President Jahanian on the key challenges facing CMU students

Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor

In anticipation of his upcoming inauguration, The Tartan sat down with President Farnam Jahanian to hear his thoughts on the key challenges facing Carnegie Mellon University students. Below is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Tartan: Could you talk about what your vision for the university is and what you want it to become over the next few years?

President Jahanian: Absolutely. This is truly an extraordinary time in the life of Carnegie Mellon. We're at the center of a societal and economic transformation that is catalyzed by digitization of information, unprecedented access to data, automation, and artificial intelligence. And the acceleration in the scale, scope, and ubiquity of these advances in technology are unprecedented. These advances of course are transforming every sector of our economy, from healthcare to transportation to finance to energy, not to mention education. And as these transformations are taking place, I look at Carnegie Mellon and the future of Carnegie Mellon, and if we don't do anything differently, we're going to continue to be a great institution. But if we are very intentional, and unapologetically bold as I say, about the role of Carnegie Mellon in shaping the next century, there are tremendous opportunities for Carnegie Mellon in leading education and research in the world, and that is my vision for Carnegie Mellon.

Now what's remarkable about Carnegie Mellon, is that we work at what I refer to as this nexus of technology and society. And the work that we do, all the way from wonderful research and education from engineering [and] computer science, to social science and humanities and the arts and the business school and so on, somehow connects this nexus of technology and society. What I think is most compelling about Carnegie Mellon University is the way we intertwine engineering, and technology and sciences, with business, policy, the arts and humanities. There are very few institutions in the world who are able to actually intertwine and connect these disciplines so seamlessly.

So where do I see the university going? I hope that in the coming years, we will be seen as the place known for advancing human knowledge, improving [the] human condition, and solving complex problems for society that require interdisciplinary skills. We're also known for inventing the future where we have broad impacts on society. And probably the most important part of our mission is preparing a new generation of leaders who imagine broadly, think critically, and work collaboratively. Stepping back, I see really two missions [for] the university: we have a research mission and an education mission, and these two missions are so deeply integrated and tied together.

The Tartan: Another topic I want to talk about is preparing students for the workforce.

President Jahanian: Oh, I love that topic!

The Tartan: In particular, I think that there's no doubt that Carnegie Mellon students will graduate with incredible technical skills and other kinds of skills and will be able to succeed in that sense, but one thing I'm more concerned about is whether Carnegie Mellon students are prepared to handle the ethical challenges of the workplace. I'll bring up a couple examples. A lot of tech companies that Carnegie Mellon students tend to go on to work at have a lot of controversies that they are coming under fire for. So there's issues of censorship, of whether these companies are monopolies, there's the extreme example of whether Facebook was contributing to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and there's all sorts of reasons to question whether these companies are forces for good. My question for you is: do you think Carnegie Mellon University prepares students for the ethical challenges that they're going to face in the workplace? And do you feel that it has an obligation to do so?

President Jahanian: I think ethics and integrity, to be candid, are central, indispensable, and defining attributes of higher education institutions. There's no question that we give a great education to our students, regardless of their disciplinary interest. So I think it's an enormous responsibility for the university to make sure that not only we give students disciplinary expertise, but we develop the whole person. And developing the whole person means giving them the skills that go beyond disciplinary expertise, including communication skills, collaboration skills, skills that allow them to be great citizens. So ethics is an important component of that.

You mentioned ethics but the examples you gave also involve privacy, so let me tie that back to technology. I think that this is one of the issues that we face. As we see society develop, as we see these advances in technology that are becoming so pervasive and impacting every aspect of our lives, what we're also seeing is that the potential impact of technology could be negative. So there are ethical, privacy, and policy ramifications of technology that have to be considered. So preparing our students not only to be inventors, but also be able to address the policy and ethical and other implications of what we invent is extremely important, and that has to be part of the education.

We have a number of courses on campus that address this, and there's an undergraduate major in Ethics, History, and Public Policy which is an interdepartmental program offered through history and philosophy.

