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Atlanta University Center and Data Science: The Right Place at The Right Time

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Introduction by John Ahmann, President & CEO, Westside Future Fund

Our guest columnist this week is Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium Inc. (AUC), the world’s oldest and largest contiguous association of historically Black colleges and universities. In his column, Todd expands on the critical importance of equipping students with data literacy and data science skills to meet the growing demand for these types of jobs.

Just over a year ago, on June 11, 2018, AUCC announced Todd Greene as its new Executive Director.  He has been a committed collaborator with Westside Future Fund (WFF). Under his leadership, we were excited to participate in the AUC master planning process he initiated. Todd was the featured guest at the June 21 Transform Westside Summit and reviewed the progress, results, and next steps out of this master planning process. He shared the AUC’s recent thinking about its facilities and footprint across the Westside and how they can design its campuses in a way that benefits students and the Westside community. You can catch a replay of Todd’s remarks and Q/A with attendees here.

Todd titled his June 21 presentation, “The Atlanta University Center Consortium:Atlanta’s Economic Mobility Machine,” and shared a vision of the AUC as the “locus of thought leadership on issues impacting Black America.” WFF is committed to supporting this vision, and we are grateful for Todd’s inclusionary leadership that over the last year has significantly enhanced WFF’s engagement with the AUC’s member institutions. We are also grateful for Morehouse School of Medicine President Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice joining the WFF Board of Directors, and the continued leadership of WFF’s Board Chair-Elect, Dr. Beverly Tatum, former President of Spelman College. 

Be sure to register and join us for the upcoming Summit on August 2nd.

Todd Greene, executive director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium Inc. (AUC),

ATLANTA UNIVERSITY CENTER AND DATA SCIENCE: The Right Place at The Right Time

“Education and work are the levers to uplift a people.”
W.E.B. Du Bois

“The pathway to new technologies requires investment in skills development – making sure people have the requisite skills to participate in an increasingly digital society…”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft

While the two authors of the quotes above are separated by both background and the era in which their words were spoken, their messages, nonetheless, are related and prescient for our future.  The late W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous sociologist and historian (and a revered Atlanta University professor) and Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft both recognized knowledge and skill acquisition are vital to both an economy and also to achieving personal success.  And in our modern context, data science and analysis are the skills that form the substrate on which our economy is catalyzed and it will frame all aspects of the future workplace.

Last fall, Nadella visited with Atlanta University Center students, faculty, and leadership and shared his vision for data-democratization – a modern-day manifestation of Du Bois’s framework where education and skills attainment, coupled with application in a real-world context, can uplift people.  Nadella emphasized the ability to extract value from data is an essential skill needed to support business, create efficiencies in government, forge research discoveries, and improve health outcomes.  Indeed, the occupations of the future (spanning quantitative scientists adept at big data computing to business analysts) rely on data analysis to develop important insights.

Yet, despite the tremendous need for workers with data science and analysis skills, current and projected future demand for these skills outstrip the capacity of our nation’s higher education system to produce this talent.  Perhaps even more troubling is an extreme paucity of African-American students and faculty enrolled or teaching in university-based data-science programs.

Atlanta University Center — the right place, the right time

The Atlanta University Center Consortium is well-positioned to respond to this data-driven revolution and to growing a diverse talent base.  The AUCC institutions – Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College – have agreed to build upon their existing excellence in STEM education and their emerging data science efforts to reframe their pedagogical approaches, curriculum, and degree offerings to quickly and substantially equip students with data science and data analysis capabilities.  With nearly 9,000 students, primarily African-American, and conferring a range of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees, the four schools have a long history of working together on major educational efforts.  Rather than pursuing an incremental school-by-school approach to data science education, the four institutions have determined that a collective framework best leverages their resources to obtain an ambitious overall goal of being the largest producer of underrepresented minorities with expertise and credentials in data science and data analysis.

While lofty, these are attainable goals and will positively impact the representation of African-Americans in the data science workspace.  In addition to developing dedicated data science degrees and certificate offerings, we will build on our experience in developing college pipeline programs for minority middle- and high-school students to expand these efforts nationally to support data science education. Future phases of our plan call for offering data science-related certificate and badge programs to help working adults enhance their value in the workplace.  Importantly, we also plan to catalyze and advance research addressing racial disparities by providing fellowships for HBCU and other faculty and researchers to discover how to use big data in new ways, especially in topical areas where African-Americans face disparities. Our efforts will be influenced by industry – not just at the outset but continually, to ensure our graduate’s data science skills are relevant in an ever-evolving economy.

Unique opportunities, unique challenges, amazing possibilities

Our faculty visits to the nation’s leading data science institutes have been informative to help shape our views in developing a vanguard program in data science education focused on African-American populations.  As we build our data science infrastructure, uniquely responsive to building African-American talent, we have learned our infrastructure needs are consistent with other university data science institutes across the country where significant resources have been allocated to growing and developing faculty expertise, physical facilities, and programmatic support.  Though unlike many other institutions, we at AUC do not have large endowments to support and seed new initiatives at the scale needed for improving the representation of African-Americans in data science, nor are we public institutions benefitting from large amounts of state funding.

While AUC institutions will redirect some of our existing resources to support this data science education mission, we recognize that meeting our goals will require new resources.  We are fortunate the world’s largest managed care company – UnitedHealth Group has agreed to partner with us to create the next generation of data scientists and graduates with data analysis skills.  Their five-year $8.25 million investment will help support the AUC Data Science Initiative lay the groundwork yet much more is needed and we are in active conversations with other potential partners to assist us with these efforts to include developing new data science-related faculty positions and student scholarships.  In addition to UHG, we hope to engage Atlanta-based companies (where data science and data analysis skills are needed and where a diverse workforce is valued) in our exciting initiative as key partners.

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