Report of the Computer Science Task Force on Fighting Racism and Fostering Inclusion of Black Community Members (Draft)

National events during the summer of 2020, and the June Town Hall for faculty, staff, and PhD students held during that time, highlighted the importance of strengthening our policies and practices to actively fight racism and strategically foster the inclusion of Black community members. In response to input from the community, the Department of Computer Science established a Task Force for achieving these goals. The Task Force members are Becky Stewart, Bobby Kleinberg (DGS), David Bindel, Eva Tardos (Task Force Chair), Hakim Weatherspoon, Haym Hirsh (DMeng), Kavita Bala until August 15th (department Chair), Tammy Gardner, Wil Thomason (CSGO, added July 28).

In this report we summarize the Computer Science Department’s efforts (ongoing, newly started, and recommended by the Task Force) to help achieve an inclusive environment for our Black community members.

Summary of Recommendations

The Computer Science department needs to take explicit and constructive actions to improve the inclusion of Black community members from the staff, all levels of students, as well as the faculty. This report is organized by general recommendations that apply to the whole community, and offers more detailed recommendations for each subgroup.

  • We recommend that the CS department agree on a Statement of Values of Inclusion, and offer mechanisms to help the department leadership become aware if these values are not fully lived by.
  • We recommend that CIS start an Office of Diversity and Inclusion that can develop, innovate, and facilitate  programs to improve the help inclusivity of our programs and our in the community.
  • We recommend that many programs aimed at improving diversity and inclusion should be  made available  to staff, students, and faculty to help educate the community on issues of racial injustice.
  • We recommend that the CS department focus on hiring a set of Black and other underrepresented minority faculty, as well as women. 
  • We recommend that the CS department enhance and add to programs such as the (1) CSMore program and the (2) University’s Prefreshman Summer Program (PSP), and (3) work on creating new programs that help level the playing field for undergraduates from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as support the (4) undergraduate group URMC, which can serve as a complementary resource for the community.
  • We recommend that the department continue to work on building and supporting a strong community of the underrepresented students.
  • For the graduate programs we recommend that the CS department continue to work on recruiting a set of strong, diverse PhD students, and ensuring that all groups of students feel welcomed and included, and can expect to have support on the way to a successful academic career at Cornell and beyond. We recommend enhancing the Student Mentor Programs to help ensure this goal. 
  • We recommend the CS department’s diversity and inclusion committee to conduct an annual review, during which time an analysis of  data on current programming can be assessed and changes or additional programming to the departmental and unit-level administrations can be recommended.
General Recommendations
  • Statement of Values. The CS department is in the process of developing and agreeing on a Computer Science Community Statement of Values of Inclusion; a draft of the document was put in circulation during Fall 2020 graduate student orientations. 
  • Bias reporting. We recommend that the CS department Chair work with the Cornell Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX to ensure that all cases of alleged bias can be safely and confidentially reported and are thereafter effectively responded to by Cornell. 
  • CIS Office of Diversity and Inclusion. We recommend the establishment of a CIS Office of Diversity and Inclusion to work together with the Diversity Programs in Engineering to help oversee and run programs including those suggested in this report. As a first step, last year CIS introduced the position Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. This position is now held by Professor Hakim Weatherspoon in an interim capacity. 
  • Reading Group. We recommend that the CS department undertake activities that educate members of the community about the ways computing professionals are implicated in perpetuating and amplifying social inequities and injustices, and that furthermore provide a window onto  issues of racial injustice more generally. The CS department will run a “race and technology” reading group activity in Fall 2020 for faculty, staff, and graduate students focused on engaging the CS community on issues of racial injustice and the intersection of race and technology. Upon the conclusion of this first installment of the reading group, the CS department should consider whether some version of the activity can or should be repeated in future years, likely with evolving content and varied texts in response to areas of concern.
  • Bystander Training. We all bear responsibility for ensuring that the CS department is a place where every individual—regardless of personal identity characteristics—is treated with dignity and respect. Such a responsibility extends not only to times when we are the victims of behavior that violates protocols in the Statement of Values but also when we witness it occurring to and among others. To this end, we recommend that the CS department offer a Bystander Intervention Training Program to develop a culture in which all members of the community feel well-equipped to take personal responsibility for individual and group behavior and intervene when witnessing such behavior in others. The CS department is currently interacting with members of Cornell’s Human Resources diversity and inclusion team on offering, in Fall 2020, a version of their new bystander intervention training seminar.
Computer Science Staff

Currently there are training opportunities for staff and faculty in subjects pertinent to the development of historical awareness of racism and ways to combat it through the CULearn system. Most if not all of the staff have participated in a number of offerings including these most recent additions: 

  • HR 3046: Urban Policing: What’s underlying the tension between Black communities and the police department?
  • HR 3044: Why Are People Protesting?
  • HR 3046: Allyship: How Can I Support My Black Colleagues Right Now?
  • HR 202: Maintaining a Harassment Free Workplace (Mandatory for staff, faculty, and PhD students).  

