Farnam Jahanian

On October 26, 2018, Dr. Farnam Jahanian will be inaugurated as the 10th president of Carnegie Mellon University.

Farnam JahanianA nationally recognized computer scientist, entrepreneur, public servant and respected leader in higher education, Jahanian joined the university in 2014 as vice president for research. He then served two years as Provost, and took over last July as CMU’s interim president before his official appointment was announced in March of this year.

Jahanian came to Carnegie Mellon from the National Science Foundation, where he led the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) in its mission to advance scientific discovery through support for fundamental research and transformative cyber infrastructure. He oversaw several major presidential initiatives, such as the National Robotics Initiative and the National Big Data Research and Development Initiative.

He previously spent 21 years at the University of Michigan as the Edward S. Davidson Collegiate Professor in the College of Engineering. A widely published expert in cybersecurity and networks, Jahanian’s scholarly work in distributed computing and network protocols and architectures ultimately transformed how cyber threats are addressed today.

Throughout his career, Jahanian has been an active practitioner and advocate for basic research as the foundation of an innovation ecosystem that addresses societal priorities and drives global competitiveness.

Jahanian’s inauguration as president comes at an extraordinary time for Carnegie Mellon. This past admissions cycle, the university attracted a record-breaking 24,351 applicants for admission to the Class of 2022, a 19-percent increase over last year’s pool. It is the largest year-to-year increase and the most applicants in the university’s history. CMU continues to be known for innovation, for solving real-world problems and its hallmark of interdisciplinary collaboration.

TEQ wanted to learn more about Carnegie Mellon’s dynamic leader, his thoughts on Pittsburgh, the future of higher education and the ever-increasing pace of technology. Here’s what Jahanian had to say:

Jonathan Kersting: First and foremost, as a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh, what are your thoughts on the city?

Farnam Jahanian: While CMU was the main attraction that brought my wife and me to Pittsburgh, the more we learned about the city, the more enamored we became with it. It’s a town that prides itself on being this hotbed of innovation, technology, discovery and, of course, world-renowned arts and culture, but it’s not pretentious. People in Pittsburgh are warm, they’re friendly and, most importantly, they are very authentic.

We love that, in 10-15 minutes, we can get from where we live in the East End to the heart of downtown. At the same time, we are able to take full advantage of outdoor activities in the region, like hiking and biking.

JK: What got you interested in Carnegie Mellon?

FJ: As a computer scientist, of course, I knew about the history of Carnegie Mellon and its contributions to that discipline. But I also recognized, and respected, the broad impact that CMU has had on technology, science and the arts. Carnegie Mellon is truly a remarkable institution with deep traditions in promoting excellence in education and research, as well as a well-deserved reputation for transferring knowledge from lab to practice.

Perhaps what’s most distinctive about CMU is the way in which we intertwine science, technology and business with social sciences, humanities and the arts. As provost, I launched a Science, Technology and Policy Forum through which thought leaders from across the country are invited to deliver lectures on campus. These visitors often comment that, after meeting with colleagues from our various departments, they weren’t sure if they were talking to a computer scientist, a biologist, a neuroscientist, or an expert from our policy school. Disciplinary boundaries are blurred here in a very interesting and compelling way.

JK: What got you interested in stepping up as President of Carnegie Mellon?

FJ: As you know, the digital revolution is not only here, but it’s accelerating every day. The scope, scale and pace of advances in automation, digitization, data, and robotics are unprecedented in human history. We are seeing transformations in just about every sector of our economy, including transportation, energy, finance, manufacturing, healthcare and, of course, education. Thanks to our culture of interdisciplinary collaboration, Carnegie Mellon is exceptionally well-positioned to shape this nexus of technology and society at a critical juncture for humanity. It’s just an incredibly exciting time to be at CMU. To have the honor of serving as its president is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility.

JK: So, Farnam, tell me your thoughts about Carnegie Mellon creating impact around the world right from good old Pittsburgh, Pa!

FJ: First, I need to recognize the hard work and investment by leaders at Carnegie Mellon who have brought us to this very unique moment in the history of the institution and of Pittsburgh. I am grateful not only for my predecessors, but also for our fabulous faculty, alumni and students, and many, many CMU supporters.

CMU continues to catalyze regional and national innovation ecosystems through our commitment to research, creativity, and entrepreneurship and our collaboration with industry partners around the world.

There’s no question that we’re recognized as one of the leading institutions for discovery and innovation, a place that is helping to shape the research agenda for the rest of the nation.

On the one hand, we pursue pure creativity and basic research that may take decades to come to fruition; at the same time, we also do work that has a more direct impact on society, driving economic growth and improving the human condition.

Consider our history of startups: since 2008, CMU faculty, staff and students have created 288 startup companies. Since fiscal year 2011, a subset of those CMU-associated startups raised $1.05 billion in venture capital, with three-quarters of that going to Pennsylvania-based startups.

Startup growth has been enhanced by the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, our university-wide hub for entrepreneurship activities that includes mentorship opportunities, courses in entrepreneurship, the Project Olympus incubator, business plan competitions, and funding programs. The Swartz Center will soon move into almost 8,000 square feet of new space in the Tepper Quad.

In addition to the businesses that are coming out of the university, another avenue for our impact is the number of companies that partner with us. We have partnerships with more than 350 global companies. What surprised me when I served as provost was not just the number of companies that wanted to work with Carnegie Mellon, but also how many wanted to set up shop close to campus.

