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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Black Students’ Alliance 50th Anniversary Celebration Reception

Category: University Events
October, 2017
Albany Marriot

Black Students’ Alliance 50th Anniversary Celebration Reception

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It is a great honor to join the Black Students’ Alliance for the 50th anniversary of its founding. The birth of this group is a very important moment in the nearly 200-year history of Rensselaer.

It began as a regional organization called the Tri-City Afro-American Student Alliance, which sought to link all of the African-Americans—few in number—at local colleges and universities, in order to create more opportunities for social activities.

Here at Rensselaer, however, where our students have always worked to make a better world, the group soon developed a true policy focus and power as the Black Students’ Alliance. There were only 17 African-American students at Rensselaer when the Black Students’ Alliance was founded—and they were not always made to feel an integral part of the Rensselaer community.

The Black Students’ Alliance gave the Rensselaer administration a list of proposals designed to correct this unfairness, including ending the unfortunate stereotyping of African-Americans in campus publications, ensuring that African-Americans could join all campus organizations, and working to hire African-American faculty and staff who would better understand the inherent struggles of belonging to such a small minority on campus.

The Black Students’ Alliance transformed Rensselaer, eventually encouraging the administration to appoint new administrators, including Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles, who is with us tonight, as the first Director of Minority Student Affairs.

I emphasize, however, that the founders of the Black Students’ Alliance were true Rensselaer students—focused on the great challenges beyond their own immediate experience. They urged the administration to recruit more African-American students to Rensselaer in the future. As a result, the Black Students’ Alliance not only made Rensselaer more diverse, but also expanded the pool of talent available to discover, to innovate, to design, and to engineer our nation.

This was a struggle in which I was engaged, as well. The same academic year that the Tri-City Afro-American Student Alliance was founded, I was a senior at MIT, deciding where to attend graduate school. As one of just two African-American women in my class, I was so unusual at MIT that some of my fellow students thought common courtesy did not apply to me. I was not invited to join their study groups. Some students refused to eat with me. And, sadly, some of the professors were just as unsophisticated.

By the time I was a senior, I was looking forward to a better experience in graduate school and more than ready to be elsewhere, when the University of Pennsylvania invited me to visit in April of 1968—to consider doing my graduate work there. One of the physicists whose work most interested me was at Penn.

As I was leaving Penn after this visit, in a car with my sorority sister, on my way to the Philadelphia airport, the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. We nearly drove the car off the road.

By the time I got back to MIT, Dr. King had passed away. I was deeply moved by this—being a child of the “King Era.” Inspired by the courage of Dr. King, I knew that I should and would remain at MIT for graduate school. Given its stature and influence in the worlds of science and technology, changing MIT was crucial—and I saw that it was my duty to help make that happen.

So, with a group of like-minded students, I formed the MIT Black Students' Union, and like the Rensselaer Black Students’ Alliance, we presented a list of proposals to the university administration. Provost Paul Gray, who later became President of MIT, listened, formed a Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and asked me to join it.

The Task Force accomplished a great deal, and MIT began, for the first time, to actively recruit minority students, faculty, and administrators—in particular, African-Americans. The minority students I helped to bring to MIT excelled—proving to the world that science and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, ethnic origin, or gender.

In bringing young African-Americans into science and technology, in making them feel comfortable on this campus, in working to unite the larger community, all of you—everyone in this room—have accomplished something significant.

However, we cannot rest quite yet. A recent New York Times analysis of top colleges and universities nationwide came to the troubling conclusion that African-American and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at highly selective schools than they were 35 years ago.

The reasons clearly include such serious challenges in our public K-12 schools, in terms of quality and de facto segregation, that some have called it “educational apartheid”—as well as the fact that college costs have risen, but the median African-American household has just one-twelfth the wealth of the median white household to pay for higher education.

At Rensselaer, we have raised the enrollment of underrepresented minorities from 10% to 16% over the past several years, while continuing to attract and enroll the very best students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

But, enrollment is not enough. We have observed that the performance and graduation rates of African-American men at Rensselaer has not matched that of African-American women, and of the student body as a whole. Nationwide, underrepresented minority men earn a smaller share of science and engineering degrees at all levels than underrepresented minority women.

Therefore, we have taken several steps to address this, and to ensure the success of all African-American and minority students here at Rensselaer.

We have embedded diversity in the Rensselaer Plan 2024, by making diversity an Institute-Wide Highest Priority—which means that enhancing diversity is a requirement to be addressed by every portfolio, and, therefore, every vice president and dean—with metrics for success against which they are evaluated. Although the organizational structures supporting African-Americans at Rensselaer have evolved over the years, we also are providing much greater academic and financial assistance, and the supportive climate created by CLASS, or our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, to recruit and retain African-Americans, particularly young African-American men.

We have created a new bridge program that is partly residential and partly online—in the summer before a freshman begins in the fall, and utilizes blended learning to strengthen entering students’ preparation in Calculus and Physics—the Virtual Calculus and Virtual Physics Bridges. We are ensuring that all minority students, who could benefit, are invited into these programs.

Included in the structure of CLASS is an organization in the Student Life Division led by an Assistant Vice President for Student Success. Within this organization are Class Deans for each undergraduate class, who are advocates and coaches for their classes. Also included is a Dean for Student Success, whose job it is to work with the requisite Class Dean to ensure that any student needing intervention or support, gets it—lifting him/her to success.

Beginning in the next fiscal year, there will be an Assistant Dean for Underrepresented Minority Student Success, and a cohort-focused approach to support—from the pre-freshman period on. This includes inviting the students, who could benefit, into the Bridge program, and then working with that cohort throughout the first year. This will also include mentoring, tracking, and ensuring the proper intervention throughout their undergraduate years.

This also includes the Garnet Baltimore Program, especially targeted at enrolling African-Americans, with a full day introduction to Rensselaer, before the official Accepted Students Celebration on the following day. We have a special dinner for these accepted students and their parents—to welcome them to Rensselaer. The Garnet Baltimore Program features panels of recent alumni and alumnae and current students. The prospective students also stay over in the residence halls with current students.

We also have significantly increased the financial aid provided to these students. In fact, we meet the full financial need of African-American students, and next year, Latino students as well.

We have done this in acknowledgment of the fact that the cost of providing the education we offer at Rensselaer—experiential, immersive, designed to allow each individual student to soar—has outstripped the ability of many families to pay for it—particularly African-American families on the wrong side of the wealth gap. It also has outstripped our overall ability to provide the requisite financial aid to all of our students.

We intend to address this problem—and compete with Ivy League schools for the most talented students for all socioeconomic backgrounds—by building our student aid endowment with the Capital Campaign we have just launched. Our nation and our world need more technologically savvy young people with the benefit of a Rensselaer education—with the intellectual ability, multicultural sophistication, and global view we develop here.

Greater resources will allow us to ensure that a lack of wealth is not a barrier to the education we offer at Rensselaer. You can help us with that—as we launch our new Capital Campaign—by helping to create new, and contributing to existing, endowed financial aid for underrepresented minority students.

I hope that I have given you a better sense of our commitment to enroll, support, and graduate African-American and other underrepresented minority students.

I thank all of you here this evening—both current and former students—for all you have done to make Rensselaer both a more diverse, more vibrant, and also more united community—and for all you have done to help the nation and world to tap the full complement of its talent. I look forward to the next half century of the Black Students’ Alliance—as, together, we change the world.

Please continue to hold our feet "to the fire." We will look to have you support future generations of African-Americans and other underrepresented students as we go forward with our Capital Campaign in the years ahead.

Please enjoy the rest of your reunion weekend.

Thank you.