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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Paul Gray Memorial Service

Category: National
November, 2017
Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Paul Gray Memorial Service

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

Good afternoon. I am Shirley Ann Jackson, the 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a member of the MIT Classes of 1968 and 1973, and a Life Member of the MIT Corporation.

I thank Paul’s wife, Priscilla, all of his family, and President Rafael Reif, for inviting me to join this celebration of his life today.

I admired and loved Paul Gray, as did all of us. He was someone I turned to throughout my career, whenever I had a difficult decision to make, because I knew he would guide me towards the right end.

But beyond that, I have always felt an enormous sense of kinship with Paul Gray, because we shared important moments of leadership together.

When I was an undergraduate at MIT, I was one of just two African-American women in my class. It was a lonely, chilly experience, and although I was a very good student, I was not entirely accepted by my classmates, or even by some of my professors.

In the spring of 1968, I was deciding among graduate schools, and I was on the way to the airport after a visit to the University of Pennsylvania, when I learned that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Inspired by the courage and sacrifice of Dr. King, and others in the Civil Rights Movement, I realized that MIT needed to become a more welcoming place for African-Americans, for women, for people from all backgrounds and origins. And given its outsized influence in science and engineering, when you change MIT, you change the world.

At the time, there were very few African-American faculty members or administrators to spearhead such an effort. So, a group of like-minded students and I formed the Black Students’ Union, and we presented a list of demands to the MIT administration. Only, we called them “proposals.” In response, MIT formed the Task Force on Educational Opportunity to address the embedded issues.

In its infinite wisdom, MIT asked Associate Provost Paul Gray to take charge of the response. Paul always said that this was his “first real chance to exercise leadership of any form at MIT.” And he quickly demonstrated that he was a true leader, exactly the right mature person for a turbulent moment.

He took what could have been an adversarial situation—and sometimes it was—and instantly identified our shared objectives. Though he was MIT through and through, he immediately grasped that MIT could, and should, be better. I was invited to join the Task Force on Educational Opportunity, which I did during my first year of graduate school at MIT. I had decided that I needed to remain at MIT for graduate school, because I knew that it was important to work to change things here, and I felt that I could make a difference. It did not hurt that MIT was an excellent place for graduate school.

Until that moment, Paul, as he has said, had never had the opportunity before to get to know any African-Americans—having grown up in an all-white community, gone to an all-white high school, and served in an all-white unit of the Army. But he was an empathetic person, who could always pull something up from inside himself, to find common ground with the person sitting across from him. As a teenager with an intense interest in amateur radio and electronics, he had felt like an outsider. He had some insight, therefore, into how difficult that could be.

So he was ready to listen, to learn, and to act.

Thanks to Paul, the Task Force on Educational Opportunity spurred a breathtaking change in MIT. Until then, MIT had never done much recruiting of any kind. Why would it? It was MIT, after all.

Under Paul’s leadership, MIT hired an assistant director of admissions who was African-American. For the first time, the Institute developed special recruiting materials and a stronger financial aid package, and began visiting predominately African-American high schools, and saying to the most talented young men and women there, “We want you at MIT.” Paul also had the wisdom to send the Black Students’ Union students, including me, on as many of these recruiting trips as we could manage amidst our studies, to prove to African-American high schoolers that MIT was, indeed, a realistic possibility.

We had convinced Paul that merely bringing underrepresented minorities to MIT was not enough. Some of their high schools did not offer advanced science and mathematics, so they would be starting an Olympics-level race from meters behind. They needed an introduction to the rigorous coursework of MIT, and to become confident that they could succeed here. So the Task Force on Educational Opportunity also initiated Project Interphase, which continues to this day. Project Interphase was an intense six-week summer program for incoming freshmen who needed it, with classes in physics and pre-calculus, among other subjects—and a wonderful introduction to the MIT culture. I taught physics in Interphase, and although I was still a graduate student, I was asked to run the physics program in its second year.

As you can imagine, these were radical changes for MIT in the late 1960s. Paul was criticized initially by some faculty members who thought he was lowering the quality of the student body. And some of my peers called me a “collaborationist,” for working so closely with the white administration. Paul was even addressed in a derogatory and profane fashion by some very angry African-American students on one occasion.

But Paul was always cool-headed, even in the most heated times, and he was tough, when he knew he was right.

The students Paul helped to bring to MIT thrived—and proved, not just to MIT, but to the nation, that brilliance in science and engineering is not the province of any single background, ethnicity, or place of origin.

That experience of working with Paul taught me, first, what leadership is. He also taught me that I was a leader, and it led to many other opportunities for me throughout my life and career, for which I am immensely grateful. Paul also taught me, by his example, that leadership requires toughness, tenacity, and a willingness to be a bit of a “collaborationist”—in other words, to listen to others, to identify the points of intersection, and to work to turn opponents into supporters.

Paul, as you know, went on to become Chancellor, creating the first formal plan to increase the presence of women and minorities among the faculty, as well as the student body. He then became the 14th President of MIT, and the Chair of the MIT Corporation. As all of you know, Paul changed the MIT experience in many important ways throughout his career, including modernizing the Electrical Engineering curriculum for the age of semiconductors in the early 1960s, and championing a radical idea known as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the late 1960s, at the behest of, and in collaboration with, Margaret MacVicar. Importantly, Paul and Priscilla, as partners, worked to make MIT a more welcoming place in myriad ways for everyone here, especially the students.

Paul always cited increasing the diversity of MIT as his most important accomplishment. When he arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, fewer than one in 50 MIT students was a woman, or an underrepresented minority. By the end of his tenure as president in 1990, women were more than 30 percent of incoming undergraduates, and underrepresented minorities were 14 percent.

Paul truly changed the world, as an educational innovator, and by paving the way for the rest of us, who continue to work to bring the full complement of young talent into science and engineering.

But, it was not just the institutional Paul Gray, but the personal Paul Gray, who was so important in my life. He was a sounding board, mentor, supporter, and friend throughout my career. We talked often about the importance of education for our national well-being, especially in science and engineering, and about pedagogical innovation. Importantly, at crucial points of decision and opportunity in my life, I could always turn to Paul, and did, for advice and counsel. Moreover, he was my greatest direct and personal advocate for important positions including the Chairmanship of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, when I was developing the first Rensselaer Plan—the RPI strategic blueprint, Paul came to the university to help explain to our Board of Trustees the crucial linkage of research and teaching in educating young people in science and engineering. It was a great honor to have Paul write the forward to a book entitled, “A President, A Plan, and a University Transformed,” which was a retrospective on my first ten years as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

It was a great privilege to have shared a particular period in history with Paul, and to have made something happen alongside him. It was a privilege, in fact, just to have known him. Paul Gray was kind, he was sensible, he had moral courage, and he grew into a dear friend, upon whom I have relied throughout my career.

I will always cherish the long talks and walks we had when my husband, Morris, and I visited Paul and Priscilla in Rhode Island—in the winter primarily, and our hunts for the crustaceans Priscilla loved so much.

I am so grateful to Paul Gray, for teaching me so much, and for his incredible grace. I will miss him for the rest of my life.

I thank all of you for allowing me to honor this great man today.