Dean’s Blog: Addressing Inequality

I wanted to share with you a message I shared yesterday with our School of Data Science current students, recent graduates, and team regarding events cumulating in the death of George Floyd. In so doing I stand with you in deep sadness, grief, and frustration. We intend to turn this emotion into action. By being transparent in what we propose to do, you can hold us accountable. Please read the message, in full, below.

It was only weeks ago that I addressed the 2020 graduates of our MSDS program with the words “the world you are entering is not the same world we saw when you started this program.” In some ways, I see now, we are very much in the same world we were in one year ago, or one hundred years ago: a world marked by stark inequalities in economic well-being, mobility and freedom, health and safety; inequalities shaped by race; by the systematic marginalization, exploitation and targeted violence against members of the African diaspora in the United States.

The killings in recent weeks of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade at the hands of police are far too familiar, echoing similar cases that have made headlines (and so many that didn’t) in the last decade, but also calling to mind the lynchings of Black men and women during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the brutality inflicted on the enslaved Black bodies that built this country.  Here in Charlottesville, where the chants of white supremacists who invaded our community in August 2017 still ring in our ears, the significance of these killings and their connection to racist ideologies provokes even deeper outrage and despair.

As of this writing there have been protests in cities large and small, calling for the arrest of the officers involved in George Floyds’ death, and a reform of the systems and policies that too often allow such acts to escape consequences and justice. These protests arise in the context of economic crisis and global pandemic, both of which have disproportionately impacted Black, Native and Latinx communities. They arise in the context of extreme political polarization as our leaders remain silent or, worse, fan the flames of civil unrest.

I write to stand in solidarity with all who are outraged, all who are hurting and all who are fighting to defend their communities and stand for justice. All of us in the School are ready to listen and support those who need it. But words and shoulders to cry on are not enough.

That is why I, with all of our faculty and staff behind me, stand ready to commit the resources, time, expertise and reputation of the School of Data Science to movements seeking equality.

We are a young school, founded less than one year ago, and still understaffed.  However, we do have an endowment and a stable (as of now) level of tuition revenue. We know that to be in this position during the economic uncertainty engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic is a privilege that we are duty-bound to place in the service of justice and the social good. From our inception, Data Science at UVA has sought to center ethics, inclusion and transparency in all we do. I detail what we have done and what we commit to do, within our small corner of the world, to support the fight for equality. Most of these actions have been in development for some time, but the urgency of this moment has prompted us to accelerate, refine and reallocate resources and efforts.

I have instructed our Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, chaired by Reggie Leonard and Claudia Scholz, to monitor these efforts and make recommendations for continuous improvements and expansion.  Our search for an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which had been put on hold due to the recent hiring freeze, has been revived.  We expect to post the job description within ten days and I call on all of you to spread the word so that we can recruit and appoint a dynamic leader to this executive position by the end of the year. This individual will be a key partner as we work together to build diversity, inclusion and transparency into the very fabric of our school, as well as our local and national academic communities.

Since its founding, our MS in Data Science program has “Big Data ethics” as a core course to assure our students enter the workforce with a solid understanding of how data-driven decisions can be shaped by and perpetuate racial and other socioeconomic inequalities. We took this one step further with the founding of the Center for Data Ethics and Justice. This Center has hosted (and will continue to host) a speaker series with a focus on the intersection between data science, social justice, and relational ethics to create the theoretical foundations for a just and responsible data science. Today I announce two new positions to be added to this Center for the continuation of its program. With these positions, we explicitly seek to strengthen our commitment to social justice as part of the Center’s mission. Please share the job ads widely when they are posted.

First, we invite applications for a Postdoctoral Research Associate position in Responsible Data Science, to start this fall. The successful candidate will teach data ethics and pursue research and advocacy at the intersection of data science and social justice.

The second position is a Data Activist-in-Residence.  We will post an ad in the next ten days inviting activists, journalists or artists who are engaging critically with data science, automated decision systems, or related technologies, to spend a year or more with us to pursue scholarly, outreach, advocacy, educational and/or artistic pursuits.

