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Dean's Discourse

DEPARTMENT(S): 
September 16, 2022

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Rev. Debora Jackson, Dean alt
Rev. Debora Jackson, Dean

The social advocate in me is stirred up as I write. The headlines are dominated by the arrival of Venezuelan immigrants flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. People were lured onto planes with the promises of jobs and asylum, only to land in a community that did not expect their arrival. Vulnerable people were manipulated and lied to for politically motivated publicity.

The social advocate in me is stirred up as the headlines tell of mass graves found in re-occupied parts of the Ukraine. According to an NPR report, among the hundreds of individual graves found in Izium, dozens were of civilian adults and children. Vulnerable people were killed in a Russian airstrike on an apartment building.

The social advocate in me is stirred up as I read about the continuing water crisis in Jackson, MS. While officials claim that clean water has been restored, community members skeptically avoid using tap water. Torrential rains were blamed most recently for overwhelming water treatment plants. But an aging infrastructure and decades of deferred maintenance in a community that is more than eighty percent black tells a different story. Vulnerable people and their basic needs were neglected.

The advocate in me believes that we are called to care for our neighbors. We have a responsibility for those who are vulnerable: the stranger, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor. Believing that the last shall be first, we must care for those whom society regards as the least of these. We must care for creation because we are charged to be good stewards of the environment. In each of the stories cited, we see a failure to care, a failure to hold in esteem those who are vulnerable, and a failure to provide basic necessities. But in the WPI Business School (WBS), we are advocates for societal impact. And we are making a difference in each of these areas by serving at the intersection of business, technology, and people.

Growing evidence shows that the initial placement of refugees profoundly impacts lifetime outcomes such as employment, housing, education, and health. This motivated Business School Professors Andy Trapp, Renata Konrad, and PhD students to join an international team of researchers to develop a computational tool to help humanitarian aid organizations improve refugees’ chances of successfully integrating into a new community. Known as Annie™ MOORE (Matching and Outcome Optimization for Refugee Empowerment), named after the first recorded immigrant entering the U.S. through New York’s Ellis Island in the late 1800s, the tool integrates machine learning and optimization to generate data-driven, optimized recommendations on refugee placements. Annie™ was developed in close collaboration with U.S. resettlement agency HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and has been deployed there since May 2018.

Additionally, as hundreds of Afghan refugees resettled in Worcester, Director of Graduate Programs, Sandy Wellinghoff, Professors Wally Towner and Jim Ryan, and WPI students working in the WBS Small Business Digitization Services Initiative, collaborated with Worcester officials to develop the Worcester Together Refugee Response website. This website coordinates support efforts and resources, making it possible for community members to get involved in helping alleviate a humanitarian crisis. 

Professor Renata Konrad’s research in applied mathematics, which has been used to examine anti-human trafficking operations, found new application because of the war in Ukraine. As her research demonstrates, human trafficking issues are exacerbated during war. WPI students engaged in implementing applications that would support Ukrainian people and outreach. Also, several Business School faculty members volunteered to serve as capstone project supervisors for ten Ukrainian students at Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) whose professors left the classroom to fight in the war. Additionally, Professor Konrad worked with students at UCU who were developing humanitarian supply chains to get donated aid to the front lines.

In response to water management, Industrial Engineering major Kaelyn Hicks, ’22, participated on an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) team focused on helping Central Massachusetts towns to reduce nonpoint source pollution of stormwater in keeping with EPA mandated standards. Through analysis that compared real and estimated future costs needed to meet stormwater requirements, the team was able to help towns prepare for their stormwater budgets in ways that maintained compliance. Such strategies could help cities like Jackson, MS, understand how best to budget and plan for the impacts of stormwater. 

Additionally, Professors Joe SarkisSara SaberiMichael Elmes, and John “Jed” Lindholm are involved in research and action in keeping with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include ensuring wellbeing for humanity and our environment. Professors Sarkis and Saberi’s research focuses on environmental and supply chain sustainability. Professor Sarkis is the international program coordinator for the Greening of Industry Networks, an international network of professionals focusing on issues of industrial development, environment, and society, dedicated to building a sustainable future. Professor Michael Elmes, as Director of the Wellington, New Zealand Project Center, provided oversight for the “Assessing Innovative Freshwater Management Solutions” IQP. Moreover, Professor Elmes’ Department of Education grant will allow WPI to partner with schools, businesses, and organizations in both Massachusetts and New Zealand to collectively work on sustainable solutions. Professor Lindholm champions efforts to embed measures to create a sustainability mindset that will change management education, helping learners see their responsibility in improving the earth’s health, one decision at a time. We proudly note that WBS is a member of the United Nations Principles of Responsible Management (PRME) group and is committed to the six climate positive actions as integrated elements of curriculum topics: green transition to decarbonization, green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth, green economy, investment in sustainable solutions, confronting climate risks, and international cooperation.

The social advocate in me is indeed stirred up. However, I am also gratified by the ways that WBS faculty, staff, and students come together through research, IQPs, and special projects that make a difference for the most vulnerable. These examples, which additionally include extensive work in health care information systems led by Professors Diane Strong, Bengisu Tulu, and Soussan Djamasbi, show mercy for humanity and care for our environment. We see this work as our responsibility and call all to do likewise.