CMU must repay Pittsburgh

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Carnegie Mellon University has consistently established itself as a top proponent of revitalizing Pittsburgh. A detailed 2017 report argues that hundreds of Carnegie Mellon startup companies provide for the greater Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania region. The report also boasts that the university produces $2.7 billion in annual economic impact for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With its innovative research and projects, Carnegie Mellon helps communities locally and globally.

However, Carnegie Mellon's “innovations” come at a cost. Many Pittsburgh residents are harmed by university systems, policies, and research that are often passed off as being helpful toward the community.

Just last week on the private Facebook page Overlooked at Carnegie Mellon, members of our community revealed the institution’s blatant erasure of predominantly black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh through maps on our website and in the Cohon Center. Although the university apologized and claimed this was an unintentional mistake, many share the sentiment expressed last week by The Tartan junior staffwriter Liam O'Connell: it was purposeful enforcement of “a legacy of racial and economic discrimination in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Carnegie Mellon’s pattern of anti-blackness is not new. In 2018, Heinz adjunct professor and KDKA-TV columnist Jonathan Delano tweeted against protestors seeking justice for Antwon Rose II, writing that they were solely “blocking traffic.” Despite efforts to remove Delano from Heinz faculty for his irresponsible and racist stances, there was no statement or action from the university.

The university directly affects Pittsburghers without their knowledge through its research projects. One example is the predictive policing project by Carnegie Mellon researchers and the Metro21 Institute, which has been piloted in Homewood since 2016. It applies machine learning to historic crime data to send additional Pittsburgh police patrols to regions deemed as “hotspots” for crime. A modern continuation of broken-windows style policing, this project has been met with significant concern on the impact on criminalization and arrests in minority neighborhoods, which the researchers are not exploring. Algorithmic policing such as this has the potential to enforce biases in an already broken policing system, rather than change or remove them.

This partnership between the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and Carnegie Mellon is part of another systematic pattern perpetuated by the institution: using the community as a testbed for technology research.

Carnegie Mellon has continued straining its relationship with Pittsburgh by pushing for autonomous vehicles. There has consistently been backlash against autonomous test driving, specifically the autonomous shuttle experimentation in the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project. Despite years of multiple protests and rallies, the university and the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure support this $23 million futuristic mobility program. The Mon-Oakland project emphasizes the concept of “new mobility,” which originally included the development of autonomous shuttles. Eventually, community pushback took the self-driving shuttles off the table, but the overall project remains in progress.

There's very little, if any, communication between proponents of the Mon-Oakland project and community members. Residents in these communities do not believe their problems are addressed with trendy high-tech shuttles that cost us $14 to $17 million. On the other hand, Mon-Oakland proponents and Mayor Bill Peduto have been wanting this project to happen for years.

As Carnegie Mellon continues to expand throughout the city, erecting new buildings and oppressing residents in the place they call home, we must begin to make amends. If our institution can afford all these initiatives, they can definitely afford to pay up in other ways.

This is easier said than done. Like many public and private institutions, Carnegie Mellon is a corporate, non-profit, educational institution that has been granted tax-exempt status. Even though Carnegie Mellon occupies 153 acres of Pittsburgh land, we do not pay the city for the plentiful resources we use to maintain our institution.

And Carnegie Mellon has many resources to use. While Carnegie Mellon’s endowment is relatively small compared to larger and more established universities, our endowment is growing at a rapid rate. According to the 2016 annual financial report, Carnegie Mellon's operating budget "has increased by an average of 4.1% annually for the past decade". In 2018, the institution received $81 million in contributions for land, buildings, and equipment. Now, with our new Make Possible initiative, we plan to attain another $1 billion by the target completion date of June 2024.

Furthermore, the institution launched a $27.5 million research initiative with the CONIX Research Center to expand “novel architectures for large-scale distributed computing systems." This seems innocent without considering the funds come from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a federal agency that is leading the development of drone warfare.

Even in the fiscal year 2017, the university spent $172 million in direct funding from the Department of Defense for research focused on the potential of artificial intelligence to transform drone warfare. Carnegie Mellon has been confirmed to be involved with Project Maven, an initiative headed by the Pentagon to develop and integrate algorithms into warfighting systems. With federal money, Carnegie Mellon is creating weapons and technology with the goal of maintaining endless wars abroad, which do nothing but hurt people globally.

The toxic, one-way relationship Carnegie Mellon established with Pittsburgh and the world is clearly detrimental. Then on top of that, the institution continues to suck money from its students in exchange for research with questionable ethics being conducted behind closed doors. We must at least begin efforts to give back to the Pittsburgh community.

Property taxes or payment in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) are not the ideal method of contributing to the city of Pittsburgh, but they are certainly a start, especially as institutions like our own and the University of Pittsburgh continue to grow exponentially. These payments, which can range anywhere between $5 to $10 million annually, are at least better than our half-baked, if not outright harmful, attempts to engage with Pittsburgh communities.

In 2008, a Craig Street business owner expressed their fear to Pittsburgh City Paper about Carnegie Mellon’s expansion into the Oakland area: “We are competing with CMU… Once they control everything, they will determine who they want and who they don't want.” Over a decade later, this concern remains relevant. Carnegie Mellon University, with its tentacles suffocating the Pittsburgh community and our very own students, must change its ways and amend damage that has been already done.