Our 8th cohort of MSDS students will begin their coursework this July. For the first time, we were able to offer need-based financial aid to these students, broadening access to data science training and the career opportunities it opens up. We are currently exploring options for collaborating with a Foundation to offer merit-based aid to support Black students who enroll in our online or residential MSDS programs. More information on these awards will be forthcoming as we explore collaboration on these kinds of opportunities and do the needed financial planning.

For the last four years we have supported PhD students from across Grounds who were engaged in data-driven interdisciplinary work through our Presidential Fellows program. In 2020-21 we intended to put this program on hold as we prepare to launch our planned PhD program in Data Science. Today I announce the availability of four Presidential Fellowships available to current UVA PhD Candidates who are members of groups underrepresented in Data Science.  These four fellows will receive full graduate stipends and tuition for the 2020-21 academic year and work with SDS faculty to launch collaborative research in Education, Medicine or Business. Other fields will also be considered, but a strong background (whether formal or informal) in statistics, computer science, systems engineering or related fields is required to work on a data-driven project. As we move forward to expand the school’s research program, we will continue to allocate graduate and postdoctoral fellowship funds to members of underrepresented groups. 

Our MSDS students carry out capstone projects as part of their degree program.  Under the guidance of a data science faculty member, apply the tools of data science to a real-world problem, often in the areas of business and finance, biomedicine, digital humanities and other fields.  Today I announce that we have extended the deadline to apply for a capstone project for 2020-21.  We will waive the capstone fee for up to two organizations working for racial and social justice.  If you have a data analysis need, please review the call for proposals and contact Dr. Scholz to discuss your project idea.

Our Advisory Board is a key resource that guides our education, training, research and operational efforts.  We had planned to expand the size of this board to incorporate more perspectives and viewpoints. Today I commit to recruiting two additional advisers who are members of underrepresented groups to both counsel and hold us accountable to continuous action toward our ideals of an open, inclusive, and responsible data science.  In a few months we will introduce a new Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.  This new leaders’ first order of business will be to establish an Academic Advisory Board to review our curriculum and research efforts.  I hereby commit that this board will have representation from Black and Latinx communities.

Our research, education and service portfolios are still in development. To inform these efforts we support seminars and informal gatherings through such events as “Think-Grapple-Innovate-Fridays”, informal convenings to bring Data Science faculty staff and students together with potential partners from across Grounds to explore areas for collaboration. We will host one of these meetings on the role of data science in issues of equity and justice, and a separate communication will provide information on joining that conversation. We also support lunch and learn seminars, a Women in Data Science symposium and Datapalooza. These events will continue to include and further amplify the role of data science in addressing issues of equality and justice.

As we build our School, it is vitally important that we create opportunities and pipelines into social research and leadership positions in the emerging discipline of Data Science. We ask all of you to spread the word about our open tenure-track and teaching faculty positions. We must assure that our applicant pools reflect the diversity of the discipline as a whole.  We are redoubling our recruitment efforts to build a pipeline into our faculty community and to address the concerns raised by UVA’s Black Student Association and others. More details on these efforts will be forthcoming as we refine the audiences, venues and networks we will partner with to attract excellent Black data scientists and researchers to UVA.

The efforts I have outlined above are sincere, but I know they barely scratch the surface of what UVA as an institution and data science as a discipline owe marginalized communities. And while these commitments focus on racial disparities in our discipline, we do not yet have a plan to address the violence against these communities by state and nonstate actors that has provoked the protests. We will continue to work to address the injustices we observe in the world and count on your insights and contributions to guide us and hold us accountable. This afternoon President Jim Ryan established a racial equity task force. We look forward to supporting this group’s efforts and look forward to hearing their recommendations about how we can be better allies in the fight for justice and equity.

In Care and Solidarity.

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About Phil Bourne

Stephenson Founding Dean of the School of Data Science and Professor of Data Science & Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia