Mike Eisenberg, founding dean of the iSchool, to retire

Dean Harry Bruce's message for the spring edition of iNews 

Dean Emeritus and Professor Michael Eisenberg has announced his intention of retiring in December. That means that this past quarter—Winter 2014—was his final teaching quarter. It gives me pause to think we will soon be without his inspiring and enthusiastic presence.

As many alumni are aware, Professor Eisenberg is the “founding dean” of the University of Washington Information School. He is the visionary brought in by the UW to transform this school into a worldwide model for information education and research.

To understand Professor Eisenberg’s impact, it is necessary to go back to the 1990s. At that time, the 80-year-old Library School was a relatively small department of the UW Graduate School, offering a single masters degree program.

In 1996, a Futures Committee assembled by Provost David Thorud was charged with determining the future of the School. This was a turbulent time for library schools across the nation—from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, at least 15 ALA-accredited schools had closed their doors. Although the UW Library Program had been successful, there was nevertheless some question as to whether it had a future on our campus.

To that Committee’s everlasting credit, their answer was a resounding yes. Committee members recognized the unique potential for developing a broad-based Information School given our region’s high-tech landscape. The Committee laid out a blueprint for such a school and equally importantly, the UW committed to providing the financial resources needed to achieve this vision.

A nationwide search for a director to refine and implement that plan led to Professor Eisenberg, who at the time was a faculty member at Syracuse University. The plan for an Information School on the UW campus could be characterized as an entrepreneurial startup.  Professor Eisenberg was the perfect person to take on this challenge—a charismatic and relentless leader with a can-do attitude and his own personal vision for this new concept called an “Information School.”

I was privileged to be a first-hand witness to the transformation that Professor Eisenberg orchestrated. He and I met in 1995, when he was on sabbatical in Sydney, Australia. Two years later, in the summer of 1997, I was teaching a summer course at Syracuse University when he was first considering the UW’s offer. We spent many hours discussing his vision for the School. Professor Eisenberg accepted the role of director and moved to the UW in September 1998. I joined him as assistant director three months later.

It would be a mistake to assume that Professor Eisenberg’s role was to simply adopt a blueprint. A great number of strategic and tactical decisions were needed to turn vision into reality. This included a steady expansion of the School’s offerings. A Ph.D. in Information Science was added in 2001, followed shortly thereafter by an undergraduate Informatics major and, later, a Master of Science in Information Management.

In 2001 the School officially became the UW Information School and was elevated to the status of the 16th independent college/school on the UW campus. “Our transformation is complete!” noted Professor Eisenberg, now dean of this new school, which he immediately branded the “iSchool”.

Initially, there was concern over removing “library” from the School’s name. But declaring this an Information School turned out to be a positive step for librarians. Over time, the changes and broadening of scope within the School have had a very positive impact upon the study of library science on the UW campus.

One of Professor Eisenberg’s bold moves when he joined as director had been to expand the Library School’s small day and evening programs by adding an online Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program. This was a boon to residents across the state, giving them ready access to this vital program. Today, the majority of our MLIS students participate through the online program.

Another success story was developing the Beverly Cleary Professorship in Children’s and Youth Services in 2005, focused on training librarians throughout the region. It was Professor Eisenberg who inspired local libraries to help contribute the resources needed to make that a reality.

The number of students studying in our MLIS program bear witness to this success. In 1999, the year after Professor Eisenberg assumed leadership of the School, 190 students were enrolled in our MLIS program. In 2013, the number of MLIS students was 349 and the iSchool's total enrollment  was 841. In 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked the UW Information School's MLIS program in third in the nation.

In 2006, Professor Eisenberg stepped down as dean and focused his attention on teaching. As dean emeritus, he would remain a great mentor to me, and an influential leader within the School.

I don’t want this account of Professor Eisenberg’s leadership during the iSchool’s startup phase to overshadow the fact that he is also a master teacher and leading scholar in information literacy. One of Professor Eisenberg’s most lauded scholarly accomplishments is the Big 6, an approach to the teaching of information and technology skills that he developed along with Bob Berkowitz. The Big 6 is used worldwide in hundreds of K-12 schools, institutions of higher learning, and corporate environments, and is arguably the most popular model for information skills. In addition, Professor Eisenberg’s corresponding Super 3 is aimed at teaching these skills to younger learners.

Through the years, Professor Eisenberg has also been the driving force for the rocketing popularity of our Informatics program. A majority of students will tell you that the passion and enthusiasm he brings to his INFO 200 class is what first excited them to pursue their study in the iSchool. When students feel that pull to pursue a program that will literally change their lives and shape their future, it says a lot about the inspiration that Professor Eisenberg is able to instill.

Even in retirement, I have no doubt Professor Eisenberg will continue to be a leader in the field. For years, he has served as an aspirational role model for faculty in iSchools around the world, frequently called on for input and guidance by those seeking to model their schools on what we have achieved here at the UW. These requests are sure to continue.

As I said at the beginning, it is hard to believe Professor Eisenberg’s passion and enthusiasm will be leaving us soon. But on reflection, they won’t. Mike has so instilled these values in our faculty, staff and students that it has become a part of the fabric of our great School. And for this we owe him our everlasting debt of gratitude.