Overall, there is a remarkable alignment of our mission with the strength of the regional economy here in Pittsburgh. Through our education of top talent and our research and technology transfer, we are helping to make Pittsburgh a destination of choice for entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders.

JK: I would say that Pittsburgh has this one-two punch. It’s got Carnegie Mellon and it’s got the University of Pittsburgh. Tell us how you work with your neighbor Pitt.

FJ: The synergy between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh is undeniable. We have a number of collaborative academic programs and joint research centers like the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Center for Neural Basis of Cognition and Pittsburgh Data Health Alliance (which also includes UPMC), just to name a few. In addition, there’s a lot of grassroots collaboration among faculty at Pitt and CMU. [Pitt Chancellor] Pat Gallagher and I collaborated when we both served in Washington, D.C. and have developed a close friendship over the last several years.

As we move forward, I am looking forward to even more collaboration with Pitt and the other schools in our region. In fact, the recent Brookings report “Capturing the Next Economy – Pittsburgh’s Rise as a Global Innovation City” illustrated the unique role that academic institutions can play in catalyzing our economy in partnership with the private and public sectors.

JK: Tell us how Carnegie Mellon’s curriculum keeps pace with the fast-changing tech industry.

FJ: Carnegie Mellon has played a leading role in driving the science and technology that has built this current digital revolution. We have the best computer science programs in the world as well as top-ranked engineering and business schools. We are building a reputation as one of the nation’s top producers of talent in advanced manufacturing, cyber-physical systems, artificial intelligence, architecture and design, materials science, cybersecurity, and more. I’ll take this opportunity to mention that U.S. News & World Report just ranked our graduate program No. 1 in Artificial Intelligence. We are also really excited by our new undergraduate degree in AI, which our School of Computer Science will begin offering this fall. We will be the first U.S. university to offer this kind of major.

But confronting the opportunities and challenges on the journey to digital transformation requires more than just a technical focus. It also demands the combined insight of technologists, inventors, ethicists, public policy scholars and economists working together. CMU faculty and students from across our campus collaborate every day to better understand – and prepare for – the impact of emerging technologies on society, public policy, ethics, business, art, design and much more. As an example, our new Block Center for Technology and Society, which we launched in February, will examine the societal consequences of technological change and create meaningful plans of action.

We need to ensure our curriculum provides a strong foundation that will prepare our students for a lifetime of success. At Carnegie Mellon, we are pioneering new interdisciplinary programs to meet our students’ interests and society’s needs. Our Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology network (IDeATe), behavioral economics, neuroscience and computational biology programs are just a few recent examples. And we are investing in liberal arts education, pioneering new ways to embed “human” skills like communication, creativity, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, and collaboration throughout the educational experience. These skills will only increase in value as technology and automation matures and pervades more and more tasks.

JK: Carnegie Mellon has been making significant investments in its infrastructure. Give us an update.

FJ: Let’s start with the Tepper Quad. The construction of a 305,000-square-foot building on our new David A. Tepper Quadrangle will be completed right in time for the start of the academic year. This will transform our Pittsburgh campus in so many ways: bringing all of the Tepper School of Business under one roof, providing a home for our thriving Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, and adding 24 state-of-the-art classrooms, a new technology-enhanced learning center, and a stunning new welcome center to the heart of campus.

ANSYS Hall is currently under construction as the new 30,000-square-foot hub of the College of Engineering’s undergraduate program. This project came together thanks to a significant gift by ANSYS, a global firm based here in our region. The new facility, as part of the maker ecosystem that is being created at CMU, will take students’ educational and research activities to a higher level, creating resources for important work at the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing, simulations and material design. ANSYS Hall will be complete in Fall 2019.

We are creating new space for the College of Fine Arts by converting the entire top floor of the Graduate School of Industrial Administration building into a flexible space for our top-ranked Masters of Fine Art program. Once it is completed in the fall of 2019, the facility will include eighteen individual studios, study and public gathering areas, and administration offices.

And we recently embarked on a $20-million initiative to upgrade teaching and learning spaces across the Pittsburgh campus. Utilizing CMU’s research-in-learning science- and technology-enhanced education, our new classrooms will embrace the future of learning with inspiring, hands-on, collaborative, and technology-driven environments. These renovations will impact 79 classrooms and more than 3,500 seats.

JK: So, what’s your biggest wish for Carnegie Mellon?

FJ: I believe that higher education can bridge social, economic, racial and geographic divides like no other force. If we want education to continue to be the great equalizer in this age of disruption, we must commit ourselves to a new model for education. I want CMU to be at the forefront of this transformation in higher education.

There has always been a synergy between technologies demanding new skills and new breakthroughs in education. If you look back at our nation’s history, at every stage of significant technological change, the U.S. has advanced a major innovation in education. We are at the cusp of a new wave of innovation in education now. How exactly we reinvent education in the age of AI and automation will shape our economic prosperity and societal well-being for the next century.

Universities like CMU and partners from the private sector, government and community colleges can work together to make sure that the future of education and the future of work are aligned to serve our nation.

More broadly speaking, I also want to see Carnegie Mellon deepen its societal impact by leveraging our historic strengths at the intersection of technology and humanity. Supporting entrepreneurial activities and maximizing the competitiveness of our research enterprise remain key priorities for the entire university community. They are especially important in sustaining our commitment to the economic and cultural vitality of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania.