Jan. 12, 2021
This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.
While many PIT University Network institutions are focused on bringing public interest principles into their technology education, others are taking on the challenge of launching PIT curriculum for the first time. Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. is one of the latter. With its founding commitment to social justice and focus on integrating liberal arts and professional studies, Nazareth provides an important example of how liberal arts institutions can prepare students to think through technology-related ethical questions.
This year, the school is launching its new Institute for Technology, Artificial Intelligence, and Society (TAS), which will focus on the social, ethical, and business issues posed by technology, particularly artificial intelligence. TAS begins offering its first two majors in the Fall—a B.S. in Ethical Data Science and a B.S. in Business, Artificial Intelligence, and Innovation. Whether students go on to work in tech, policy, or advocacy, TAS's founders hope these degrees will give them the tools to grapple with ethical questions around privacy, racial bias, and more when it comes to developing and implementing disruptive technologies like AI.
“Most other liberal arts colleges aren’t addressing artificial intelligence,” said Nazareth President Beth Paul in a statement. “Discussions and study of AI technologies today are largely limited to technical majors and engineering-centric schools. Yet there is significant evidence that this approach will be inadequate to the societal challenges and workforce requirements posed by AI technologies. That is where Nazareth comes in.”
Nazareth has a student body of approximately 2,300 undergraduate and 700 graduate students. Yousuf George, Nazareth’s associate to the president for Strategy and Momentum, said that the school was founded, “specifically to advance the voice of those marginalized in society and provide academic, social justice, and activist education,” giving it a unique place within the PIT-UN. The TAS curriculum is consistent with this mission, George says, with a focus on addressing, “the theory and practice of how social justice and equity are defined and incorporated into technological questions, and the consequences when they are not.”
“Ethics is the centerpiece of the initiative,” he notes. “So it is a tech-based ethics curriculum, not an ethics-based tech curriculum.”
The launch of TAS is the culmination of a multi-year effort at Nazareth that involved faculty, staff, and students. George says that the campus community is extremely enthusiastic about the initiative because it ties directly into Nazareth’s social justice mission and connects that work to major social and political trends.
Chelsea Wahl, an assistant professor of Sociology who will teach in the new TAS institute, summed up the role of liberal arts institutions like Nazareth in bringing a different kind of thinking into tech. “Young people believe if they are not coding software they don’t have a say in technology or what it does,” she says. “Part of what is really exciting about this institute is to empower people in many majors, backgrounds, and goals and to invite them to the table.”
George says the next step for PIT at Nazareth is to create partnerships with local, regional, and national organizations, which will help turn the school into a regional hub for PIT work and open new opportunities for PIT students.
“Membership in the PIT-UN will greatly assist our efforts by enhancing our connection to the national PIT community,” he said. “Connection to institutions who specialize specifically in technology and engineering disciplines will also be helpful to Nazareth, as that is not a central part of our profile.”
As far as what Nazareth’s unique perspective can lend to other Network members, George points to the school’s special mission and identity: its focus on teaching and learning, the integration of liberal arts and professional studies, social justice, and practical civic engagement offer fellow member institutions a great deal to learn from.