Tag Archives: Google

What Damore’s Memo Taught Google

James Damore, the author of the ten-page “anti-diversity manifesto” that got him fired from Google, is not likely to fade to the level of a remote trivia question. That’s because Damore, a 28-year-old engineer, former chess champion, and researcher in computational biology at both Harvard and Princeton, sharply focused evidence and argument that shook the “diversity” procedures of Google and the tech world.

Damore criticized Google’s “diversity” initiatives aimed at spurring the company’s recruitment of non-Asian minorities and women. The most important of his transgressions was suggesting that “at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences.” Remember, Damore’s research specialization was computational biology. He wasn’t speaking, or memo-ing, out of misogynist ignorance.

That most controversial part of his memo garnered a response from Karen Panetta, Dean of Engineering at Tufts University. Panetta attributed Damore’s views not to his knowledge of the data but to his “education.” He had attended elite universities where “the majority of faculty were trained mostly by men.” And, “if you can’t break that cycle, it persists.” That cycle isn’t just a problem at those elite programs Damore attended, but everywhere STEM is taught. “It is a universal problem. It’s not just industry, you have to remember; it’s connected to higher education. That’s where it grows.”

Training scientists and engineers to focus on the analysis of data rather than social justice and implicit bias is clearly problematic.

Gender disparities in STEM classrooms aren’t the only thing keeping SJWs “a-woke” at night. According to Rebecca Hill, STEM is also too white. In “STEM has a Diversity Problem,” she blames racial disparities on textbooks with too many pictures of white scientists. And in “Why Black Students Struggle in STEM Subjects,” Ebony O. McGee says black students underperform in math and science classes because their energy is spent performing whiteness—“talking ultra-proper English and pretending to go on vacations.” The answer, to the problem, she says, is to “minimize the fragility factors affecting” black students.

Such are the wonders of critical race theory.

Reducing racial and gender disparities in STEM, however, may require some uncomfortable trade-offs.  For years critics have warned that colleges balance the diversity books on the backs of Asian students. Remedying the racial and gender disparities in STEM will likely require more of the same.

Such suspicion isn’t unfounded. Just four days before Damore’s memo hit the wire, the Justice Department announced an investigation into a lawsuit sixty-four Asian activist groups filed against Harvard University. The suit alleges that Harvard’s admissions process favored social aptitude over academics in order to give white and non-Asian minority students an edge over Asian applicants.

Elite colleges have been flagged for this chicanery before. As City Journal’s Mark Pulliam noted in “Affirmative Action Antics,” UCLA instituted its own update of the Harvard Jewish quotas when black enrollment nosedived after Proposition 209 abolished racial preferences in California. When students and alumni ordered the school to fix its “diversity problem,” UCLA, like Harvard, bolstered its holistic review process, which admissions officials use to admit applicants with less-than-stellar SAT scores and GPAs. In principle “holistic” review means taking the whole of the student’s life into account, not just his academic record. In practice, holistic review means putting Asian students in a hole and clamping a lid on it.

If Dean Panetta’s thoughts are representative of the view from the Ivy Tower, the diversity regime intends to dig that hole a little deeper for Asian STEM students.

But as we saw at Harvard and UCLA, white men aren’t going to be the category primarily affected by the progressive approach to admissions. Asian American students earn thirty percent (a plurality) of all STEM degrees while accounting for only seven percent of all enrolled college students. Reducing the Asian percentage of students in science and engineering is the only practical way to “diversify” these fields. And it will have the side “benefit” of lowering academic standards, which are currently maintained by the ferocious competition among highly qualified applicants.

Can elite colleges get away with tipping the scales against Asian students? Quite possibly. Elite colleges have long discriminated against disfavored ethnic groups under the guise of promoting “diversity.” That’s exactly how Harvard maintained its “Gentleman’s Agreement” to limit Jewish enrollment, and it is exactly how the post-Bakke “diversity” regime has operated.

Because Asian American students are less likely to have well-connected, donor-class-parents, admissions officers can deal with them in bad faith without fear of reprisal. It also doesn’t help that Asian Americans’ history isn’t a fixed part of our civic memory. This makes us take allegations of bias less seriously or ignore them unjustly. We saw this when The New York Times omitted allegations of Asian discrimination from the lead of an article reporting the Justice Department’s inquiry into bias complaints.

The investigation into Harvard’s admission practices is a fresh chance to force a public debate on the “Asian Quotas.” A move against STEM programs would be good news for critics hoping to make clear that progressive policies require racial injustice. Such an investigation may also encourage Asian American parents and students to pick up the banner of civil rights.

We can expect a purge of dissenting faculty members, at least those not protected by tenure when the Diversity Inquisition comes to STEM. We can also expect the continuing effort to jerry-rig search committees and future faculty appointments in the sciences for female and non-Asian minority candidates, as the University of California already does. (Consider UC’s “President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program,” which despite the name is really a way of forcing science departments to hire under-qualified minority candidates.)