The Tartan: I know that the courses exist, the research is happening, the major exists, but I feel like the issue there is that if you're someone who is going to choose to take these courses, you might already not be the person who needs it the most, and I'm wondering how a typical Carnegie Mellon student who isn't especially concerned or aware of these issues is going to be prepared for these ethical challenges.

President Jahanian: We also ask all of our students to commit to a set of standards to be a member of our community, and that happens in your freshman year in orientation. When you start here, we say that we have a set of community standards that we expect our students to live by. But you're actually highlighting something that's really important. The question is, in addition to the courses that are available that the students can take, can we integrate components of ethics and related topics into other courses that students take for their major? And the answer is absolutely yes and we should be doing more of that, there's no question in my mind. I would actually say that when I talk about collaboration skills or communication skills, these are the skills that we need to integrate deeply into our curriculum, not just as separate courses that students can have access to, but we should think of these as components of courses that are integrated into some of the major courses that students take as part of their education.

The Tartan: You may be aware that at the Technical Opportunities Conference, there were protests about the defense contractors that were recruiting there, and a group called the Students for a Democratic Society were trying to do these demonstrations to discourage students from applying to these companies, and they don't like that these companies, which they view as being forces for evil in the world, are recruiting at Carnegie Mellon.

President Jahanian: First of all, Carnegie Mellon has always supported students' decisions to add their voices to any debate. We seek, we value, cultivate, and support students who want to make a positive impact on society and participate in civil discourse. So the fact that there are students on campus who feel strongly about this, I think it's important for their voice to be heard, and it's important for them to have the opportunity to express their opinion. Free speech is so core to the foundation of our democracy.

Having said that, we should respect the fact that students who graduate from here have the choice of taking positions in companies that they find exciting, and we need to respect their decision, we need to respect their desires, and as long as we nurture and support civil discourse on our campus, and support individuals' rights to express their opinions in a positive, constructive way, I think we're going to end up in a better place. That's really how I feel about this.

I think your question was also getting at the issue of defense contracting. I don't want to sidestep that, I'm happy to address that. An important core value and philosophy of higher education in this country and for Carnegie Mellon is academic freedom. Faculty and students have the choice to decide whether they want to do research and work in areas that are of interest to the Department of Defense or the defense industry. We need to respect their decision, and support their academic freedom. That's really my position on that. I hope that's clear.

The Tartan: That's clear. I understand your stance on the freedom aspect of this, but even if you have a totally open view that on its face doesn't favor one type of company over another, that just through the finances of it, that leads to certain biases. So you might say that Carnegie Mellon University has no policy that favors whether a technology for social good company is recruiting versus a defense contractor. But the fact is that which companies can afford to reserve a spot at the TOC or can afford to spare staff members to go recruit at the front of Gates and greet students and give out free food there, there are going to be certain biases there. Do you worry about that?

President Jahanian: What I worry about is to ensure that companies have access to our students, and I want to make sure that companies whether they are small, medium, or large, and regardless of what sector of the economy they operate in, that they have access to our students and provide opportunities for our students. I think that's extremely important. In ways that we can facilitate that, we will do everything that we can at Carnegie Mellon whether through our colleges or central recruiting, to make sure that happens.

Beyond that, I don't think that we want to be in a position of dictating what companies should or should not recruit on campus. I think it's really important for students to be able to add their voice to any kind of discussion or debate around this topic, and we should support that without any question, but at the same time, we need to create an environment such that various companies have the ability to come and recruit our students. And that our students have the opportunity to look at various companies and various opportunities.

And we have a terrific set of programs in our Heinz College School of Public Policy as well as in our Engineering and Public Policy program that focus on policy-related issues. That actually happens in Dietrich and in our business school as well. When it comes to that, we have a large number of students who actually want to work in the public sector, and they want to work in non-profit environments. The question is: how can we facilitate that? How can we support that? So let me give you an example.

