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Letter to the Editor: Vinson’s Photo-Op With Sam Altman Illustrates Need To Strengthen Vetting Standards

President Ben Vinson III engages with Sam Altman during discussion. (Keith Golden Jr./The Hilltop)

Last week, Howard University President Ben Vinson III conducted a fireside chat with Sam Altman, founder of Worldcoin, a company that utilizes cryptocurrency for iris scans. Altman is also the founder of OpenAI, the organization that developed ChatGPT. 

Recently, in August 2023, Kenya’s government banned Worldcoin due to concerns that the collection of biometric data is exploitative. Despite this controversy surrounding Worldcoin, Vinson III extended a warm welcome to Altman.

President Vinson III missed a crucial opportunity to probe Altman about the lack of diversity at OpenAI and the recent dismissal of its female Board members– a matter that has garnered widespread criticism

As a Howard University alumna, I am deeply disappointed in the Mecca. The omission of this discussion reflects a missed opportunity for transparency and accountability.

Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, artificial intelligence AI expert, and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, has been a vocal advocate regarding the lack of diverse leaders in the realm of AI and technology. Recognizing the need for change, she founded the AI Equity Lab at Brookings Institution, dedicated to advancing compliance with civil and human rights in the sphere of AI. 

Last month, Turner Lee published an editorial to spotlight the contributions of Black women in the field of AI. One notable figure she highlighted was Alondra Nelson, a former White House official, who spearheaded the development of the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights in 2022. 

“AI pioneer Timnit Gebru, a former Google researcher, was terminated after announcing the company was silencing marginalized voices. Algorithmic justice advocate and best-selling author Joy Buolamwini exposed the racial inequities embedded in the design and use of facial recognition technology by government agencies,” Turner Lee wrote.

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I have to assume Vinson’s cabinet conducted thorough research, yet still prioritized an audience with Altman, who is currently engaged in damage control across Black institutions, rather than actively prioritizing workforce diversification.

In an age where affluent CEOs are openly denouncing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Black institutions should not serve as a refuge for them. Howard University has to uphold a higher standard in vetting wealthy executives for elevation to such public forum– an honor afforded to few. What level of scrutiny should the administration conduct before opening the door and providing a pulpit to corporations? Should the Mecca prioritize preference for diverse and accomplished experts?

One has to wonder if Vinson would also extend a similar welcome to Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO known for his anti-DEI stance. Musk, who recently posted “DEI must die” on his social media platform X, has also made controversial statements suggesting that graduates from historically Black colleges and universities have lower intelligence.

Altman’s concerning track record on DEI should have prompted a reconsideration by the Office of the President to rethink last week’s photo-op, given the current challenges in efforts for inclusion. Institutions best positioned to advocate for accountability should not shirk that responsibility. It is disheartening that Vinson III exhibited such a lapse in judgment.  

Cleve Mesidor is the Executive Director of Blockchain Foundation and a Howard University Alumna.

Copy Edited by D’ara Campbell

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