President Ángel Cabrera's 2020 Institute Address

Georgia Tech
Institute Address
President Ángel Cabrera                                    
Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020
Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons

(as written, not necessarily as delivered)

This has been a truly extraordinary year. Over the past six months, we have navigated through one of the most difficult periods in our history. We have each faced unique challenges in our own personal lives. And, together, we have managed to keep Georgia Tech strong and delivering on its important mission. 

Today, despite the difficult circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic, Georgia Tech is having a bigger impact in the world than ever before. We educate more students and graduate them at higher rates. We conduct more research that helps address some of the biggest challenges we face. We drive more innovation in our local economy and are helping attract some of the most iconic companies of our time — the likes of Google and Microsoft — to our neighborhood. 

I am humbled and grateful for the fine group of people I get to work with every day. If there’s one message I want to get across today, that is THANK YOU. 

It is impossible to exaggerate how devastating Covid-19 has been around the world. The novel coronavirus has cost the lives of about 1 million people globally, 200,000 just in the U.S. — some in our very own families. In economic terms, it has caused the worst recession since World War II. According to a report from the Gates Foundation released this month, the pandemic has pushed almost 37 million people below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day. After two decades of poverty reduction, in just a few months, world poverty increased by more than 7%. In some important areas of human development, like access to vaccines in the developing world, Covid-19 has also set us back 25 years in about 25 weeks. 

At home, the pandemic has sent unemployment to historic high levels, hitting low-income communities and communities of color particularly hard. The impact has been felt in our immediate community, causing great stress to many among us and to all of us as an institution. Every day, we have faced difficult questions with difficult answers. 

The path we’ve taken at Georgia Tech is to try our best to return to campus and resume our activities safely. It hasn’t been easy. But it has allowed us to keep our important work moving forward while minimizing the economic damage, not just to the Institute but to many people whose livelihoods depend on us. 

Keeping Georgia Tech open and moving forward in this context has required an admirable amount of work, ingenuity, and compassion from everyone. I’m very proud of how our community has stepped up to find a path forward. 

  • How our students and their families adapted to changing circumstances, moved out of our campus last March, adapted to new modes of instruction, and accepted a host of new protocols when they returned. 
  • How our faculty managed to convert all their instruction to distance learning over a two-week period last spring and to a variety of hybrid formats over the summer, and how they go the extra mile every day to try to accommodate the unique circumstances of many of our students. 
  • How our research teams kept their important work going remotely and how many quickly pivoted to help us fight the pandemic. 
  • How our staff supported students on and off campus, and how they helped take care of students that were infected or at risk. 
  • How Stamps Health Services served an impressive caseload with care and professionalism and how it collaborates with public health authorities to keep us all safe. 
  • How the Georgia Tech Police Department supported testing at Tech and beyond. 
  • How the information technology staff provided the support we needed to quickly transition to remote work and instruction. 
  • How the folks in Facilities, Environmental Health & Safety, Campus Services, Administration and Finance, and Human Resources, found creative solutions to keep all trains on time. 
  • How Athletics adopted strict protocols to keep our student athletes healthy and keep practice and competition moving forward against the odds. 
  • How so many of our staff figured out creative ways to work remotely while others stayed on campus to keep our important work going. 
  • How Institute Communications kept us all up to date with the latest information and became an example of transparency in reporting timely data. 
  • How everyone found ways to deal with new personal and family challenges, taking care of children or elderly parents, while managing to get the work done. 
  • How our Alumni Association and our Office of Development quickly set up a student emergency fund that has provided more than $900,000 to more than 900 students dealing with unforeseen expenses. 
  • How everyone is doing their part every day to stay healthy and to keep others safe — from wearing face coverings to adapting to new protocols and workplace and classroom arrangements. 

I am humbled and thankful that I get to work with all of you. 

I am also grateful to those of you in positions of leadership, in the administration, and in faculty, staff, and student organizations. I know this is likely the toughest challenge you have ever faced, and I am glad you were there when our community needed you most. 

