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Outgoing Dean Thomas Finholt reflects on the growth and future of the School of Information

Thomas Finholt fist bumps a student during the graduation ceremony.

Friday, 08/19/2022

After more than six years as the dean of the University of Michigan School of Information, Thomas A. Finholt is moving on to another leadership position. Starting August 15, 2022, Finholt will become the new vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs at U-M. 

Finholt has been with UMSI since 1997, where he progressed from assistant research scientist to professor. During his tenure, he held several administrative positions including associate dean for research and innovation, senior associate dean for faculty, and senior associate dean for academic affairs. In 2016, Finholt became dean of UMSI. 

The Growth and Expansion of UMSI

What draws a faculty member with a robust research record to become a dean of a school? Finholt said his decision rested on his own experience at UMSI. “I think part of it was a sense of obligation and gratitude for all the wonderful things one experiences within this community.” 

When he became dean, Finholt said he had certain aspirations for UMSI, including the expansion of online offerings and the creation of more pathways to the master’s and bachelor’s programs. During the past six years, the first cohort of BSI students graduated, and other degree programs started picking up speed. 

In particular, the online Master’s in Applied Data Science program, or MADS, was launched in 2019. The degree program developed as a way to meet the growing demand for applied data science experience in the workforce. With an international reach and a self-paced, study-anywhere curriculum, the program has been a huge success. In 2021, the first cohort of students graduated from the program.  

MADS continues to grow and develop, but it’s certainly not the only online program that has developed while Finholt was dean. “Tom seized on the opportunities in online education, both with MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and then with the MADS program,” said Paul Resnick, associate dean for research and faculty affairs. “This has tremendously expanded the scale of our educational impact.” 

While Finholt was dean, UMSI hired more than 30 new faculty members, many of whom are from historically excluded groups. This was not a coincidence. “We were really out in front of the rest of the campus with the formation of our mission statement around diversity, equity and inclusion — years ahead of the campus DEI rollout,” said Finholt.

In particular, UMSI committed to the President's Postdoctoral Fellowship program, which resulted in “tremendous growth of women and minoritized individuals in those hires.” Finholt noted that 100% of the people who entered the PPF program were converted to tenure track faculty. Of those, “100% of those who have reached the point where they could be considered for tenure have received tenure. That's a monumental achievement for the school.” 

Tom was a strong supporter of DEI efforts at UMSI,” said Tiffany Veinot, UMSI associate dean for faculty. “He supported UMSI's involvement in multiple hiring programs that increased faculty diversity, such as the President's Postdoctoral Fellowship program, and the Provost's Antiracism Hiring Initiative.”

“Tom's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion was always backed by actions and not just words,” said Lionel Robert, UMSI professor and director of the Michigan Autonomous Vehicle Research Intergroup Collaboration (MAVRIC). “This explains how UMSI came to have one of the most diverse faculty among ischools in the U.S."

Under Finholt’s leadership, UMSI received the 2021 Rhetaugh G. Dumas Progress in Diversifying Award, which recognizes progress in increasing faculty diversity.

It’s not about just attracting new faculty for Finholt– it’s also about supporting them and helping them grow. “Tom created a supportive peer culture at UMSI that helps junior faculty feel like the school is invested in their professional and personal success,” said assistant professor Patricia Garcia. She added that working with Finholt also showed how thoughtful and deliberate he was about decisions that impact UMSI faculty, staff and students. 

“As a former member of the Dean's Advisory Council, I learned a lot from Tom about decision-making, such as consulting others, weighing the impacts of decisions, and addressing difficult situations with care and action,“ Garcia said.

Finholt was committed to the UMSI community, said Veinot, especially during trying times. “Tom was devoted to faculty, staff, and student well-being,” she said. “He met with anyone in the school who wanted to meet with him during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and through his beloved email series to the whole school during the pandemic shutdowns.”

Posters are displayed in a room
Thomas Finholt looks over student projects during a 2018 poster fair.

A new home on North Campus

The growth of the degree programs and the increase in faculty hires meant that over the years, UMSI has outgrown its home. The school plans to move to a new building on the University of Michigan’s North Campus in 2025. The Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building will allow all units of UMSI to be housed under one roof and create a "big boost for a sense of community and togetherness.”

Finholt said that the move is also important from a disciplinary, pedological and research perspective. “Historically, the anchor fields for the school have been in the humanities— early on we were a library science program,” he explained. “Over time, there has been an increasing orientation to computational disciplines like computer science.”

Many current collaborations are with units found on North Campus. “Computer science is the most obvious one, but it's also design, music, theater and dance, and architecture,” he said. Researchers from UMSI are also delving into more projects with an engineering focus, including work on autonomous vehicles and mobility aids. 

“North Campus is the future of the University of Michigan,” said Finholt, adding that there’s room to grow and expand. “The important problems of the 21st century will be taken on first by those units in North Campus.” 

Sharing a building doesn’t mean UMSI is merging with computer science, but it does acknowledge that many faculty hires have computer science backgrounds. “The School of Information represents a kind of trajectory that computer science departments themselves might be on which is to be more engaged with practical problems, problems in the real world that concern social justice, health of communities, and so forth,” Finholt said.

People sit at long table
Thomas Finholt pictured during an event with officials from the city of Lansing.

The Future of UMSI

Finholt said while the School of Information has changed a lot over the past decade, there’s still room to grow. He hopes the new programs like MADS continue to solidify, UMSI programs will grow in diversity and representation, and the school will grow into its new home on North Campus. 

“We have an exciting young faculty. We have almost the youngest faculty on campus. So I'm very interested to see what develops over the next few years. There will certainly be a passing of a torch. That's significant in the life of an institution: to live and thrive beyond the cohort of its founders would have been the fervent wish of the founding faculty at the school.”

The predecessors of UMSI were library science scholars and they set the tone for the present-day research, said Finholt. “They brought their concerns around the importance of free access to information, the importance of the right to read and to choose what one is going to read, as foundational for a functioning, representative democracy,” he said.

These ideals set the tone for the type of research that is done by UMSI scholars: innovative, ethical and interdisciplinary. “I think that the intermingling of disciplines creates a kind of intellectual energy and excitement that is not present in mono-disciplinary departments,” Finholt said. “The fact that we have people whose preparation was in history, in computer science, in economics and in psychology, all mixing together in this kind of bubbling stew — that makes us very attractive to prospective faculty and students. That’s our ‘special sauce.’”

Sarah Derouin, UMSI public relations specialist

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Learn more about the new Leinweber Computer Science and Information building on North Campus.