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Qais Akbar Omar (GRS’16), a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program, has published a much-praised memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story. He recalls how the violence and tumult of civil war jolted his family, who, despite losing relatives, their home, and possessions, continued to nurture his wish to attend a university.

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A Note from Dean Cudd: Confronting the Grand Challenge of Inequality

January 31st, 2017

Dean Cudd blog post imageI begin today’s note by standing with so many leaders and citizens across the nation in condemning President Trump’s executive order on immigration from religiously targeted countries, and pledging my support to our students, faculty, and staff affected by this order. I cannot state it better than Boston University President Brown did in yesterday’s Boston Globe: “The new administration’s executive order to temporarily ban people from seven Muslim nations from entering the United States is fundamentally inconsistent with the values that are the bedrock of higher education, and indeed, of our pluralistic, welcoming society. The executive order diminishes our nation as a beacon for freedom and opportunity. As an academic community, we must stand together to support one another at this time of uncertainty and use a clear voice to affirm our principles and voice our deep concern.”

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Economic inequality is rising in the US, and the academic study of inequality is thriving today as never before. The results of the recent presidential election show that economic inequality, racial and gender inequalities, and the resulting inequalities in access to health care and political power create division and political instability. Global inequalities matter almost as much as domestic inequality to this growing division, as the crises around migration and refugees prove daily. Inequality clearly constitutes a grand challenge to society, one that we as an institution are taking on through our scholarship, teaching, and outreach.

Here at BU, particularly in the College of Arts & Sciences, outstanding faculty across a broad range of disciplines are seeking to answer urgent questions for humanity by identifying the various kinds of social inequalities that exist, how they relate to social injustice, and what society can and should do to address them. In my own work as a philosopher, I have tried to explain how inequality can be a symptom and cause of oppression, creating a vicious reinforcing cycle of violence and prejudice. Furthermore, even when inequalities do not originate in oppression or injustice, they may still need to be mitigated in the interest of achieving democracy within a society or peace abroad. This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar that examines these themes. I am also committed, as dean, to mitigating inequality in access to higher education, the primary means to improve social mobility.

In CAS, economist Laurence Kotlikoff works on measuring economic inequality, given the tax and transfer policies that the government implements. Kevin Lang, Michael Manove, and Robert Margo all study aspects of racial discrimination, and Kevin regularly teaches a course on poverty and discrimination. Ray Fisman focuses his behavioral economic lens on how wealth affects the behavior and attitudes of the rich. Sociologists research power and structural inequality as it arises along several vectors, from Saida Grundy’s work on race and gender, to Cati Connell’s study of sexuality and the workplace, to Susan Eckstein’s work on global inequality between north and south. Our political scientists also study inequality and its interaction with political power and legitimacy. Virginia Sapiro is an expert on gender and political inequality, and Katie Einstein and David Glick’s cool course, The Politics and Policy of HBO’s The Wire, examines race and class inequalities and public policy. Historian Ashley Farmer studies the gender-conscious organizing of the women within the Civil Rights Movement. This is only a sampling of how our faculty is responding to the grand challenge of inequality.

The College also benefits from strong collaborators around Boston University on topics of inequality. The School of Public Health takes health inequalities as one of its main themes. The School of Social Work likewise studies policy and practices aimed at mitigating the effects of inequality. And our School of Education has long worked on closing the opportunity gaps that result from racial discrimination and class inequalities through its faculty research and community outreach. Finally, researchers from the Initiative on Cities and the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering teamed up to produce a groundbreaking gender equity study for the City of Boston, creating a computer algorithm that can be applied to many different studies of inequality by allowing companies or institutions to submit data while maintaining complete anonymity.

I am proud of the fact that many scholars at BU are focusing our attention on the extent, nature, and causes of inequality and their relation to justice, health, education, climate change, and political instability. Inequality is becoming one of the most urgent political issues of our time, if not the most urgent, dividing us along traditional lines, and also creating new divisions that can be exploited by demagogues. By taking this as one of our main themes for building curricula in the new BU Hub and in building our faculty across the College, CAS will contribute toward the solution to this grand challenge through our teaching, research, and outreach missions.

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This is the third of several dean’s notes in which I discuss five key priorities that will define the future of the Arts & Sciences at BU. These priorities inform our strategy for growth and development of faculty, degree programs, research collaborations, and fundraising. They recognize existing faculty strengths and respond to global challenges and opportunities, as well as student interest. Taken together, these priorities offer opportunities for faculty and departments to build on collective strengths in ways that best fit their disciplinary assets, but encourage interdisciplinary discovery. These priorities are:

  • Embracing the evolving powers of data analytics and infusing the disciplines of the college—from the humanities to the natural sciences—with the opportunities presented by data science.
  • Renewing our support for the humanities as a crucial component of a liberal education and critical perspective on our technological age.
  • Accelerating our strong neuroscience programs so that we can map the brain to better understand the neural bases of behavior and disease.
  • Enabling BU to play an important part in humankind’s efforts to understand, mitigate, and adjust to climate change and create sustainable ways of life.
  • Understanding the roots of inequality and the requirements of justice, and embracing our special role as educators in creating social mobility by increasing the accessibility of a BU education for talented students regardless of family income.

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