I am particularly thankful to the individuals who joined our leadership team during these times. Thank you for having the courage to serve us when it was most difficult: 

  • Kelly Fox, EVP for Administration and Finance 
  • Kaye Husbands Fealing, Dean, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts 
  • Leslie Sharp, Dean of the Library 
  • Jodi Geary, Internal Auditor 
  • Daren Hubbard, Chief Information Officer 
  • Steve McLaughlin, Provost (incoming)

Among all the things we have done to navigate this storm, I am particularly appreciative of the impressive surveillance testing we have built. Not only because it has helped us identify and contain outbreaks and curb infections, but because it shows what Georgia Tech is all about: bringing people together, collaborating, innovating, advancing and leveraging technology, solving problems, serving others. 

Georgia Tech doesn’t have a medical school or experience in clinical testing, but that didn’t stop us from developing a large-scale process for asymptomatic testing. Our faculty and staff designed a reliable process to extract RNA from saliva samples, established innovative pooling protocols, procured and coded robots and lab equipment, developed an information system to handle the data, deployed testing sites, recruited and trained personnel, obtained all certifications, and quickly reached a capacity to process 2,500 daily samples. All this, within a few weeks. This is, in a nutshell, the Georgia Tech way. 

Thanks to this system, and the commitment of every member of our community to test weekly, we’ve been able to collect precious data to help us contain the infection. This past week, we recorded infection levels below 0.4%, on par with what we found soon after move-in. And our reported cases have dropped to a seven-day moving average of five, after having peaked at 58 at the end of August. 

The vast majority of these cases, 96%, have been students, indicating two things. One, that the new protocols in classrooms, labs, and workplaces appear to be working. Two, that students are succeeding in controlling spread. 

To be clear, the battle is not over yet, and we need to remain alert and do everything we can to continue to stay safe. But our efforts are paying off and helping us keep Georgia Tech open for business. We are moving forward and are doing it together. 

I am also pleased that, while we have been dealing with the Covid-19 challenge, we continue to think about and plan for our future. 

In the past year, more than 5,700 students, faculty, staff, alumni, campus partners, and community leaders participated in dozens of appreciative inquiry sessions and helped build the foundation for a new 10-year strategic plan. 

For leading this important work, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the co-chairs, Deans Maryam Alavi and Steve McLaughlin; our consulting team under Sonia Álvarez and Frank Neville’s leadership; the steering committee; and the working groups of more than 60 faculty, staff, and students representing a wide cross section of campus. 

Of course, in the category of “no good deed goes unpunished,” Dean McLaughlin ended up being named provost, so now he’s going to have to execute the ambitious goals he helped set. It’s only fair, Steve! 

The new plan, the details of which are still being worked out and will be rolled out later this fall, is grounded in a new mission statement and values. 

The new mission declares our commitment to “developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.” 

Our values and beliefs describe the way we operate as a community: 

  • Students are our top priority. 
  • We strive for excellence. 
  • We thrive on diversity. 
  • We celebrate collaboration. 
  • We champion innovation. 
  • We safeguard freedom of inquiry and expression. 
  • We nurture the well-being of our community. 
  • We act ethically. 
  • We are responsible stewards. 

The mission and the values are not just words on paper. They describe who we are when we are at our best and who we aspire to be every day. They are also, as we have learned, our lodestar in times of crisis. Not only as we deal with Covid-19. 
When our country was shaken by a series of heartbreaking acts of violence that cost the lives of several Black people across the country, when many, including here in Atlanta, took to the streets to protest and demand justice, we at Georgia Tech came together as a community to figure out what this means for us. 

We started off by reaffirming our commitment to our core value of diversity and inclusion, to creating an environment where people of all backgrounds can thrive. We then engaged in open dialogue and self-reflection about racial injustice and inequity through a series of meetings across the Institute. We listened to one another. We listened to our Black colleagues, students, and alumni. And then we committed to action. 

We created a Diversity and Inclusion Council that will help identify issues of racism and discrimination and propose solutions on an ongoing basis. 

We created a Police Community Council composed of students, staff, faculty, alumni, and members of the Georgia Tech Police Department to ensure open communication and collaboratively identify ways in which our police department can continually improve how they serve our community. 