Additionally, in September 2020, a required course for Cornell staff with training on equity and cultural competency will be available. The course entitled, “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cornell,” will consist of six modules, each with a required online component and voluntary community chats to deepen engagement with the material. The first module is now  available through CULearn as of mid-September. Subsequent modules will be released monthly, and all required components must be completed by every staff member by September 2021.

CIS offered the community, including staff, the opportunity to access the book  How to Be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi during the summer of 2020.  CIS staff have also engaged in college-wide activities (including webinars) lead by University leaders, such as Mary Opperman, in an effort to broaden their knowledge of  diversity and inclusion issues..  

We recommend that CS staff be offered a version of the bias training originally developed for undergraduate TAs, and also afforded continued opportunities to engage in discussion on current events both within Cornell and on the national level. We will continue to build the CS staff repository of opportunities on the confluence site with an eye toward deepening and strengthening our culture at the individual and group levels.

Computer Science Faculty

Over the last several years, the CS department paid attention to the goal of improving the diversity of the faculty through the hiring process, yet we still have a long way to go to achieve representation of faculty from diverse backgrounds. No doubt, we will need to continue to work on improving the diversity of the faculty. To this end, we strongly recommend that the CS Department continues to pay close attention to expanding the diversity of faculty candidates that are invited to interview, subsequently receive offers, as well as accept offers at Cornell. The department is already working with a number of peer institutions (through the FLIP alliance) to try to prepare a cohort of faculty candidates from underrepresented groups, and we hope, by these means, to be able attract some of these diverse students as prospective faculty. Hiring faculty, of course, first involves simply getting candidates to apply, then having them interview, making them offers, and negotiating to acceptance, and we recommend the CS Department put into place record-keeping mechanisms to see at what phases we lose candidates from underrepresented groups, and to monitor whether proposed actions  have in fact  improved retention of these sought-after candidates through the different stages of hiring. We are continually asking: what can we do, first, to attract diverse talent? And then, how can we succeed in having such talent join the ranks of the faculty—feeling welcomed and supported in the transitional stages from new hire to permanent member?  

In recent months, the CS faculty have participated in a number of training sessions conducted  during faculty meetings to improve faculty understanding of these issues. Presentations included:

  • Sara Hernandez, Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement at the Graduate School, who offered training on implicit bias and microaggressions.
  • There was a faculty meeting devoted to understanding Title IX rules.
  • Faculty took turns in helping run the undergraduate TA training—a session that included a component on understanding and combating implicit bias.
  • All faculty took the mandatory HR training “Maintaining a Harassment Free Workplace.”

The CS department is committed to expanding the range of faculty representation at each year’s ACM Richard Tapia conference.

We recommend that the CS department continue the policies and training described above, and also continue to bring innovative new learning opportunities to the department, including the bystander training mentioned above and other programs that improve the quality of the academic and work environment.

We also recommend that the faculty should practice all of the Practical Steps for Supporting Social Justice & Addressing Inequities recommended by the graduate school.

Undergraduate program

In this section we summarize some initiatives that have been planned, proposed, or executed to help URM Computer Science undergraduate students.

To support students as they become interested in joining the CS major, and throughout their career in the department, we have (or plan to instantiate) a number of programs that support our efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusivity.  For instance:

