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A spirit that is not afraid

Special to The Plainsman: Tim Cook on diversity at Auburn

For Apple CEO Tim Cook, a 1982 graduate of Auburn, it's difficult to say whether the University is doing enough to foster a diverse and inclusive environment on its campus.

"I’m not sure that anyone can ever do enough," Cook said after a pause.

This subject should not be approached with the question: "Are you doing enough?" Cook said. "It should be: 'Are you curious enough to keep figuring it out and to keep challenging yourself on what more you can do?'"

Cook interacted with students during a talk  — dubbed “A Conversation with Tim Cook: A Personal View of Inclusion and Diversity" — in a packed auditorium at Telfair B. Peet Theatre on Thursday.

The event, hosted by SGA, was announced earlier this week. Seating was limited, and students lined up before 7 a.m. for the chance to see Cook speak.

After the talk, Cook sat down with The Auburn Plainsman to discuss diversity on campus and in the U.S., LGBTQ issues and the future of Auburn University.

On perspective

Cook is a big believer in open discussion. He acknowledged that many people aren't totally on board with the idea that diversity is an important issue. But, he said, that could be remedied with honest communication. 

"If somebody has a strong opinion that diversity isn’t important, I’d encourage them to listen and allow for they might be wrong," Cook said. "My strong belief that people who do that will come to the conclusion that it is incredibly important. No matter how they look at it."

Economically, Cook said, diversity in the workforce is essential. The GDP will rise, and product quality will improve. 

"Or, even if they view it on a humanity basis: what's just and what's right," he said. "No matter which way you look at it, or if you look at it both ways, I think they’ll come around to see that it’s incredibly important."

On LGBTQ issues

Cook is a notoriously private man.

Rumors about his sexual orientation swirled for years, but Cook chose not to discuss his personal life until three years ago. In a Bloomberg Business editorial, Cook publicly identified himself as a gay man for the first time.

"While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now," Cook wrote. "So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."

Cook told The Plainsman he hadn't yet accepted his sexuality when he was a student at Auburn in the 1980s.

"Would I have felt accepted? That’s a bit of an academic question," Cook said. "But I think the reality is it would’ve been incredibly hard. Not necessarily because it was Auburn. I think I would’ve had the same answer with any university across the United States. If you think about it, it was not just frowned upon, but in many states it was illegal. Marriage wasn’t even legal until recently."

The optimistic part of Cook, he said, thinks society is moving in the right direction when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

"The impatient side says we’re not moving fast enough," Cook said. "Everyone deserves the same human rights. I don’t hear anybody asking for special rights – just the same rights. I think that’s true not only in the gay community but many other communities as well."

On gender in STEM

Cook graduated with an industrial engineering degree in 1982 and has remained involved with the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, even serving on its alumni advisory board 17 years after his graduation and has endowed a professorship and scholarships. 

He's disturbed, however, by gender disparities in science, technology, engineering and math careers. Not just at Auburn, but throughout the country. 

"I think the U.S. will lose its leadership in technology if this doesn’t change," Cook said. "Women are such an important part of the workforce. If STEM-related fields continue to have this low representation of women, then there just will not be enough innovation in the United States. That’s just the simple fact of it."

According to Auburn University's 2015 enrollment statistics, approximately two times more men were enrolled as undergraduate industrial engineering students than women. Approximately three times as many men were enrolled in the college's graduate program. 

Auburn's enrollment statistics actually bode well for the future of women in industrial engineering. Right now, only 17.1 percent of industrial engineers in the U.S. are women. 

This is not enough, though, Cook said. 

"The job growth in STEM fields will outpace all other by a fair amount for the foreseeable future," Cook said. "The reality is, you'll end up having a whole set of jobs that aren't filled. You'll lose talented workforce that should exist. I think it’s imperative for the whole country to get behind changing that."

On the future

It's hard to deny the University has seen considerable change in the last two months. For the third time in Auburn history, a woman was elected SGA president. Her vice president is an African-American man. 

"I think it says a lot about the students," Cook said. "As usual, it’s the younger generation that pushes the older generation to walk away from these old dogmas and prejudices. Most people can’t even tell you why they exist anymore."

These ideas have become deeply ingrained in society, Cook said, and it is up to current and future generations to reverse them. 

"A part of being a great citizen — for every generation — is to expand the definition of human rights," Cook said. "If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be sitting here and you wouldn’t be sitting here either."

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