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When Christopher Carr learned about George Mason University’s initiative to hire clusters of faculty around a singular theme, he saw an opportunity to take on a social justice challenge from an unexpected position.
Carr, the College of Engineering and Computing’s chief diversity officer, had an idea for a Social Justice, Engineering, and Computing proposal centered on technology’s impact on historically marginalized communities—a decidedly political focus for a team that would work closely with engineers.
“Many times engineers will say, ‘We're not political; we're not involved in social issues. We solve infrastructural and technical and mechanical problems,’” said Carr. “But when we’re looking at the impact of technology and who it may be harming, these infrastructural and technical and mechanical problems are political and social.”
Challenging traditional ways of thinking is exactly the point of the TTIP Faculty Thematic Hiring Initiative—Mason’s new action to promote multidisciplinary education, research and collaboration in computing. The initiative is part of the university’s effort to support Virginia’s Tech Talent Investment Program (TTIP), the plan to ensure that Amazon and the state’s tech sector have a strong and sustainable talent pipeline. As Virginia’s largest and most diverse public university, and its largest producer of tech talent, Mason figures prominently in the performance-based plan, which calls for 25,000 additional graduates in computer science, computer engineering and software engineering over the next 20 years.
“The TTIP program has provided a great opportunity for Mason to increase faculty diversity and focus them on critical national issues.” said Provost Mark Ginsberg. “The initiative is a creative way to support Virginia’s TTIP program’s charge. It will help to bring down barriers as it relates to the faculty and the selected themes. It’s a bold move designed to make a big impact.”
Last fall, faculty teams were invited to submit proposals describing thematic hiring opportunities. The decision committee evaluated 14 proposals for innovation and timeliness, alignment with Mason strengths, recruiting plans and hiring strategies.
Three proposals emerged as the top selections—the Computational Systems Biomedicine theme, led by Bioengineering’s Siddhartha Sikdar and Juan Cebral; Carr’s Social Justice, Engineering and Computing proposal; and Computer Science professor Sanmay Das’s AI, Society, and Public Policy proposal, which eventually merged with the Social Justice proposal to form an even more powerful unified theme of AI, Social Justice, and Public Policy.
Proposal teams comprise Computer Science, Statistics and Information Science and Technology faculty from the proposed School of Computing who teamed up with faculty colleagues in other academic departments, colleges and schools.
“We had many ideas with great potential, but the committee agreed that the themes selected have the potential to focus and advance research in critical areas of national importance,” said Aurali Dade, interim vice president of research and the decision committee chair.
For the AI, Social Justice, and Public Policy proposal team, the multidisciplinary focus will give Mason an entree into the national discussions around artificial intelligence (AI) and technology. Algorithms are wielding increasing power, often without safeguards or government regulations. The proposal reflects the growing concern that unconscious bias may be creeping into systems that affect areas such as mortgage approval, credit scores and hiring practices, often with destructive outcomes for affected communities.
For Das, this cluster hire will focus on interrupting systemic bias and will also identify ways to use AI to embed “fairness, accountability and transparency” into algorithmic decision making.
“We want to approach this from a broader perspective and go beyond technical definitions of fairness and really think about how algorithms can contribute to justice,” said Das.
The Computational Systems Biomedicine team is focused on the opportunities of data integration.
“Our health care system is very fragmented,” said Sikdar. “We have specialists who care for patients, and there is a lot of data and knowledge that is available, not only about these individual patients and their underlying conditions, but also the environment where they live, their communities and their socio-economic status.”
Sikdar says the goal is to utilize this broad knowledge base to deliver “precision medicine.”
“Everyone now recognizes that you can’t just treat the symptoms,” said Sikdar. “You have to take a more holistic view so that we can personalize treatments and care coordination for the individual.”
Recruited faculty will use computational methods to leverage Mason’s strengths to engage with medical, industrial and federal collaborators in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region.
“Mason already has significant strengths in computing, systems biology, bioengineering, epidemiology and health informatics,” Sikdar said. “What we are missing is what we call ‘system integrators,’ people who have the methodological expertise to bridge these gaps.”
Each team will recruit up to four tenure-line faculty over the next three years, and the allocated funds will be dedicated to faculty salaries, start-up packages and other infrastructure needs. Faculty recruited under this program may start their appointments at Mason in spring 2022 or fall 2023.
Sikdar’s team will hire four tenured/tenure-track faculty who will form a cluster between five participating departments/schools: Bioengineering, Systems Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, and Statistics.
The AI cluster will hire four faculty specializing in fairness, accountability and transparency in AI (Departments of Computer Science and Computational and Data Sciences); social justice, and the governance of AI and big data (Schar School of Policy and Government); the intersection of technology with historically marginalized communities (Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution), and the ethics of AI (Department of Philosophy in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences).
For Sikdar, diverse perspectives will be a critical part of the new team’s approach.
“We want many different ways to think about the problems. Disciplinary diversity is critical, and it is also important to recruit from underrepresented groups,” said Sikdar. “We know there are significant disparities in health that need to be factored into a systems medicine model. We need people with lived experiences who are not only motivated to address those gaps, but also have the right expertise to do it.”