Cabrera talk highlights freedom of expression

Mehrotra and Cabrera discuss freedom of expression at the Historical Academy of Medicine. After the talk was interuptted by an unknown protester, Cabrera struggled to keep the talk on track. // Photo by Yash Chaturvedi Student Publications

An event at the Historical Academy of Medicine intended to be a business conversation turned into a defense of campus freedom of expression. On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Anuj Mehrotra hosted President Ángel Cabrera at an event organized by the Scheller College of Business.

The event was part of a series called “Tech Talks Business,” inaugurated by Mehrotra, the new Dean of Scheller, in an attempt to establish better visibility and connections for the department.

“Everyone knows Georgia Tech as an engineering school and not so much for business. Anuj’s vision is to bring together the entire Tech community and shine some light on the College of Business,” said Theresa Metzger, Academic Program Manager at Scheller.

Per Metzger, nearly 500 people had registered for the event. The packed crowd was a mix of alumni, Atlanta business professionals and Scheller students and faculty. Precisely at 5:30 p.m., Mehrotra started proceedings, drawing Cabrera into a monologue about his colorful academic and personal journey starting from Madrid.

Mehrotra followed this up with a question about how Tech’s campus has changed between when Cabrera studied at the Institute in the 1990s and now. The president described the transformation of Midtown Atlanta, the role of Tech alumni and the Georgia Tech Foundation in projects such as Tech Square and Science Square. He also spoke about the greenery on campus, which he said made it look strikingly more appealing than it did 30 years ago.

Shortly after Cabrera wrapped up his answer to the development question, an unidentified protester directed a series of hot-button questions at him. The young protester demanded that Cabrera answer for what they described as Tech’s continued association with corporations that were funding the Israeli Defense Forces’ offensive in Gaza and the “Cop City” project in Atlanta despite the death of environmental activist Manuel Esteban Paez Terán at the project site.

This unscheduled confrontation, although purely of a verbal nature, created an uncomfortable silence in the room, with Cabrera saying nothing in return. Mehrotra interjected on several occasions as the host, requesting the protester to stop or expect to be escorted out. 

Some members of the audience jeered at the protester, saying, “Stop showing your ignorance!” and “Some of us support ‘Cop City.’” After close to three minutes, organizers gently led the protester and their companion out of the auditorium, with the duo chanting “Stop Cop City” on their way out.

While Mehrotra hastily looked to get the conversation back on track, Cabrera used it as an opportunity to expound his idea of freedom of expression on campus. The president asserted that freedom of expression was one of his administration’s key values, but interrupting someone during their expression was one of the exceptions to that freedom.

“Our goal is to make sure that we all learn to use our freedom of expression for good. Just because you have a legal right to say something offensive, it doesn’t mean you need to say it. We want to let people be themselves and express themselves even when they ask things you might disagree with. I try to learn from every conversation, especially with someone who disagrees with me,” Cabrera said to the Technique later on when asked about his position on freedom of expression at Tech.

Mehrotra eventually changed topics by asking about artificial intelligence (AI), referencing Cabrera’s recent interaction with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Cabrera spoke of how Tech could use AI to get “knowledgeable suggestions” based on Institute data and potential applications in personalized instruction. However, he warned that unless the education industry found a way to add value beyond the suggestions AI offered, it could be in trouble.

The Dean then asked Cabrera what a university’s mission should be. He answered by delving into the importance of diversity and freedom of expression together. Cabrera explained how one without the other was meaningless, causing a compromise either in growth or in cognitive dissonance. In response to a student’s question about how his background influenced his leadership, he spoke about Tech’s environment of embracing people for their differences, and how his personal journey had allowed him to appreciate and strive to strengthen that environment.

When a student inquired about the legacy Cabrera would like to have, Cabrera said he was merely looking to pass on the baton that was handed over to him. Tech’s president concluded by describing his day-to-day attempts at making his job, conversations and commute more interesting, in order to keep his inspiration and sense of purpose intact. 

The crowd then dispersed towards an adjacent hall with food arrangements, where they took the opportunity to speak with Mehrotra, Cabrera and several other noted attendees. Some attendees parodied the “Stop Cop City” call on their way out, ridiculing the protesters. Although students made up a small fraction of the participants, they seized upon the opporunity to network and build connections with those present at the event.

“I’m a computer science major, so not a lot of us are known to go to these events. I never knew how important the alumni network was, but that was something the dean and president stressed. There wasn’t computer science talk here, but seeing how the speakers and audience members handled the protest — there were social skills and small details that I felt I could learn from,” said Steven Hao, second-year CS.

Even though the president did not respond to any of the protester’s pointed questions, he gave an account of his attitude, vision and commitment toward the Institute’s development. Mehrotra and the School of Business hope to draw a similar amount of interest for the next event of the “Tech Talks Business” series,
to be held on March 4.