Q&A With College of Computing & Informatics Dean Yi Deng

Yi Deng

Historically, the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI) at Drexel can trace its lineage back to the founding of the University through the offering of a certificate program in library science in 1892. But now, more than ever, the college has to look forward to the developing and burgeoning role of information science and computer science in today’s society.

And at this crucial moment, the college recently acquired new leadership and with it, a new vision for its future. Dean Yi Deng, PhD, who officially started his tenure in the fall, is making sure that the college is in a position to lead in its field and contribute to the technology of today’s economy and society.

Q: So you’ve been working at Drexel for a relatively short amount of time — since the beginning of the academic year in September, to be specific. What were you doing before Drexel?

A: Before coming to Drexel, I served as the dean of the College of Computing and Informatics at UNC Charlotte for about seven years. Before then, I was first the director and then the dean of the School of Computing and Information Sciences at Florida International University.

Q: What made you want to come to Philadelphia and Drexel?

A:  One reason is this entrepreneurial aspect of the University. This is important particularly in this junction because of the rapidly growing and transformational roles of information and technology in the modern economy.

I was also attracted by the University’s strong leadership. That leadership is important to drive the changes forward, not only for CCI but for the whole University. That way, we can stay on the cutting edge of the societal needs, both from an education and research point of view.

Equally important, I was also attracted by the uniquely positioned College of Computing & Informatics at Drexel.

Q: What makes CCI different?

A: CCI is very unique, if we compare it with our peers across the country. Drexel is just one of a few universities that has a college dedicated to the broad areas of computing and informatics. It’s even rarer that Drexel is one of the few universities in the country that has both computer science and information science under one roof, which are the twin (and inseparable) drivers for the modern economy. The scale, depth and breadth of our faculty expertise, as well as our rich portfolio of education and research programs, are unmatched in the region.

Consequently, I think that CCI is very well positioned as a college to really lead the charge to serve the 21stcentury economy.

Q: Why is the co-op especially important for CCI students?

A: Co-op is another very unique thing about Drexel that was an attraction to me coming here. The co-op system at Drexel is very old, but it fits the modern economy extremely well, particularly in CCI’s context.

The contemporary role of information and technology is not simply about building tools or infrastructure, but rather is a key driver for problem solving and innovation cutting across our broad economy and society as a whole. In order to do that effectively, our students need to have the opportunity to understand industry and society needs, to integrate and apply academic knowledge into skills of hands-on problem solving and to develop professional skills like teamwork, organization, communication, etc.

The co-op education model, in conjunction with in-class learning, provides a comprehensive way to train the next generation so that they can become leaders, innovators and problem solvers.

Q: What is your hope for CCI students after graduation?

A: CCI students are already in the competitive position in the marketplace. Our students are very much in demand by the market. They are very well valued and respected by employers. Our students are already going to a wide range of industries to work. We want to improve that even more to enable our students to become the next generation of leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Q: What about faculty and research?

A: We have a first-class group of faculty that conducts a wide range of research with broad collaborations across different disciplines. We are at the stage of an economic transformation driven by explosion of data and information and by advances in technology, which significantly expands our ability to process and leverage the information in almost unlimited ways. This in turn provides tremendous opportunities to drive innovation and to tackle complex societal challenges. This kind of research is what we call use-inspired research or impact-driven research. Combined with the conventional basic-to-applied research model, it provides a rich environment to grow our research programs and offers great opportunities to build partnerships with industry, government and other organizations, as well as with other colleges and schools across the University. That will enable our research to impact our economy and society. The Greater Philadelphia region is one of the key centers of population, industry and economy in the nation, which makes it an excellent place for such partnerships.

Q: Where do you see CCI and Drexel’s role going in this economy?

A: Continuing the theme of our discussion, you can see that the changes and advances across different industries — from health care to financial services and energy to retail —are all enabled or driven by advancements in information and technology. For Drexel, having a college that puts these two forces represented by computer science and information science together gives us a unique advantage to enhance our impact on the economy in our region and beyond.

Q: How do you see CCI’s role in Philadelphia, especially in the tech scene and the Innovation Neighborhood?

A: There is a huge and expanding talent gap in the region and in the nation as a whole. If you look at some of the studies in the region, we have a rapidly expanding demand for professionals across the disciplines represented by the College of Computing & Informatics. Our ability to supply is far short of the market demand. We will work more closely with our industries here and will strengthen our program to train the next generation of leaders. We will also work closely with our partners to provide a better ecosystem to retain talent in the region. It’s going to be a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for CCI and for the community.

The Innovation Neighborhood initiative will have a transformative impact on the region and on Drexel’s future. CCI is an excellent position to play a significant role in this initiative. In today’s society and economy, whenever you talk about innovation, it is often enabled or driven by information and technology. We look forward to opportunities that allow our college to support the University’s priorities and to help strengthen the region’s growth.

Q: So that touches on how CCI will impact our regional economy and look at societal issues in Philadelphia. How are you looking at Drexel and CCI’s role internationally?

A: We are in a globalized economy — I don’t think that will change. The advances of the Internet, modern communication and transportation, plus a greater mobility of people, ensure that. To be a first-class research university, you have to be a global university. With the rapidly expanding role of information and technology as discussed before, this is a great time to be a trailblazer in helping to define what future computing and informatics education and research should be. In doing so, we have the potential to strengthen Drexel’s brand with a global reach.

Furthermore, our efforts to grow international presence and partnerships will be important to the future growth of both our University and our college. A good part of our faculty and student population comes from various countries and our faculty leads or participates in many international collaborations. But as a college, we are still in an early stage of building our international presence and partnerships. This is an area we will pay more attention to in the future.

Q: What are your goals for CCI?

A: Our goals are several fold.

The first is to establish CCI as a recognized innovator and leader, nationally and internationally, for what a computing and informatics program should be in the 21st century to support the rapidly changing economy. In the process, we will sharpen the identity, reputation and value proposition of our education and research programs to our key stakeholders.

Secondly, we would like to position CCI as a key enabler, catalyst and partner across the University. Given CCI’s crosscutting role as discussed earlier, we are in a good position to do that. Our success in this dimension will create win-win partnerships across Drexel and will also position CCI well to support University priorities.

In addition, we would like to position CCI as an engine for the development and growth in the Greater Philadelphia region. In our modern economy, every industry has become or is becoming an information and technology industry. It’s our goal to build a strong partnership with the industries in the region, which in turn will help to grow the indispensable support system for the University.

Last but not least, we will drive a sustainable growth-oriented strategy for CCI’s education and research programs to underpin the directions described above.

This piece first appeared in Drexel Quarterly's Winter 2017 issue.