Leaders from some of the nation’s top historically Black colleges and universities are meeting virtually with Google CEO Sundar Pichai next week to discuss the future of their schools’ relationships with the tech giant in the wake of racism and sexism allegations made by two Black former employees.
In December, ex-Google artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru and former Google diversity recruiter April Curley both tweeted that they had been fired by the company after raising concerns about the lack of Black people working there and how those who currently work there are treated.
Google has maintained that Gebru voluntarily resigned. Curley, who says she was responsible for Google’s HBCU recruitment, said her superiors believed HBCU computer science grads didn’t have the technical skills to work at Google and repeatedly undermined her efforts.
“We were not willing to stand by on this issue and let it go,” Florida A&M University president Larry Robinson told CNN Business during a pair of recent phone interviews.
“When our students have the opportunity to go into the world of work and the world of work has an opportunity to work with our talented students, it’s important they are provided an environment that is appreciative and respects who they are, their talent,” he continued. “It’s not going to be sustainable otherwise.”
Robinson is one of at least five HBCU presidents set to meet with Pichai and Google’s chief diversity officer Melonie Parker on January 29. Presidents from Howard University, North Carolina A&T, Prairie View A&M and Baltimore’s Morgan State are also set to attend. The five participating schools have academic and career development relationships with Google.
Howard University president Wayne A.I. Frederick said the recent allegations against Google concerned him as well.
“We obviously have a relationship with Google that we want to make sure is the right kind of relationship and the right environment,” Frederick said.
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.’”
Williams said the goal of the meeting is to continue a positive dialogue and engagement between Google and the HBCU community.
Google told CNN Business the work it’s doing to recruit Black talent is critical.
“We are dedicated to hiring and retaining Black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, and we’re committed to strengthening our partnerships with HBCUs,” a Google spokesperson said via email.
The company began piloting its HBCU and Hispanic-Serving Institutions tech exchange program at Howard University in 2017 before opening it up to 11 total schools a year later. The initiative allows computer science majors from HBCUs and HSIs to spend a semester receiving coding instruction at Google’s Mountain View, California, global headquarters.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy last summer, Google committed to increasing Black representation at its senior levels and set a 2025 deadline to improve leadership representation of “underrepresented groups” by 30%. Only 3.7% of Google’s US workforce is Black, up from just 2.4% in 2014, according to the company’s 2020 diversity report, which notes that Google hired from 15 HBCUs and 39 HSIs in 2019.
Robinson said Florida A&M University graduates about 60 tech field students every year. He himself is a former Lockheed Martin nuclear chemist who says the mythical dearth of Black American STEM talent is something he constantly heard about throughout his science career.
“The reason I came to FAMU is because I got so tired of hearing the statement that, ‘We can’t find them,’” Robinson said. “We are making a huge contribution to helping [Google] find capable, qualified talented young men and women who can do the job of computer science, computer engineering.”
In October, Frederick wrote a CNN Business op-ed rebutting claims made by Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf, who apologized in September for drafting a memo to employees that said his company’s struggles to recruit Black Americans were due to “a very limited pool of Black talent.”
Frederick pointed out in his op-ed that HBCUs only represent 3% of America’s higher-ed institutions yet produce nearly 20% of bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans and almost a quarter of all undergraduate STEM field degrees earned by Black Americans.
“There’s no doubt our students are smart enough and talented enough,” Frederick told CNN Business during a recent phone interview. “The issue, I think, is more an issue of exposure.”