Such actions will be explained away with the same doublespeak Google CEO Sundar Pichai used to justify James Damore’s dismissal.

On the other hand, the game isn’t over. Damore, we should remember, is a chess champion. It is not unthinkable that he will outplay Google CEO Sundar Pichai and the whole army of diversiphile pawns. His sacrifice has once again drawn attention to how intellectually shallow and factually unsupported the entire diversity rationale really is. Racial healing and gender equity will never be built on a foundation of misrepresentation and willful ignorance. It’s now up to policymakers and civil rights groups to focus their attention on people like Tuft’s Dean Panetta, who believes that independent thinking such as Damore’s can be nipped in the bud by appointing the right kinds of people to faculty positions in STEM.

Far too many people in the sciences have thought they were immune to this ideological assault. They believed, and may still believe, that science and engineering are too important to be compromised b appointments made on the basis of gender and race. The real significance of l’affair Damore is simple: stop kneeling to the God of Diversity, or you will be Damored.

When Reasonable Objections to Diversity Are Viewed as Bias

A movement to crush dissent is under way and a good deal of it involves discussion and objections to diversity being declared illegitimate. Political and economic leaders and organizations speak about offense and intolerance taking place inside and outside their walls, but when we hear the actual content of those crimes, they appear far less than advertised. The cases above involved a Wall Street Journal story on “opposition” to diversity in Silicon Valley. It followed the Google memo affair and bore dismaying the headline “Diversity Is a Tough Sell in Silicon Valley.”

It seems that a bunch of white and Asian males at Google don’t want to hire any more women and non-Asian minorities. But when we get to the actual resistance taking place there, things go soft. The main event concerns a diversity initiative led by Danielle Brown, Google’s new diversity chief, and Intel’s former chief. She recounts her experience at Intel when she pushed diversity there and received abundant negative feedback. A sample:

Some of the comments questioned why Intel was devoting $300 million over a number of years to improve diversity or suggested managers would be forced to hire unqualified workers to satisfy goals, according to the former employee. Other comments said the initiative was just for good public relations.

Yes, that’s it. What strikes ordinary people as ordinary business questions rise to the status of opposition in the new diversity dispensation.

Here’s another example. A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had closed down an anonymous online discussion group for employees. The paper version bore the headline “Facebook Closed Offensive Forum,” and the online version read “Facebook Shut Down Employee Chat Room Over Harassing Messages.” The action took place last December.

CNET picked up the story and stated that “people were using the message board to “post racist and sexist messages.” When you read those summaries, though, you expect some nasty stuff to follow. But once again, we got one example of the putative harassment, and it’s laughable.

But FB Anon also attracted comments that many employees found offensive, people said. For example, some posts last year said Facebook lowered the bar to attract female engineers to boost its diversity numbers, one person said, provoking angry responses from others in the chat room.

Yup, that’s it. The Journal story gives us nothing more, and neither does CNET. Facebook’s “head of people” attributed the closure not to harassment, but because many of the users on the platform did not “use an authentic identity.”

What we have here, then, is lots of sensitivity and little bad behavior. Objections to diversity efforts on solid grounds of workplace standards get turned into a form of verbal assault. It’s melodrama, not fact. The old criterion of “reasonableness” when it comes to allegations of offensive behavior has given way to sore feelings.

This is a game diversity skeptics can’t win by argument. Sensitivity of this kind is irrational, and it won’t be won by rational argument and cold evidence. People are upset, and they won’t listen to the mild rejoinder, “Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a bit?” The condition of “I’m offended” carries too much power for them to give it up.

But until conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals develop a response to this fraudulent set-up, it will continue to be used as a club to bring dissidents in line or oust them entirely.

Has the Higher-Ed Revolution Begun?

Sebastian Thrun.pngIt’s happening, almost overnight: what could be the collapse of the near-monopoly that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities currently enjoy as respected credentialing institutions whose degrees and grades mean something to employers.

The most dramatic development, just a few days ago, was the decision of robotics-expert Sebastian Thrun to resign from his position as a tenured professor of computer science at Stanford in order to start an online university he calls Udacity that he hopes will reach hundreds of thousands of students who either can’t afford Stanford’s $40,000-a-year tuition or who can’t travel thousands of miles to one of the bricks-and-mortar classes he used to teach.

This past fall Thrun and Peter Norvig, research director at Google (where Thrun also works, designing cars that drive themselves), teamed up to teach online and free of charge one of their regular Stanford courses, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, not just to Stanford students but to anyone who wanted to take them. Not only would the online students sit through Thrun and Norvig’s lectures, but the two instructors would test them via quizzes and written assignments, grade their work, and assign them a class ranking. Only Stanford students would be eligible to receive Stanford credit for the course, but non-Stanfordians would receive a “statement of achievement” that, together with their grades and class rankings, could be used to demonstrate that they had mastered the Stanford-level material in the course.

