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Google's Sundar Pichai will meet with the leaders of five historically Black colleges and universities on Friday afternoon to discuss company culture in response to the still-simmering outrage over Google's firing of leading AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru and other alleged instances of racial discrimination.
"We would like to know more about the atmosphere that we're sending our students into and want to ensure that students coming from Morgan are going into an environment that is going to prompt them to flourish," said Morgan State University President David Wilson. "We want to get [Pichai's] assessment on what we've been hearing publicly, and we want to make sure that we are getting feedback from him about if Google is looking at their internal environment, and I'd like for him to share about it."
Along with Morgan State, the leaders of North Carolina A&T, Prairie View A&M, Howard University and Florida A&M will attend the meeting, which was coordinated by the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Over the last year, tech companies like Google and Apple and industry donors such as MacKenzie Scott and Michael Bloomberg have made public investments and commitments to HBCUs, mostly as part of their racial justice efforts in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Though commitments have been unusually well-publicized this year, many HBCUs have had relationships (to varying degrees) with a range of tech companies over the past several years. Several HBCU leaders told Protocol they are also seeing new interest in further investments and partnerships in the coming year.
More than money or recruiting goals, the nation's largest producer of Black engineering graduates wants tech companies, and Google in particular, to treat it and its students with respect. North Carolina A&T wants to be considered for the merits of its programs and its students, not lumped into a conversation about all HBCUs (of which there are more than 100 nationwide).
For Robin Coger, the dean of engineering at North Carolina A&T, the university's relationship with Google grew productive when the company saw A&T as a partner, rather than a means to meet recruitment goals or burnish reputation. "While Google's perspective may be we want to expose students to Google for recruiting goals, our point of view has always been that Google needs to understand the quality of our students," Coger said.
"When you work with Stanford, you work with Stanford. When you work with North Carolina A&T, you work with us. The one-size-fits-all mentality is the opposite of collaboration," she added.
The early years of North Carolina A&T's partnership with Google were a bit rocky. "It was through quite a bit of discussion and conversation and time that ultimately we began to work together. But it required so much effort, on our side, really, because it really is up to the institution to define for the company whether or not this is acceptable," Coger said. Now, the school's computer science department has hosted a Google engineer-in-residence for the last three semesters, in what she called a mutually-beneficial learning relationship.
Morgan State's partnership with Google began about five years ago, after Wilson attended a meeting with tech execs in Silicon Valley that focused on diversifying the industry. Wilson also takes a positive view of the partnerships, and he's even hoping that the school will be able to add another person-in-residence and a Google-sponsored innovation lab.
But before that can happen, Wilson and the other HBCU leaders need to address the controversies swirling around Google. "We're not meeting to question any personnel decisions. But there were public comments made involving our institution and our students. And we just want to talk about the culture within Google," he said.
Google did not respond to request for comment about the meeting.
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Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.
Penelope Blackwell is a reporting fellow at Protocol covering edtech. She reports on the developments in tech that are shaping the future of learning. Previously, she interned at The Baltimore Sun covering emerging news and produced content for Carnegie-Knight's News21 documenting hate and bias incidents in the U.S. She is also a recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Morgan State University.