Devaluing humanities is harmful to CMU overall

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The Wednesday before last I attended an open town hall, the last of three, that the university held to discuss the 2015 Strategic Plan. I also had the privilege of attending a discussion on Carnegie Mellon culture and community at President Subra Suresh’s house the next day with a host of university administrators and about 35 other students.

The Strategic Plan is built on three main pillars: Transformative Teaching and Learning; Transformative Research, Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship; and The Transformative CMU Experience. Although the details of the plan haven’t been finalized, at the town hall the leaders of each respective branch of the plan presented some of the possible strategies for addressing their focus.

It is refreshing to see the administration actively working to change the Carnegie Mellon community for the better. Too often the university’s plans focus on abstractions and buzzwords more than implementing strategies that create tangible effects for the student body. At the town hall there were plenty of buzzwords — innovation, entrepreneurship, and metacurricular, for example — but also lots of solid plans for action. Administrators talked about, for instance, the possibility to take more classes as pass/fail and ensuring that the number of units assigned to a class accurately reflects the workload of the class.

The town hall also provided an open forum for students, faculty, and administrators to discuss the Strategic Plan. Although the town hall was not particularly well attended, it is in line with Dr. Suresh’s emphasis on hearing the ideas of the student body, one of the main tenets of his presidency so far.

Suresh’s presidency has also focused on improving the university’s reputation. One thing that affects the university’s reputation — measured mostly by how it’s ranked — more than anything, Suresh says, is current student and alumni giving. The 2015 Strategic Plan aims to create a “Transformative CMU Experience,” one that can be measured by how many current seniors and recent alumni donate to the university.

It’s obviously frustrating when the university asks for more money when many students are already struggling to cover ever-increasing tuition costs. For me, however, it’s more frustrating that the university seems to care about some alumni and students more than others.

Carnegie Mellon, harkening back to its roots as Carnegie Tech, pioneering advancements in computer science and artificial intelligence in the ’60s and onwards, has always been a school focused on technology. When the university chose Dr. Suresh as its president — former director of the National Science Foundation and an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Technology — it was no surprise.

However, Carnegie Mellon will never rise to the ranks of our so-called “peer institutions” — which, according to the administration include schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford — unless it rounds out its humanities offerings and stops measuring success with metrics that cater to students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Although all of these peer institutions boast impressive donation rates and even more impressive endowments, they also have humanities departments with reputations to match their STEM departments, something that Carnegie Mellon glaringly lacks.

At Carnegie Mellon, success upon graduation is measured by salary. Departments of our university, from our Office of Admission to our Career and Professional Development Center, use money as a benchmark of success. For many, Carnegie Mellon is essentially a pre-professional school: You major in chemical engineering to become a chemical engineer, architecture to become an architect, and so on. Carnegie Mellon’s admissions process reinforces this by forcing prospective students to choose a college and intended degree when they apply.

You can be undecided up to a point. You can, for example, know that you want to be an engineer, but not exactly which type of engineer. If you’re completely undecided, however, you’re part of Dietrich College, which emphasizes a broad “liberal arts” education but, at the same time, makes it difficult for students to experiment with classes across disciplines. The university does not encourage students to pursue educational passions that don't have an immediate professional application.

As far as salary as a metric goes, Dietrich College is in relatively good standing. Dietrich College's post-graduation salary averages are high, but they are skewed by students in the college's more interdisciplinary programs, like information systems and decision science, which tend to churn out high-earning employees.

While this is part of a larger, national discussion on the role of the humanities and liberal arts in America, it’s particularly relevant at Carnegie Mellon, a school founded by technical innovators and with a strong focus on technology that it can’t seem to move beyond.

The university acknowledges the many arguments that have been made for the humanities, at least implicitly. Last October, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter visited Carnegie Mellon to give a lecture full of such arguments. In his lecture, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation," Souter reminded students that an education in the humanities teaches students to embrace multiple perspectives both when looking at a problem and defining a solution.

Carnegie Mellon also sponsors Odyssey, a Winter Break program in which selected sophomores learn to write a personal essay. Carnegie Mellon recognizes the significance of education in the humanities, so why won't it devote resources to improving and bringing prominence to its offerings in Dietrich College?

The university did take a step in the right direction last week, when it announced the creation of the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS). The IPS, according to a university press release, will "serve as a center for research, undergraduate and graduate education, and university-wide initiatives in the fields of political science, international relations, national security policy and grand strategy." Initiatives like this one are encouraging signs that Carnegie Mellon is willing to lay the groundwork for a future that focuses on and recognizes the significance of the humanities. However, they don't go far enough to correct a 100-year-old imbalance.

The nascent Strategic Plan includes several strong points and proposed initiatives, from what I’ve seen and heard so far. If Dr. Suresh and the rest of the administration want to significantly improve the university’s international stature, however, they need to focus on metrics past money. Instead of deemphasizing the humanities and social sciences disciplines behind a screen of STEM, the university should push their offerings in the humanities and social sciences to the forefront, and devote the same resources given to its other programs to Dietrich College.