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Spring 2018 Issue 6 (May 11, 2018)

Computer Science Department Institutes New Inclusivity Initiatives

May 16, 2018
By Gabriel Brookman '20, Contributing Writer

This Spring, the Computer Science (CS) department has redoubled their efforts to make their classes and major more inclusive to students from a variety of backgrounds. While they’ve already taken measures to welcome non-male students, this new effort will focus more on students from traditionally underrepresented ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

The Community, Equity and Diversity Initiative (CEDI) has been keeping tabs on what individual departments are doing to tackle inclusion issues on campus, like the CS department is doing now.

“Because different departments and offices around the college are working independently and coming up with their own ideas about what we should do about diversity and inclusion and equity, there’s an effort to basically just find out what is going on across campus,” said CEDI Faculty Co-Chair and Director of Biochemistry Joe Chihade. “So we’ve sent out surveys to departments and various offices around campus just asking what they’re doing. We’ve asked them to qualify these things [based on] the college diversity statement.”

On May 8, President of the Faculty and Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Jeffrey Ondich hosted a dinner discussion where CS students voiced their concerns about the department.

“I sent out the email over [spring] break, we got about a dozen people together including me, David Liben-Nowell, Layla Oesper—the whole department’s interested, but we didn’t want the room to be dominated by faculty,” said Ondich. “We had a great conversation, and what I had in mind for that conversation, and what happened, was really talking about what are people’s experiences in racial diversity, economic diversity, at Carleton. What are people’s experiences, the good and the bad?” Ondich added.

The Computer Science department has a longstanding problem with representation. “Most of the students and most of the majors, when I got here in 1991, were male and white, and for a long time that didn’t change. We don’t have a special problem there, that’s a nationwide problem. But, we had very few students of color for a long time in our courses, let alone in the major,” said Ondich.

In recent years, the CS department has gained more female students and majors. According to Ondich, “from a pure headcount point of view, we’ve been doing better than the national statistics on gender, but not as well as we would like.”

A big part of the rise of female CS students and majors is due to the work of the student organization Lovelace. “[Lovelace was designed] to create a safe space for non-male students in CS to build community,” said Maryam Hedayati ’18. Hedayati is a CS major who was on the Lovelace board in the past (present Lovelace board members declined to comment).

However, Lovelace has been successful in a large part due to the fact that a critical mass of non-male CS students already exists, which isn’t the case for other underrepresented groups.

“Gender diversity is also a problem, but I think it’s not as big a problem at Carleton as [socioeconomic and racial diversity] because at Carleton we have Lovelace which does things to work with gender diversity, and we have enough people to sustain that, whereas the other two...To be honest, it’s hard to have a support organization when you don’t even have enough people to run it,” Hedayati noted.

This lack of action for underrepresented socioeconomic and racial groups came to a head recently after several talks about gender diversity. “A student pointed out that we frequently had events related to gender diversity and not so much otherwise, and this came shortly after we had a couple of visiting speakers in a short time who were addressing gender issues in tech—which are important, and we love talking about that, and yet, this student was feeling like, ‘yeah, let’s talk about some of these other issues,’” Ondich said.

CS students who are socioeconomically marginalized may face additional hardship because of the financial requirements of studying CS. “A lot of CS things require having particular equipment and having grown up around specific equipment makes it easier. Being more comfortable using a computer makes a huge difference. CS is something where experience levels vary a lot, so if you’re coming from a school with a CS program, which most schools don’t have, that makes a big difference,” said Hedayati.

“Right now, it’s a conversation with a few people,” said Ondich. “Whether it turns into an ongoing organization remains to be seen. That would need some students with a vision for how that organization might behave… Is this going to turn into an organization? I don’t know. We’ll see.”

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