An Open Letter to Carnegie Mellon's New President

Dear President Suresh,

I want to first congratulate you on your new appointment as the president of my soon to be alma mater. Carnegie Mellon is a wonderful place full of dynamic ideas and people and given my experiences here, I know you will cherish your time at the head of such a unique institution. I hope you come to appreciate the university’s quirks - its early-morning bagpipes, the always-decorated Fence, the sometimes hidden shortcuts that provide safe haven from the bitter cold - just as I did as I made my way through my time at Carnegie Mellon.

Your impressive background makes it easy to infer that you consider yourself a scientist. Just like your previous appointment at the National Science Foundation, you will surely find yourself at home among the brilliant scientific minds - young and old - that call Carnegie Mellon home. The university is world-renowned for its programs in engineering and computer science and I have no doubt that under your leadership, it will continue to be at the cutting edge of science and technology.

I, however, like the president who appointed you to your post at the National Science Foundation, hail from a different background: the humanities. Being at a school like Carnegie Mellon has given me a healthy dose of science that will certainly aid me as I try and navigate the road ahead. Despite that, at a school dominated by scientists, at times it can be difficult to see the importance of the work that we in the humanities do. However, more now than ever, science needs the humanities.

Two quick examples will bring this point to bear. The first is an issue that as head of the National Science Foundation you likely had to think about on a daily basis: climate change. President Obama recently gave a speech on the subject at Georgetown University and highlighted the oft-repeated fact that 97 percent of climate science studies assert that climate change is real and man-made. Yet we find ourselves in a national debate over whether we should do anything about it because there are those who dangerously and loudly cling to denial. The problem here isn’t the science: the science is settled. The problem here is one of communication. I’m sure you ran into this at your previous job: scientists aren’t always the best storytellers. Somewhere between Keeling’s first CO2 measurements and now, scientists lost the climate change narrative. Climate change is the biggest issue on the agenda, today and for the foreseeable future, and the necessary interdependence between the science and humanities in solving it grows with each passing day.

The second example is pulled right from recent headlines. Edward Snowden’s leaks on PRISM and the NSA have sparked a much-needed debate about the pervasive nature of technology and its relation to our rights, specifically our privacy. Here is an example where more technology won’t save us, but a real conversation about a philosophy of restraint and the trade-offs between security and liberty will. Technological advances will continue to roll out, but we are at a critical junction in deciding to what ends those advances are for.

In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator gave a scathing condemnation of the growing evil in the world. Many of the words in the stirring speech at the end of the film are still relevant today: the principles of democracy, the collective purpose of our short time here on Earth, and the idea that “more than machinery, we need humanity".

You are stepping into a unique position and an opportunity to make a great institution an even greater one. Carnegie Mellon could lead the academic world as a place of dynamic integration of the sciences and the humanities that the world’s challenges demand. We are all in this together and the need to learn how to work as a team is quintessential to confronting the big challenges ahead. As president, you have an opportunity to accelerate that transformation. I wish you the best of luck and hope that Carnegie Mellon continues to find itself a place of innovation and progress.


Daniel Nesbit