  • Last summer we started the CSMore program, a program for rising sophomores from  underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in becoming computer science majors. Through the close analysis of data, we have seen clear evidence that the Sophomore year of the Computer Science curriculum is crucial, filled as it is with a number of challenging  classes. These classes inadvertently often become gatekeepers to joining the major. To directly address this unfortunate outcome, the CSMore program was created to help level the playing field and aid  the formation of a social and academic network among underrepresented students who meet in the summer cohort. When the students begin Sophomore year—after participating in CSMore—they not only have an expanded repertoire of CS skills to help them succeed in these difficult classes, but also a group of friends, many from similar backgrounds, whom they can draw on for peer support.  In future years, we plan to hire previous CSMore graduates as TAs in the CSMore program, expand CSMore to include a module on software engineering tools, and we suggest giving the CSMore graduates enrollment priority in the relevant CS courses during their sophomore year—as if they were already part of the major—to help them take the relevant CS courses in a timely manner and with a vote of confidence from the department.
  • Starting next year we hope to help reserve spots in Cornell’s Prefreshman Summer Program (PSP) for a few additional students interested in computer science both in the Engineering college (COE) as well as the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). A number of the PSP students take the introduction to computing course (CS 1110) during their prefreshman summer. The CS department intends to hire a special TA assigned to the PSP students who take the course in the summer, thereby lending even more informed support to the students as they navigate new terrain socially and intellectually.  
  • We recommend that the department expand the offering of Academic Excellence Workshops. At the moment such workshops are only associated with the Freshman courses, so we would like to see such workshops (for one credit) also associated with the sophomore courses, or possibly, ideally,associated with all required CS courses. 
  • The CS department and CIS continue to support URMC. 
  • The CS department and CIS fund a large cohort of students attending the ACM Richard Tapia conference each year. 
  • Require each TA in any computer science course to attend a TA training that was designed by the CS department. The training includes discussion of implicit bias in addition to topics like office hours, grading practices, helping students in distress, as well as setting boundaries. 
  • We are increasingly aware of the role that computing plays in perpetuating and amplifying societal inequity. We recommend that such information be thoughtfully integrated across the entire CS curriculum, such as we see taking place in existing courses like “Foundations of AI” (CS 4700), where these topics are brought to light over the course of the semester, as well as integrated into new courses, such as “Ethics and Computing” (CS 1340)
  • We recommend running a panel discussion supported by all three CIS departments (CS, IS, SDS), as well as several student groups addressing  implicit bias and bystander action suggestions. 
  • We recommend that the department invite Ruha Benjamin to talk about Race and Technology in a colloquium that would be widely advertised to undergraduates (as well as the wider CS and CIS communities). 
MEng program

The vast majority of students in the CS MEng program fall into two largely distinct populations: (1) students who were Cornell CS undergraduates, most typically enrolled through the “early admit” program that allows students to add the MEng to the conclusion of their undergraduate studies; and (2) students who are new to Cornell, most typically arriving from other countries. Many of the initiatives discussed in the undergraduate section of this document also pertain to the segment  of the MEng community that were Cornell undergraduates. The students arriving from other countries would benefit from supplemental education on the history and persistence of racial inequality in the United States. We recommend making programs that provide such instruction easily available to newly arriving MEng students. Much the same issue arises with PhD students arriving from abroad. With this fact in mind, it may be possible and preferable that a single program could serve this educational role for both the MEng and PhD graduate student populations.

MS/PhD program

In this section, we summarize some initiatives that have been instituted, and explore others that we recommend pursuing, both related to the MS and PhD programs in Computer Science. The material in this section is grouped into four, broad categories—(1) admissions, (2) advising and mentoring, (3) resources, and (4) climate—although some of the topics span multiple categories.

Admissions

Beginning in 2018, there has been a concerted effort in the field of Computer Science to improve PhD student recruitment and admissions to improve the diversity of the applicant pool, in turn,  of the student body, and ultimately, the profession. This initiative owes its initial successes to the creativity and effort of a number of Cornell students, faculty, and staff. A summary of the measures taken to diversify Cornell CS PhD admissions was written by David Bindel after he chaired the CS Graduate Admissions Committee in 2018.

We are continuing to reform the graduate admissions process to further improve outcomes with respect to diversity. In 2020, we formalized the role of “faculty advocates,” that is, professors who “advocate” for admitting a student and indicate a willingness to try working with them. With this approach, our intent is to improve the process whereby admitted students find advisors upon matriculating at Cornell (see further discussion of faculty advocates below under the “advising and mentoring” subtopic). 

In 2021, at the recommendation of the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement, we will add a new, required prompt  to the CS graduate application:

Please describe how your personal background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Additionally, provide insight on your potential to contribute to a community of inclusion, belonging, and respect where scholars representing diverse backgrounds, perspectives, abilities, and experiences can learn and innovate productively and positively together.

