President Suresh’s Town Hall Addresses Diversity, CMU Experience and More
By Bruce Gerson
Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh hosted his second annual town hall meeting on Nov. 3 before a standing-room-only crowd in the Cohon University Center’s Rangos Ballroom. Many more tuned in virtually via webcast and Facebook Live.
Before fielding questions, Suresh provided an update on aspects of the Strategic Plan 2025, specifically on recruiting outstanding, diverse talent, creating comprehensive excellence and enhancing the CMU experience.
He noted the consensus across campus and recent approval of the board of trustees to devote a significant portion of a patent infringement settlement to benefit CMU in a lasting way. More than 80 percent of the proceeds will be put into the endowment to support student scholarships and fellowships, faculty chairs, ambitious research projects that make a real-world impact, and professional development for staff and faculty.
Suresh said the remainder of the funds would be used in support of enhancing the CMU experience. He also highlighted the recent $10 million gift from K&L Gates LLP, which will support faculty, students, and programming devoted to ethical and policy questions surrounding computing technology.
“These enhancements and others we have already undertaken are already having an immediate effect on Carnegie Mellon, most notably in our ability to recruit and retain a diverse student body, faculty and staff,” Suresh said.
“Unless you’ve been hunkered down well inside the Hunt Library, locked in a research lab or holed up in a rehearsal studio or in your office, you should have heard that for the first time in Carnegie Mellon history, nearly half — 49.8 percent — of this year’s first-year class are women students.”
He applauded the School of Computer Science and College of Engineering for their exceedingly high percentages of women in their first-year classes. Women make up 48 percent of the first-year class in SCS — three times higher than the national average — and women comprise more than 40 percent of the first-year class in engineering — two times the national average.
In regard to the CMU experience, Suresh noted efforts already underway. He said access and hours have been increased at Counseling and Psychological Services. He also mentioned the emphasis to inform students on the first day of class about campus support services and the recent Gathering at the Fence to reflect on important issues facing society.
Suresh also recognized the global visibility the university received by co-hosting President Barack Obama and the White House Frontiers Conference in mid-October.
“President Obama very deliberately chose Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, and the City of Pittsburgh, for the final major conference of his presidency because of our comprehensive excellence and track record of technological innovation,” Suresh said.
“The president came to Carnegie Mellon because of your work, work that matters.”
He said Obama’s visit and the conference generated more than 1 billion media impressions that mentioned CMU.
Questions came from various avenues. Some were submitted in advance online, some were taken from the live audience, some were posed via Facebook and others were received via slido.com, an interactive website that allows users to submit questions via their computer or mobile device.
A group of faculty members asked what CMU could do to ensure a living wage for employees of third-party vendors at the university.
Suresh said at a time of national concern about income disparity and inequality, Carnegie Mellon needs to engage with its vendors in such a way that their practices are “consistent with our values.”
He spoke about hosting CMU nightshift employees at his residence for breakfast. When he told them to stay as long as they wanted, one employee told him that he couldn’t because he had another job to go to. Suresh said he was touched when that person told him that he worked at a second job so that his son could get a university degree.
An alumnus asked how CMU plans to improve its rankings in U.S. News & World Report.
“Carnegie Mellon has a level of distinction and academic sophistication that it seeks quality and excellence rather than rankings. I think rankings should be a by-product of that pursuit of excellence and quality,” Suresh said.
A viewer using slido.com asked if CMU has any plans to change curriculum to deal with stress-related issues among students.
Suresh said this is an area that Provost Farnam Jahanian and an internal task force are discussing.
“We don’t want to lose academic rigor, but just having academic rigor doesn’t mean it has to be stressful,” Suresh said. “How do we balance the excellence for which Carnegie Mellon is known for with a culture, where in reality and perception, students and faculty don’t feel stressed-out. Do you need 15 hours of homework per week in a course to be excellent? Can you do it in 12 hours? This is up to the faculty to decide.”
President Suresh will present his annual university update in the spring.