We strengthened training programs and created a new position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute to lead efforts in support of underrepresented minority and women research faculty and staff. Our leadership team, too, engaged in anti-racist and anti-bias training and will continue to do so. 

If our mission statement answers the question of why we do what we do, our values deal with the how we do what we do. They serve as a guide to help us make better decisions, to help us do better and be better. 

Then there’s, of course, the question of what: What is it we want to accomplish over the next decade? 

Together, we have crafted a vision of inclusive and impactful innovation, of service to the public good, of developing exceptional leaders, and producing ideas that can help us break new ground in addressing the biggest local, national, and global challenges of our time. 

That vision is grounded in six areas of strategic priority: 

  • Amplify Impact 
  • Champion Innovation 
  • Connect Globally 
  • Expand Access 
  • Cultivate Well-Being 
  • Lead by Example 

Our first goal is to amplify the impact we have in the world. A good way to look at impact is as a function, a product really, of how many students we educate and how well prepared those students are to make a difference. How much research we conduct and how much that research helps us deal with consequential problems. In other words, in order to amplify our impact, we must do more and do better. 

  • This year, we recruited the largest and strongest undergraduate class in our history, we reached historically high graduation rates, and grew past 40,000 students for the first time. We are the largest producer of engineers in the nation and are graduating more and more individuals who are leading in business, academia, and public service in Georgia and around the world. 
  • As we continue to grow and serve more students, we need to commit also to creating learning experiences that help those students grow as creative, ethical problem-solvers, ready to lead positive change. 
  • This past year, our research portfolio grew past the $1 billion mark in awards, positioning us among the most research-intense universities in the country. 
  • The impact of our work did not go unnoticed. This past spring, three Georgia Tech scholars were inducted into the National Academy of Sciences: Marilyn Brown, Randall Engle, and Arkadi Nemirovski. Marilyn Brown was also selected for the National Academy of Engineering, along with, Thomas Kurfess, Susan Margulies, and Alexander Shapiro. Dean Susan Lozier was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 
  • As we set new ambitious goals to further expand our research enterprise, we also need to concentrate research efforts on areas where we can make the biggest difference in improving the human condition, as indicated, for example, by the Sustainable Development Goals. 
  • A good example of impactful research is how we came together this year to find solutions to combat the Covid-19 pandemic: new diagnostic tools, new anti-viral treatments, new data models, and protective equipment. 
  • Another good example is the new School of Cybersecurity and Privacy, which we announced last week. Building on the strength of several hundred faculty and research staff across the Institute, and a portfolio of $180 million in research funding per year, the new School will bring together computing, engineering, public policy, and other areas to provide solutions to a critical area that is increasingly affecting how we live and work — even the health of our democracy — and to meet a growing workforce need. 

Our second strategic commitment is to champion innovation — in the way we prepare our students, how we support the economic vibrancy of our community, and how we shape the future of higher education. We have plenty of current examples that indicate where we need to double down our efforts. 

  • Academic programs like CREATE-X and student competitions like InVenture Prize have helped ignite many entrepreneurial vocations among many students. 
  • Our work through the Advanced Technology Development Center, the Engage Accelerator, Venture Lab and other similar initiatives, and the many corporate innovation labs established in Tech Square are helping build a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem around our campus. 
  • Our planned Scheller and George Towers will add additional energy to Tech Square. And the newly announced Technology Enterprise Park will contribute to the development of the neighborhoods to our south and west, which have been traditionally left out of major investment. 
  • Also, this year we have seen higher education transform before our eyes, and we have an opportunity to shape a better future. Georgia Tech was once again recognized among the most innovative universities in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The work of the Center for 21st Century Universities, and the success of the three online master’s programs created in the past few years are proof that Georgia Tech can lead the way in shaping the future of higher education.

On the international front, this has not been a great year for global student exchange. Study abroad programs have collapsed across the world as has international travel of any kind. And yet, we have found ways to keep our global collaborations alive and well, another important theme in our strategic plan. We connect globally through our Lorraine, France and our Shenzhen, China campuses, through the work of our faculty, and through new networks we are helping stand up such as the University Global Coalition (in support of the Sustainable Development Goals), which had its annual meeting yesterday virtually supported by our folks at Georgia Tech Professional Education. 

