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Task Force tackles abstract task of improving campus climate

On Aug. 22, President Farnam Jahanian notified the Carnegie Mellon community of the new President’s Task Force on Campus Climate, an initiative intended to make the campus culture and environment better for all members. Though the appointment was motivated partially by the resignation of Dr. Lenore Blum and Dr. Manuel Blum the week prior, President Jahanian was careful to note that the Task Force is not entirely reactive; the occasion provides campus leaders with the opportunity to “check in with our community, reaffirm our commitment to our values and identify ways for us to do better in living up to them.”

Lenore and Manuel Blum, longtime and influential computer science professors, announced their resignation in mid-August, citing professional harassment and sexist management practices. Lenore Blum, in an interview with NEXTpittsburgh, said that her decision has led to a strong response from the Carnegie Mellon community: “many [women] expressing almost a cathartic relief that I had dared to air experiences they recognized. Many thanked me and wrote about their own stories, in poetry and prose.” She later continued, “I am talking about sexism in the workplace. Subtle biases and micro-aggressions pile up.”

The metaphorical pile she’s referring to is what campus leaders are now labeling “climate.” In the past three to five years, schools across the country have created similar climate initiatives as knowledge about microaggressions and other subtle forms of oppression have reached the mainstream. At Carnegie Mellon, climate is loosely defined as a measure of how inclusive, equitable, respectful, and understanding the community is of all our members.

“That’s where we’re starting,” said Jodi Forlizzi, Task Force co-chair and professor of design at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, in an interview with The Tartan. “As a Task Force, we’ll come up with more specifics on what exactly that means.”

The full list of Task Force members was released on Sept. 26, consisting of 3 co-chairs and 29 members from a variety of groups in the Carnegie Mellon community, including undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. With such a large team, Forlizzi and her co-chairs aren’t certain how the responsibilities will be delegated yet, though she hopes to convene a meeting of the full Task Force in the next two weeks. She likened the Force to a flock of birds to describe how it might form and reform around priorities and initiatives. “It’s a huge set of things that we could do,” she said, giving a nod to the scale of the project.

Though she was smiling while she said it, her analogy echoes the importance of flexibility in this initiative. The official charge, as specified by President Jahanian, consists of both proactive and reactive solutions to issues surrounding the campus climate. Because there are so many stakeholders and numerous related initiatives on campus, members of the Task Force will have to be open to as much information and conversation as possible. The website features a name-optional feedback form where faculty, staff, and students can submit inquiries and suggestions to be read by the co-chairs themselves. With such a large team, however, Forlizzi hopes the Task Force will be able to connect face-to-face with as many people as possible.

“Anyone is welcome to come and talk and learn more,” she said, noting her open-door policy. In the few weeks since the announcement of her role, she has already heard stories from a few community members. The goal is to keep these personal dialogues going throughout the year and to ensure that all of the Task Force members are engaging in them. “I hope everybody is approachable,” she continued. “People have agreed to serve and that means having conversations and listening.”

Listening, and being listened to, is something that Lenore Blum felt was missing from Carnegie Mellon when she left. After starting Carnegie Mellon’s successful Project Olympus incubator and serving as co-director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) for a number of years, Blum witnessed a sharp change in management when the CIE recently became the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. “The equitable balance became one that, I’ve come to understand, is inherently sexist,” she told NEXTpittsburgh. “This corporate model, with a CEO-like position holding almost complete control [...] enables wanton abuse of power given bad actors at the helm.”

The Swartz Center has a new home this year in the Tepper Quadrangle, the building whose namesake is well known for hypermasculine work environments. In 2010, New York Magazine ran a feature on David Tepper’s Appaloosa Management, describing an almost entirely male office that resembled a “wealthy frat house,” complete with a detailed, larger-than-life bronze casting of a pair of testicles.

As Carnegie Mellon celebrates the Tepper Quad and the wonderful opportunities it brings to campus, Blum’s words beg the question: what kind of culture is being invited into this school? The Task Force is challenged with answering this question, and with making sure that our growth doesn’t come at the cost of an equitable, inclusive, and empowering campus climate.