We need to work hard to continue recruiting a diverse set of great PhD and MS students. The admission committee should reach out to many diverse programs, and specially encourage applicants from a diversity of backgrounds. We are also considering reforming the admission process to incorporate a possible interview with URM applicants whose fit to our program the admission committee is unsure about. Such interviews can happen via Skype/Zoom/etc, and can be done by members of the admission committee, or by possibly interested members of the computer science field.  

Finally, while all of the aforementioned reforms pertain to the PhD admission process, we also recommend taking similar steps to improve diversity in the MS program in Computer Science. This move is important both for the diversity of the MS program itself and because the program could serve as a stepping stone to our PhD programs, especially for URM students who show promise (and have great teaching experience as TAs) but lack the research preparation to get accepted directly to PhD programs. Since the MS program recruits almost exclusively from Cornell undergraduates, the first and most important step is to advertise the MS program to URM students at Cornell, identify qualified individuals (e.g., those who have worked as undergrad TAs for CS courses but who may have self-selected as prospective graduate candidates), and move to directly solicit applications from them.

In order to guide our reforms, we recommend using the data on admission collected by the graduate school, as well as collecting more detailed data, to improve the admission process. 

Advising and Mentoring

On average, Black CS PhD students at Cornell have had more difficulty finding advisors than students from majority groups. The most significant step we’re taking to address this issue is the faculty advocacy system mentioned above under the “admissions” subtopic. During the admissions process, as noted above, a faculty member may designate themself as an “advocate” for a PhD candidate. This declaration is interpreted as a soft commitment, meaning “I advocate for admitting this student and I would consider advising the student.” The list of faculty advocates is stored as a field in HotCRP, the system used for evaluating PhD applications. The data on faculty advocates is preserved for use by the Director and Assistant Director of the PhD program. For an applicant to be admitted to the PhD program, they must have at least one faculty advocate. In the 2020 admissions cycle, every admitted student had at least two advocates. Advocates were encouraged to interact with the students for whom they advocated on Visit Day, and the faculty were once again encouraged to reach out when those same students enrolled at Cornell, if not earlier in the summer before the new academic year. 

Over the past two years, we have also instituted a series of improvements to the faculty mentoring system for PhD students. Each incoming student is now assigned two faculty mentors: an “in-area mentor” in the student’s research area and an “out-of-area mentor” deliberately chosen to be in a different area. In-area mentors are required to meet with their mentees at least monthly, and out-of-area mentors must meet with their mentees at least once during the first year. We provide students and their mentors with a “script” recommending some potentially useful discussion topics, and we track these meetings using a spreadsheet and send reminders to mentors whose meetings with mentees are overdue. (Prior to 2020, we used only out-of-area mentors, and they were required to meet with their mentees at least three times during the first semester and at least once during the second semester.)

In a graduate program composed of students with more varied backgrounds, it is important to take deliberate action to share common knowledge about such things as strategies for academic and professional success. To this end, we have enhanced the CS department’s weekly Brown Bag seminar to include a series of professional development talks and panels. The spring 2020 Brown Bag covered the following list of topics.

  • How to give a talk
  • CRA best practices memos
  • Outreach and Code Afrique
  • Career paths for CS PhDs
  • How to pick a research problem or academic advisor
  • How to tell a technical story
  • Contemplating collaboration
  • Publication venues in CS
  • Work-life balance

Towards the same goal of establishing common knowledge about academic expectations and guidelines, we instituted a “re-orientation session” in the first week of the spring semester (of the first year of graduate school), during which the DGS presents material relevant to students’ academic planning for the spring, including reiterating suggestions and requirements that were already listed in the Fall orientation.

Resources

The CS Department is actively pursuing funding to aid in fostering inclusion and retention of Black students. Here are some specific  allocations for such funding.

