make a real impact. In the future, we might be bigger, better, faster, stronger, but in terms of mission, we won’t be radically different from what we are now.
How do you hope to engage with students?
I hope to establish a standard of accessibility from day one. I think it's very important that I'm available when people want to find me, but that's not going to be used unless I'm viewed as someone who wants to reach out and talk to students. I want to be proactive about creating events where students are invited to interact with me, as opposed to allowed to sign up. Establishing that two-way communication is going to be really important.
You mentioned being a bookworm as a child. What book is currently on your nightstand?
"Play It As It Lays" by Joan Didion. My fiction reading has slowed down tremendously because I’m reading a lot of research and nonfiction, but when I have the chance, I go for the classics.
What else do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love gardening. I’ve come to enjoy it more over the years, because you have to have all of this patience. What you do this year won't pay off for two, three, four more years. Discovering that sort of joy in slow growth has been a really peaceful thing for me.
What inspires you in your work?
Sometimes the work can feel weighty, whether it’s research, leadership or management. If I can see a path where the work I’m doing — no matter how difficult — leads to people feeling supported, people being able to do their jobs, people finding joy in their work, that gets me through. It’s all about impact, whether you’re doing research or engaging in leadership. You have to think about where you want that impact to be.
— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer