“Engineers need training beyond technical areas”, interview with CMU Provost James Garrett in Público Newspaper

James Garrett, Provost at Carnegie Mellon University, claims that students should have “a better understanding of ethical and social issues.”

Carnegie Mellon is a North American University known for its technology education. The University also has a long tradition in arts and humanities and has Andy Warhol on its list of alumni. James Garrett is the University’s Provost, a top position responsible for managing the institution. Trained as a civil engineer, Garrett says that technology courses can’t neglect the ethical component at a time when information technology is giving rise to a 4th industrial revolution. “There are advantages in understanding what is technologically achievable, what might be the implications for society and what different paths to follow,” he said in a conversation with Newspaper Público. James Garrett was in Lisbon for a Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program Meeting, a longstanding partnership between the American University and several Portuguese Universities.

Carnegie Mellon is known for engineering and technology related courses but also for its arts and humanities colleges. As someone who comes from an engineering background, how do you manage this duality?

What we are noticing is that our faculties of humanities and social sciences are the ones growing the most in terms of applications. We have a great interdisciplinary culture at CMU. Our students can take humanities courses, but they may also have technological subjects. In our Humanities College you find the departments of statistics, psychology, and information systems. Since 1949, our engineering students have had humanities and social sciences courses as a mandatory part of their curriculum.


We have always believed that engineers need training beyond the technical areas. We need our technology students to have a better understanding of ethical and social issues. Computer science has incorporated ethics as a component of curricula. In engineering, we’ve had it as long as I can remember. When developing new technologies, engineers always say that the safety of people is a priority. It is crucial to consider the social impacts of these technologies.

We are going through a period of change brought on by technical advances. We often forget history: we have had these periods of change.

Technology brings many problems. The power of large technology companies is much debated. Do you think we could be in a different situation if there had been more concern from universities about these ethical issues?

We are going through a period of change brought on by technological advances. Sometimes we forget history: we have always had these periods of change. What is happening is called the 4th industrial revolution. With these changes come opportunities for advances in medicine, telecommunications, mobility. This brings disruptions. The challenge is that the speed at which this is happening is now greater. I believe the focus on technology and society, which is a major focus of Carnegie Mellon, has huge advantages. There are benefits in realizing what is technologically possible, what the implications for society might be and what can be done to increase its positive impact.

The reputation of Tech companies has been decreasing in recent years. Did CMU, being an institution known for research and teaching in technology, feel this impact?

We didn’t notice disinterest in our Computing and Engineering Courses. The number of applications is robust. What we notice is that students across the university are very interested in topics that are more global and social. Sustainability is an area where we have many initiatives and interest from students.

 We glorify those who have gone through a process that is very hard. But let’s look at the filter that is creating a business and making it a success.

 How do you motivate a tech student to graduate when people like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates dropped out of college?

We glorify those who have gone through a process that is very hard. But let’s look at the filter that is creating a business and making it a success. There are legions of people who don’t have the same story of these two people you mentioned. What we are trying to show our students is that this will be an exceptional time to develop their skills: critical thinking, teamwork, respect for interdisciplinarity, diversity of thinking and perspective.

You had a career in civil engineering for decades, which is an area traditionally dominated by men. Have there been changes in recent years?

I have always been proud that civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon was one of the first courses to have more than 50% of women. Several other departments – materials engineering, environmental engineering – have surpassed the 50% threshold for women somewhere in the last decade.

But this is not just a matter of numbers. It is also a matter of the context in which people interact.

In fact there is an interesting phenomenon: when the number exceeds 30% the dynamics change. Women feel less isolated. They are more comfortable to fully participate in class and tend to assume more leadership positions.

Article in Portuguese