Like many of you, I have struggled to process the senseless, heartbreaking killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. It is hard not to see a pattern of violence against black people when this tragic death comes on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting right here in Georgia, Breonna Taylor’s in Kentucky, and so many others before them across our country. I acknowledge the pain many members of our community are feeling, and I stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters and all people of good will as we find a path forward.
The Bankinter Innovation Foundation, a leading Spanish think (and do) tank, asked me to comment on the impact that the covid-19 pandemic will have in universities around the world. My answer (in Spanish) is that this crisis is perhaps the most transformative event in the history of higher education and that some of its long lasting effects will be for the better (“Esta crisis nos ayudará a cambiar para mejor”).
The COVID-19 pandemic may well be the mightiest challenge many of us have faced in our lifetimes. And yet, amid all the uncertainty and difficult choices we have been facing, I have a great sense of optimism about the future. Every day, I am inspired by the creative work that is happening at Georgia Tech and other universities across the world, the positive attitude of our students, faculty and staff, the willingness of everyone to do whatever it takes to move forward and get the job done, and the sense of compassion and responsibility across the Institute and our broader community. Not only am I convinced we will deal with this challenge successfully, but I feel the process will help us connect more deeply with each other and our humanity.
The mission of Nike is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” (and no, they are not giving up on market share as they define “athlete” as including “all of us.”) The mission of The New York Times is to “seek the truth and help people understand the world,” in order to make our lives richer, our society stronger and more just (and yes, in their view, selling more subscriptions helps enrich more lives). The mission of the National Geographic Society (which, for full disclosure, I participated in writing) is “to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world,” a statement that has helped the Society shift its main focus to scientific exploration, education and storytelling after it outsourced its commercial assets.
Ángel Cabrera, Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, Atlanta, February 29, 2020. Memorial Service for Ford C. Greene (Feb. 23, 1944 - Jan. 25, 2020). Ford Greene was one of the first three African American students to attend Georgia Tech.
As an institution, Georgia Tech has been proud of the fact that it was the first university in the deep South to integrate without a court order. There were no riots and little controversy as compared to other places. So, for decades, we lived under the comfortable illusion that integration on our campus was smooth and painless.
In the mid-1990s, Tech President Wayne Clough asked the Georgia Tech Foundation to buy $60 million in land on the south, west, and north sides of campus for expansion. He wanted Tech to be more of an integral part of the Atlanta community and have room for growth. The request to “jump the connector” was an “add on” at the Georgia Tech Foundation annual meeting in Sea Island. Georgia Tech Foundation Chair Charlie Brown told the group, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got an option on some old, worn-out buildings with some land growing up in weeds over across the interstate on Fifth Street near The Biltmore.” He said it was thinking outside of the box. After much discussion, the Foundation decided to purchase the land, with absolutely no plan for its use.
One of the visits we found especially impactful was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown. It was a powerful experience that made us reflect on the magnitude of the impact Atlanta had on the entire nation and beyond during the Civil Rights movement. And it inspired us to think of how much more we are poised to do.
Right after we arrived, Congressman John Lewis invited me to his office. We talked about the Civil Rights movement and he shared some historic photos. I was moved by the cover of Life magazine of that day in 1965, when at the age of 25, he led several hundred people across the bridge in Selma to protest segregation. He, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of other young leaders at the time, put their lives on the line to demand justice for the oppressed. Their courage helped transform an entire nation for the better and sent a message of hope around the world that still resonates today. The epicenter of that movement of hope and social change was right here in Atlanta. It grew out of churches around Auburn Avenue, classrooms in the Atlanta University Center, and the hearts of people who were committed to a better future.
I feel strongly that it is now our turn to take up the mantle. There are still many bridges that need to be crossed to make our society more just and prosperous, to bring about freedom, opportunity, and peace to people around the world, to help us all live healthier, safer, more enlightened lives. And much of that work can once again start here in Atlanta, in the classrooms, the labs, the innovation spaces at Georgia Tech.
Several years ago, a group of organizational behavior scholars at Case Western Reserve University started experimenting with a surprisingly simple yet revolutionary idea: what if you brought people together not to discuss problems but to reflect on what is going well? Thus was born a management tool now referred to as “appreciative inquiry.” The idea is to facilitate conversations about the things that work well in an organization—its strengths as opposed to its dysfunctions. And by doing that, it turns out, organizations can become even better. The goal is not to deny or ignore the issues that need to be addressed, but to prepare the organization to address those issues from a position of strength and confidence, grounded on a shared sense of purpose, impact and an exciting vision about the future.
This weekend in New York I will be working with a group of university leaders from around the world and faculty champions from Georgia Tech and other leading universities to identify ways in which universities can best help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are 17 goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 representing some of the most consequential and complex problems we face as a species. The Goals range from poverty and hunger, to health, gender equality, climate change and ocean biodiversity and include specific targets that we need to achieve by 2030. They are not nice-to-haves, but essential to the long-term sustainability of life and human development on our planet.
As a university driven to improve the human condition through technology and committed to the motto “progress and service,” Georgia Tech is uniquely positioned to lead and make a significant contribution on many of these goals. Since I returned to Georgia Tech I have been amazed by the work that is already happening across disciplines and departments: whether inventing a new toilet that can help reduce child mortality due to diarrhea and other infectious diseases, to accelerating the reduction of cost of renewable energies. From artificial intelligence, to business and policy, engineering or biology, we have the talent and the resources to make a difference.