He Can’t Teach at Stanford Again

Thrun and Norvig’s bricks-and-mortar course, designed for graduate students and advanced-level undergraduates, had always been one of Stanford’s largest and most popular, with nearly 200 students from a range of disciplines signing up every time the two instructors offered the course. But the enrollment in last fall’s online version was exponential: 160,000 students from 190 countries registered, with about 20,000 of them completing the coursework and receiving grades that were generally on a par with those of the 175 Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortars version.

In addition the University of Freiburg sponsored the course for 54 students at several German universities, proctoring the exams and offering its own credits. What was essentially happening–and it was a revolutionary development–was that Thrun himself, not Stanford, was certifying tens of thousands of students’ mastery of an elite-university-level body of scientific material that could serve as a gateway to even more sophisticated AI courses or a good job.

Although he will remain in Stanford’s computer-science department as a non-tenured research professor, Thrun has declared that he “can’t teach at Stanford again.” Hence, Udacity. Its premier course, titled “Building a Search Engine,” to be taught by  David Evans, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia and also free of charge, is expected to have enrolled 200,000 students by the time it opens in late February. The course promises to teach the basics of computer programming to novices in just seven weeks. Thrun himself will teach a more advanced course, “Programming a Robotic Car” (Thrun invented a self-driving car for Google).

The Thrun-Norvig course of last fall represented just one of a growing number of efforts by top universities to open their students’ learning experiences to the general public. Stanford, for example, offered two other free online courses in computer science this past fall and has added eight more starting in January. Indeed several elite private institutions, including Harvard and Yale, have been offering free online courses to non-students for the past several years (although the courses lack the grading and other feedback that the Thrun-Norvig course featured).

Harvard had earlier tried to sell online courses but discovered that few people wanted to pay for learning experiences that offered no college credits. MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, in which the university puts all the teaching materials for its undergraduate and graduate courses online, has been in existence since 2001 and has attracted more than 100,000 users. In December MIT announced plans to expand OpenCourseWare by launching a project to be called MITx, that would also offer free online courses.

Stanford.jpgWhat made last fall’s Thrun-Norvig course different–and revolutionary–was its certification component. The two instructors were effectively warranting independently of Stanford that the online students who passed the course had learned as much about artificial intelligence and had been held to the same standards as the Stanford students who took the bricks-and-mortar version. Indeed, Stanford refused to have any official connection to the Thrun-Norvig course (in contrast to the other two online courses, which involved no professorial certification). Thrun and Norvig used a non-Stanford server to host their website (although it did display the Stanford engineering school seal), and posted teaching videos made outside of their Stanford classroom.

Udacity, which will similarly certify its students’ completion and mastery of material, is clearly the next logical step in developing courses exclusively for Udacity and outside the control of any university or its accrediting agency. Thrun has talked about having the certification process carried out by a third-party auditor with the hope that colleges will accept Udacity’s courses for transfer credits.

Bypassing official university structures to demonstrate academic competency is not a new phenomenon. In early January the Chronicle of Higher Education reported about the growing use of Boy Scout-style digital “badges” that certify the recipient’s specific educational skills. A free online education provider, Khan Academy, issues dozens of badges, some of them attesting to relatively simple achievements as watching a series of educational videos, and others requiring the recipient to demonstrate high levels of math competency or fine-grained technical skills such as video-editing. MIT intends for its MITx program to follow the Khan Academy’s lead–and also that of Udacity–in allowing takers of MITx courses to qualify for certificates for a modest fee, although the certificates would be issued by an independent entity to be created, not MIT itself.

According to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young, hundreds of education providers traditional and non-traditional hope to partake in a $2 million grant partly sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation that would fund experiments with online badge certification. Young wrote: “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.”

Besides threatening to up-end universities’ traditional control of educational credentials, Thrun may also drastically change the shape of for-profit education. Udacity is being operated by Know Labs, a Thrun-founded for-profit enterprise funded by the venture-capital firm Charles River Ventures. Know Labs’ ultimate aim, according to Thrun, is to offer high-quality online courses that will be either free or cheap (the company is in the process of developing a business model).

Thrun has estimated, for example, that if he and Norvig had charged only $1 apiece to all 160,000 enrollees in their artificial-intelligence course last fall, they could have easily recouped their costs. By contrast, the majority of existing for-profit colleges charge relatively high tuition that has made those institutions highly dependent upon their students’ federal grants and loans. It’s unlikely that anyone would have to borrow in order to take an Udacity course.

Critics may argue that substituting a jerry-built edifice of badges and technical certificates for brick-and-mortar learning deprives young people of the liberal-arts schooling that has traditional developed such hard-to-quantify skills as analyzing problems and thinking critically. But the opposite may be equally true: that acquiring vocational skills such as computer programming via such outfits as Udacity may free up students to use their time in traditional colleges to focus on the liberal arts. And in any event, one non-traditional entity, StraighterLine, which specializes in $99 online courses that can be transferred to its partner colleges for credit, is already developing a course it plans to call “Critical Thinking.”