President Subra Suresh reopens dialogue at fall 2016 Town Hall

Yiyuan Chen Nov 6, 2016

On Nov. 3, Carnegie Mellon president Subra Suresh hosted the second annual Town Hall at Rangos Ballroom. Over a hundred community members attended the event, while five thousand viewed the hour-long meeting online through Facebook Live. The first town hall meeting took place on Sept. 30 last year. The event aims to begin a transparent dialogue between university administration and global Carnegie Mellon community. Select questions from both the attendants and the online audience were answered by President Suresh after an opening speech which summarized the changes that have happened since the last meeting.

In the opening remark, Suresh announced that the recent $10 million endowment made by K&L Gates Foundation will be used toward promoting scholarship throughout the university as well as to initiate a biannual conference focusing on artificial intelligence and ethics. In addition, Suresh introduced the President’s Advising Board, an external group of higher education professionals convened recently to improve the wellness of all community members.

The brief opening speech was followed by an open Q&A session with the audience. Felicia Evans, a current staff member at Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute, initiated the dialogue with a question concerning the specific steps Carnegie Mellon takes to ensure diversity within the institution. “In academic units,” remarked Suresh, “we make sure that we attract the best and the brightest representing different perspectives, different life experiences and different viewpoints.” Moreover, Suresh mentioned a sensitivity training program for the faculty members initiated last year to reinforce the respect and equality among members of the Carnegie Mellon community.

Diversity was a recurring theme of this open dialogue, and was brought up later in a question from Facebook regarding the rising undergraduate tuition cost at the university. “The reason we cannot make [need-blind admissions] a policy is because we do not have the resources to make it possible for all [qualified students with demonstrated needs] to attend Carnegie Mellon,” said Suresh. He stressed that, because of the size and history of the university, Carnegie Mellon’s endowment at the moment is limiting its ability to achieve the same level of diversity as its peer institutions, but diversity at Carnegie Mellon has improved gradually over time.

The second question came from Daniel Gingerich, a Ph.D. student studying engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, who raised a question about gender parity in the graduate school of Carnegie Mellon. Gender parity was repeatedly mentioned by Suresh in his opening speech: female students made up an unprecedented 49.8 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s Class of 2020, and 48 percent of the first-year students in the traditionally male-dominated School of Computer Science.

In response to Gingerich’s question, Suresh claimed that the Carnegie Mellon faculty and staff were “taking a proactive role” to include more women into fields such as engineering and computer science since women’s participation in these fields is lacking. He stressed that this issue can only be resolved on a case-by-case basis, and that it requires the university “to have over a billion dollars” of funding to attract the more capable female scholars to the institution.

The settlement of the patent infringement lawsuit between Carnegie Mellon University and Marvell Technology Group Ltd., which resulted in a $750 million payment to the College of Engineering earlier this year, was brought up in the Q&A session. Suresh explained that about one-third of the payment went towards the College of Engineering, benefitting departments such as Electrical and Computer Engineering and its sub-department Data Storage System Center (DSSC), where the invention took place; the rest would become part of the university-wide endowment used mainly towards supporting students instead of on infrastructure of the university, such as the Tepper Quad. The $200 million funding required to complete the Tepper Quad project would come entirely from fundraising.

Topics such as the physical and mental fitness of Carnegie Mellon students and the university’s relationship with their indirect employees through vendors were also discussed during the hour-long dialogue. At the end, President Suresh encouraged all members of the community to partake in improving the university as a whole. “We very much welcome you to join in this conversation,” said President Suresh at the end of the dialogue, “not just today, not just once a year, but continuously.”