  • Fellowships: We aim to increase the number of first-year fellowships for PhD students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2019, the CS department created a Graduate Distinction Committee consisting of six faculty, including all of the faculty on the department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The Graduate Distinction Committee is tasked with selecting nominees for fellowships and awards that constrain the maximum number of nominees per department or institution. One of the aims of the committee is to ensure that students from underrepresented groups are given fair and equal consideration for competitive fellowships and awards. We recommend that all such fellowship opportunities are also advertised to the PhD students, including those requiring advisor nomination.
  • Conference Travel: We aim to increase the amount of funding available for students to travel to conferences, even if they do not yet have an advisor or the advisor’s own funds are insufficient to cover the cost of travel.
  • Relocation Expense Fund: We aim to establish a graduate student relocation expense fund to help students-in-need defray the cost of moving to Ithaca to begin graduate school.
  • Administrative Support: For graduate students engaged in activities that promote diversity, we aim to raise funds to provide staff resources to assist with this work.
  • Department Service: The department relies on student volunteers in the form of czar-ships. We recognize that the students from underrepresented backgrounds often get asked for a disproportionate share of such service, especially involving issues of diversity and inclusion. Diversity and Inclusion is important to our whole community, so we will not allow this burden to fall on the students of color. Specifically, we recommend that all requests for a PhD student to serve on a committee at the department, college, or university level go through the PhD advisor or DGS (if there is no advisor). Furthermore, we aim to keep track of the overall volunteer rates of different racial groups to ensure that this kind of departmental service is not disproportionately allocated to students of color. We also recommend that the department recognize students making great contributions to the department via service awards.  
Climate

In this section we enumerate a number of initiatives, either planned or already underway, to improve the climate for Black community members in CS and CIS at Cornell. 

1. Trainings: During the 2019-20 academic year, CS faculty attended two mandatory training meetings: one provided by the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX on reporting harassment, bias, and discrimination, and one provided by the Graduate School’s Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement on microaggressions. CS staff attended multiple training sessions, as discussed earlier in this document. The CS Department has investigated training modules for graduate students offered by the Graduate School (e.g., “My Voice, My Story”; henceforth MVMS) and by the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP). In collaboration with the field of Biomedical Engineering (BME), we have offered a few sessions of MVMS to graduate students in CS and BME during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years. We have discussed the notion of making MVMS or IDP training mandatory for PhD students in CS, but we don’t believe either of these programs  meet our specific needs, especially in terms of thematic focus. 

We are currently exploring options for bystander intervention training in consultation with Cornell’s Human Resources diversity and inclusion team, as reported elsewhere in this document. 

2. We suggest developing a form of training designed for international PhD students, possibly in the form of a Brown Bag lunch panel.

3. Reading Groups on Race and Technology: Professors Anil Damle and Haym Hirsh will be running a series of reading groups in Fall 2020 for faculty, staff, and graduate students. The goal is to engage our community on issues of racial injustice in society, in general, and more specifically: how what we do as computing professionals impacts those issues. Small groups of 10-15 community members will meet every two weeks to discuss a coordinated set of readings that provide historical context and contemporary thinking about racial injustice, including how race and technology interact. During the course of the semester, the group sessions may also include the appearance of one or two outside speakers to give department-wide talks on these issues. 

4. Movie Night: When the pandemic subsides—and it’s once again possible to hold large in-person social gatherings without posing a health and safety risk—Rachit Agarwal is planning a movie night series to promote greater social cohesion between different groups of graduate students.

5. Instructor-Assigned Homework Groups: Several CS courses have already implemented instructor-assigned homework groups to foster interaction between students who might not spontaneously collaborate on coursework and to reducing the potential for feelings of academic isolation (as historically reported by many Black students). To date, these initiatives have primarily happened in undergraduate courses, with the exception of CS 6820, a PhD-level algorithms course which implemented instructor-assigned groups in Fall 2019. We recommend more widespread adoption of instructor-assigned groups in CS graduate courses.

6. Student Mentor Program: We recommend the diversity committee partner with the existing PhD Student Mentor Program to help form groups of mentor/mentee pairs with diverse backgrounds, which will participate in social events together. With this recommendation, we aim to foster a stronger set of social connections and mentoring relationships across a broader set of student backgrounds and experiences in order to help combat social isolation and loneliness in students coming from underrepresented backgrounds. We further recommend working with the PhD Student Mentor Program to develop a set of “scripts” for mentor/mentee meetings, to provide mentors with training on bias in mentoring and updates to department policies, and to institute meeting reminders for mentors, similar to those put in place for the in-area and out-of-area faculty mentors.

7. Building a strong community. Cornell has a great community of graduate students, organized as the GradURMC group, organizing graduate students in the Computer Science and Information Science fields. The department should continue to support this organization in its goal to build a strong community among the underrepresented students. Cornell is also part of the FLIP (Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate) Alliance, an organization of the top 10 computer science programs aiming to increase diversity in future leadership among the computing science professionals. The department should continue to encourage and help the FLIP Alliance to offer opportunities to build a community of underrepresented students across the participating institutions.

Read the Computer Science Community Statement of Values of Inclusion.