The Undergraduate Program at SILS: Looking Back, Looking Forward

November 15, 2015

By Barbara M. Wildemuth
SILS Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor

SILS’ forays into undergraduate education began with the establishment of an information systems minor in fall 1996. Twenty students were admitted that semester, and 41 more in spring 1997. A few of them had been anticipating the establishment of the program, and so had reserved their last semester at UNC to take all five of the required courses for the minor, becoming our first undergraduate alums.  By the middle of 1998, we had reached our planned enrollment cap of 70 active students. To serve those students, we hired several new faculty members (including Deborah Barreau, Greg Newby, and Charlie Viles) and an undergraduate student services manager, Betty Kompst (later succeeded by Lucia Zonn). I was lucky enough to have the honor of serving as our Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs.

Our goal for establishing the minor was to augment undergraduate students’ disciplinary background with basic expertise related to information systems and their role in specific organizations and in society at large. While the undergraduate minor was (and still is) successful in reaching both our enrollment and our curricular goals, it did not fully integrate undergraduate students into the fabric of the SILS community and did little to integrate SILS into the undergraduate programs offered at UNC. Therefore, we decided to develop a major in information science.

The first step in establishing a new major at UNC was to submit a (112-page) request for authorization of the program, developed by Greg Newby and the SILS Undergraduate Committee. Since only four of the top 20 ILS programs at the time (Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Drexel, and Florida State) offered undergraduate degrees, we had a lot of freedom to shape our degree program in a way that would fit UNC’s strengths and culture. We solicited and received a great deal of input during the process through focus groups with potential employers, by consulting with the other schools that offered a B.S., and through a site visit by Ray von Dran, then Dean at Syracuse. The program objectives we outlined in the plan are still in place (see and include a combination of very applied goals (such as possessing practical skills for analyzing, processing and managing information) and more general goals (such as comprehending the value of information and information tools, and their role in society and the economy). 

In fall 2001, our plan was submitted for university review and the BSIS was approved early in 2002. At that point, the curriculum consisted of only the required courses. Over the last 12 years, the curriculum has become much deeper and richer. Some of the required courses have become prerequisites and several new courses have been added, including Foundations of Information Science (201), Retrieval and Organizing Systems (202), Human Information Behavior (203), and Information and Computer Ethics (384). Since the beginning, we’ve offered the option for a senior honors thesis and have encouraged the BSIS students to pursue relevant internships.

Based on our experience with the IS minor, we hoped for rapid growth in the BSIS. The plan included enrollment projections of 35 students in the first year, 85 the next year, and 100 active students by the third year. In hindsight, we can see that that was overly optimistic. While we reached the target for the first year, we didn’t anticipate the dot-com bubble bursting in 2003 and its negative effect on student interest in technology-related careers. Even so, the growth of the major has been robust (see the graph showing the enrollment each fall), and is visible in each year’s graduation pictures with the increasing number of Carolina blue graduation robes. Three trail blazers graduated in May 2003, and 19 pioneers in May 2004. In May 2015, 48 students received the BSIS, and by the end of the summer, 95% had full-time jobs or were in graduate school. We currently have 61 active BSIS students, plus 40 minors, and are expecting that we will reach our goal of 100 active majors within the next five years.

A number of milestones have been passed during the last 12 years. ISSUE (Information Science Student Undergraduates Empowered) was formed in fall 2003 by Trisha Crutchfield Jennifer Bullock Rosario and was initially advised by Deborah Barreau. While the role of Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs was eliminated in 2006, we were able to celebrate a decade of undergraduate education at SILS in 2007, with 264 alumni of the IS minor and 53 BSIS graduates. Since then, many of these alumni have become actively involved in the activities of the SILS Alumni Association (SILSAA) and the School. In fall 2011, a dual BS-MS degree was approved, and over a dozen BSIS students have taken advantage of this opportunity so far. Since 2011, Jeff Pomerantz and then Ron Bergquist have served as Coordinator of Undergraduate Programs at SILS; Tiffany Harris is the current Undergraduate Student Services Manager.

As we look to the future, I believe we’ll see continued growth of the BSIS program, in terms of both enrollment and the robustness of the curriculum. We’ll be continuing to pay close attention to the articulation between our BSIS program and our two master’s degrees, looking for ways that their strengths can reinforce each other. As you talk to your college-age relatives, be sure to let them know that they can study information science at UNC!

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 SILS newsletter (pdf).