Facebook and Northeastern Take on Computer Science Diversity at San Francisco Launch Event

April 26, 2019

On Thursday April 18, Facebook announced a $4.2 million investment to expand Khoury College’s Align program and to launch a consortium of schools that will scale this innovation across the country. The Align program, launched in 2013, provides non-computer science majors with a direct path to a master’s degree. The announcement was made at Northeastern’s San Francisco location and included a discussion among computer science leaders at Northeastern, Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign regarding the impact of this investment and how it will increase the diversity of students in computer science.

During the discussion, which was moderated by Daron Green, director of Facebook Research Operations and Academic Relations, panelists spoke openly about the many challenges universities face when it comes to diversity in CS. As major tech companies struggle with building a diverse and talented work force, an expansion of entry points into computing is critical.

Carla Brodley, dean of Khoury College, questioned conventional wisdom that only students who majored in CS as undergraduates get to go into the tech industry. She went on to explain why the Align program works: “Align gives students access to computer science after they’ve completed their undergraduate studies, diversifying the workforce in multiple ways at once – in terms of thought, background, race, and gender.”

Rocco Servedio, Columbia University professor and chair of its computer science program, seconded Dean Brodley’s point and said, “We’d really like to see greater diversity in master’s programs. Align is precisely what is needed to bring more women and underrepresented minorities into computer science.”

Cedric Stallworth, assistant dean at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, spoke about a fundamental need to produce computer scientists who are representative of the communities they serve. “We have to think about the upstream challenge. If the populations in Atlanta or other cities can’t get jobs at the tech companies in those cities, then we have a big problem.”

All of the panelists emphasized that the diversity challenge is made even more acute by a severe lack of diversity within computer science faculty. Nancy Amato, head of the Department of Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, highlighted her own experience as an example. At UIUC she is the first female computer science department head.

With innovations like Align, the panelists were optimistic about the opportunity for change within higher education. Professor Stallworth spoke directly to the audience, which included more than 30 Align students from five Northeastern locations, urging them not to underestimate their power as role models. Stallworth issued a call to action to the students to “poke a hole in what we know and move it forward.”