Presidents from five of the nation’s top historically black institutions for computer science and engineering will meet with the highest levels of leadership from one of the world’s most powerful tech companies next week.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai will meet virtually with executives from Florida A&M University, Howard University, Morgan State University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Prairie View A&M University to discuss alleged disparities in hiring and treatment of HBCU graduates within the corporation.
The virtual meeting was arranged by Harry Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a nonprofit that supports a network of publicly funded HBCUs and other predominantly Black institutions. Williams said he invited Pichai to the meeting in a late-December email at the behest of several HBCU presidents.
"Whenever someone says something negative that could potentially impact HBCU students, I pay attention to it," Williams told CNN Business. "Our presidents reached out and said, 'Let's do a deep dive here and get some intel directly from the company.'"
The optics look great. One of the most powerful people in the world will hold an audience with some of the biggest brands in the HBCU sector, with a goal of course-correcting the strategy to find and retain Black talent from Black institutions.
But the solutions are harder to find and to implement than what can be accomplished during a single Google Meet.
Diversity is not conceptual real estate exclusively leased by HBCUs. If Google, Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft can fill diversity quotas with workers of African, Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian descent studying at predominantly white institutions both in the United States and abroad, there is no reason to invest in training and recruitment at HBCUs beyond the publicity value for doing so.
Since last summer, when the death of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and racism, James estimates 10 to 15 companies have asked for Access2’s help in building a more diverse workforce, without having any budget in place to pay for that recruiting assistance.
“The moment we say, ‘Hey, do you have a budget for our work?’ That's when we lose communication,” said James, who added that building up Access2’s network of job candidates took significant time and effort.
“That’s when they say, ‘Hey, we're OK with knee-jerk reactions on fixing equity, but we're not OK with paying for it,’ ” James said.
Hiring managers and project leads at leading tech companies either poach talent from competitors or tap faculty contacts at computer science or engineering programs worldwide. There’s no benefit in relying on broad, costly recruitment efforts when an email or a call can make good on the straightforward question — “give me your five best students who you know are ready to work without intensive training tomorrow.”
It would be hard to believe that any of the five HBCU presidents preparing to meet with leadership from Google would be, as of this writing, prepared to list the names of the top-performing undergraduate or graduate students in computer science at their schools. They do not know their internships or projects by heart, would not be able to vouch for them managing a specific portfolio at Google, and would have no idea about their career ambitions.
This is not to disparage the presidents, it is to underscore that it isn’t their job to know; it is the role of faculty to memorize those details and to have the relationships with HR and project management pipelines at these companies.
We already see these kinds of relationships in action in other industries, and flourishing with support from the public sector. The federal Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation has propelled thousands of HBCU students into graduate study and careers in the health sciences. The program is successful because it is powered by HBCU faculty training, preparing and recommending star students for this program, and shepherding them beyond graduation.
We are a week removed from Apple announcing a national racial equity and justice initiative in partnership with dozens of HBCUs. Three years ago, Howard expanded its relationship with Google in the name of stabilizing hiring pipelines between the university and the tech giant. Why exactly are we here? Because questions remain about what Silicon Valley done to facilitate these kinds of relationships with HBCUs, and how HBCUs have encouraged or prepared themselves for this kind of outreach — in spite of these partnerships.
No high-level of attention or investment is an adequate substitute for the willingness and direction of mid-managers who drive Silicon Valley workforce trends. They can’t replace HBCU faculty members recruiting and cultivating computer science talent before they reach campus and guiding them to and through the summers and winters of practical work experience beyond the classroom once they are enrolled.
Until both sides make HBCUs as accessible and attractive an option for tech talent acquisition beyond the network of west coast institutions and southern flagships, until the conversation takes place between HBCU faculty and Silicon Valley talent acquisition pros instead of presidents and CEOs, and until formal agreements are issued about four-to-six-year training modules implemented on HBCU campuses and complementary hiring mandates, there is no real concern or contrition on either side; just a lot of talking for the publicity of doing so.