CMU's visiting policy makers are all talk, not enough action

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We’ve had a busy week here at Carnegie Mellon. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited last Friday, the Indian Ambassador to the United States Arun Singh arrived on Saturday, and his counterpart, the United States Ambassador to India Richard Verma, showed up on Wednesday. All of their talks had one thing in common: none mentioned the real problems of the issues they brought up.

This is a huge problem in policy, where high-level policy makers seem to be having different conversations than the grassroots activists and the people on the ground. At Carnegie Mellon, this culminated in a week of policy makers talking about absolutely none of the problems we actually have, and waxing poetic about the solutions they’ve found to problems we don’t have.

Duncan was on a panel along with other education professionals in Pittsburgh, including Carnegie Mellon faculty and the superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. One thing they kept coming back to in their discussions was education technology, or "ed-tech" — the idea of creating apps and programs to help students or teachers.

Though ed-tech obviously has much potential, people are so busy building these apps that no one is testing whether they are actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing: helping students learn. But Duncan and the other panelists kept talking about how wonderful it was that Carnegie Mellon was partnering with different organizations in order to continue producing ed-tech, instead of actually researching how ed-tech should be used most effectively.

A similar thing happened with both of the ambassadors that visited this week. University President Subra Suresh started off his opening remarks for the Indian Ambassador with flowery language about how wonderful Carnegie Mellon is and how many doors we could open for Indian-Americans and Indian-born students. Suresh made this speech on the same day that the The New York Times released its "Top colleges doing the most for low-income students" list. We were ranked 154th, which we should frankly be ashamed of.

I asked both ambassadors about an issue that I’ve discussed in the Tartan before: the worrying rise of Islamophobia and Hindu supremacy in India, specifically after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointment to office. Both ambassadors waved me off and gave me very well-thought-out non-answers, which, to be fair, I expected.

What I didn’t expect was the outright arrogant nature of Indian Ambassador Arun Singh. He prefaced his answer by saying that normally, he prefers to speak only about India-U.S. relations, despite having just answered a question about centralization of government in India. Singh proceeded to tell me about India’s relationship with various religions, mentioning Islam exactly zero times.

Meanwhile, the United States Ambassador Richard Verma simply told me that if I looked at Modi’s speeches, I would see that he was actually an asset to combating Islamophobia in India. Neither of the ambassadors even touched on the issue that’s been dividing the country recently: the massive protests against the use of quotas for lower-caste people applying to educational institutions and government jobs.

I think this erasure of the real issues is especially hard to combat at a place like Carnegie Mellon, where most of the student body is highly apolitical. If the Secretary of Education tells students about how great ed-tech is, they’ll believe him. If the ambassador to India and his counterpart say that Modi is combating Islamophobia, students will believe them.

I urge anyone curious about these problems to do their own research, form their own opinions, and come up with their own solutions. Because, sometimes, politicians and policy makers simply don’t know or talk about the actual issues.