Richard Scheines, our Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences was experimenting with an internship program this last year which I think has been quite successful. I think it's really important to highlight this. We know that many of our students who are studying in certain areas having to do with science, engineering, technology, and business and so on may have an easier time getting paid internships by companies that are recruiting on campus.

On the other hand, we have a lot of students on campus who may actually be studying technical areas or maybe students in the social science and humanities college, or our college of fine arts, or our engineering college or our science college who want to go work for a non-profit, or who want to work for an enterprise that doesn't necessarily have the capacity to support them. It might be a non-profit or a startup that's doing something socially valuable, and is of interest to students.

Our Dietrich colleagues came up with the idea of supporting students during a summer, so they can go and work in non-profit and other entities that potentially nurture their interest and support them. We've started experimenting with it this past semester, and it's been enormously successful, so that's the kind of stuff that we do to create more opportunities for students.

Studies have shown that having an internship is one of the most important factors for students getting jobs after graduation. So to the extent that we can facilitate that for students who want to go work for a non-profit enterprise or be involved in community service, I think that's a healthy thing for the university and our students.

The Tartan: When I was asking people what they want me to ask you about, something that came up a lot was the question of stress culture and mental health issues. I talked to someone who said that when Carnegie Mellon is talking about what it's going to do to address these issues, a lot of the time it's focused on something like hiring more therapists or expanding access to mental health resources, but fewer efforts to address the root cause and make Carnegie Mellon a healthier and less stressful place. But obviously there's a tradeoff there because we still want to maintain academic rigor. So how do you think about that?

President Jahanian: As you know, we launched a task force on the CMU experience almost three years ago. That task force was motivated by the observation that we know that we offer our students a great education, but we also have the responsibility of developing the whole person. What that means is offering them opportunities outside the classroom as part of their education.

There is no question that Carnegie Mellon as one of the top schools in the country is an academically rigorous environment. And I admit that our expectation of excellence leads to amazing things that come out of this campus, [such as] students that educate and research. But sometimes [this] also fosters a culture of stress among our students and faculty. And you have to be very vigilant about it. You have to tackle the problem constantly and part of the reason we launched the Task Force on the CMU Experience was really to look at the stress culture on the campus and find ways that we can mitigate that issue. In fact, over the past 2-3 years, and as you can see we post on the website all the things that we do as part of the task force, not only have we doubled our resources for mental health and for student advising, but we also started investing in various services on campus to support our students.

While you may not make a direct link between the investment we make on campus, many of our students have been asking for collaboration spaces, they want space on campus where they can essentially study with their friends. So what we did with the Wean library. Every new building that we are building has collaboration spaces and study spaces as you see in the Tepper Quad. But fundamentally it's also about connecting the advising that we do academically to mental health and the support that we provide our students.

So we're investing heavily in this. Part of it is also getting our more senior students to be mentors for our freshman and sophomore students. The stress culture is reinforced by the experiences that one may have on campus. So it's really important not only to have advisors and counselors and teachers to talk to our students about us, but to also rely on our juniors and seniors to provide mentorship and support for our students, that they don't need to add unnecessary pressure on themselves.

I must tell you, we had 24,000 applications to our freshman class this year. There was a 19 percent increase in our applications this year over last year. So more and more students want to come to Carnegie Mellon. Something quite exciting is happening on this campus. And people outside are recognizing that we offer great education, we offer a great environment for students. Which means we are a very selective place. Some of the most gifted, brightest students in the world come to our campus to study. So what we need to do is to remind them that they are also, every student that comes in, why they may have come from the top 10 percent of their high school, they're surrounded by very bright students on this campus. It's a very competitive place to get to Carnegie Mellon University, but at the same time, Carnegie Mellon is a very nurturing place, the students tend to be very supportive of each other, and it's a very collegial place. So we need to constantly remind ourselves and reinforce that culture.