Over the past decades, we have demonstrated that our global presence is not at odds with our local responsibility. On the contrary, by becoming a global hub of talent and ideas, we can add even more value to our city and our state, and that’s why we remain as committed to connecting globally and assuming our global leadership responsibility as always. 

As a public university committed to the public good, it is essential also that we expand access, another key strategic area, especially to underserved communities, students from low income families, and non-traditional learners at all stages of life. 

  • The G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise Scholarship for Georgia residents, and the Peterson Scholarship Endowment Fund for students with demonstrated need from across the nation are great examples of what we can do immediately to lower economic barriers of access. 
  • But we need to do more to ensure that talented students who are currently underrepresented at Georgia Tech and in technological fields, in general, don’t fall through the cracks before they make it to college. While we have seen growth in the number of Black students at Tech, their enrollment is still less than 7% of undergraduates and 5% overall, and far below the city of Atlanta’s and the state of Georgia’s demographics. And while we’ve had increasing success in enrolling women, they are still a minority in our student body: 39% undergraduate, 31% overall. Among faculty, women represent just 26%. 
  • Project Engages and the work of CEISMC demonstrate how we can do this. 
  • But increasing the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities at Tech is only half of the answer. We need to also do better to build an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive. 

An important strategic area in our new plan is to cultivate well-being in our community. Our goal is to promote the holistic development of all members of our community; to extend the total person philosophy, which we helped pioneer among student athletes, to all our students; to focus on the mental and physical health of our students; and to provide the resources for all of us to develop skills to help us live healthy, fulfilling, productive lives. The new CARE Center is a good example of the types of initiatives that will help us achieve these goals. Since it opened last August, it has already served more than 1,700 students. Stay tuned for some new initiatives coming this year. 

Finally, our strategic plan commits us to lead by example in the way we manage our own core activities. Our campus; our administrative processes; our information technology; our use of data; our inclusive, supportive work culture; the way we lead people ought to be examples of the best practices we teach and help others adopt. Just like the Kendeda building has become a tangible manifestation of sustainability and social inclusion and an inspiration for our students, so should every other aspect of our practices. 

Speaking of leading by example, I want to take this opportunity to recognize Provost Rafael Bras on his exemplary service to Georgia Tech. In January, he announced his plans to wrap up his tenure as provost and return to his teaching and research. When he does that at the end of his month, he will do so with the satisfaction of having led us through a decade of impressive growth and transformation. 

Under Rafael’s leadership, Tech increased enrollment by 74% and now has as many graduate students as undergraduates; created new degree programs; expanded cocurricular and extracurricular programs; launched Georgia Tech Arts; transformed the campus; increased international collaborations, started a new campus in Shenzhen; and devised new, accessible pathways to graduate education and alternate educational options for learners around the world. 

Since 2011, Georgia Tech has reached more than 4 million learners through MOOCs. In 2013, Tech pioneered a new path to graduate education with the Online Master of Science in Computer Science program, and followed it with programs in analytics and cybersecurity, enrolling thousands of learners. In 2015, Provost Bras launched the visionary Commission on Creating the Next in Education, a roadmap for the future that has made waves across the nation. 

We are grateful to you, Rafael, and indebted to you for your service. Together with our new provost, Steve McLaughlin, and a new generation of deans and senior administrators, we take the baton from you with a firm commitment to keeping Georgia Tech on this trajectory of growth, innovation, and impact. 

Let me close where I started: by thanking each one of you for your commitment to Georgia Tech and our students during this difficult year. 

The challenges we have faced have been significant, and we can be proud of how we have responded. And I am convinced that this experience will ultimately make us stronger. More committed to our mission of Progress and Service and to the idea that technology, the science that supports it, the scholarship that guides it, and the leadership that deploys it can help us improve the human condition — and more open to envisioning new ways to deliver on that mission. 

It is in places such as Georgia Tech, with extraordinary talent and a strong mission of public service, that we will find our best path forward as a society. That’s what we have done this year. Together.