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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Black Alumni of MIT Capstone Gala

Category: Regional
November, 2018
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I am so delighted to join the Black Alumni of MIT, or BAMIT, for its Capstone Weekend, and I thank you for the Lifetime Service honor.

I have been asked to speak this evening about the power of community, which is somewhat ironic, because community was the one thing I struggled to find at MIT.

Intellectual stimulation, challenging coursework, and great academic success were all immediately available to me when I arrived at MIT as a freshman in 1964. However, the one thing I lacked, and lacked specifically because I am a woman and African American, was a community.

Before I arrived at MIT, I had had a rather idyllic primary and secondary school experience in the newly integrated schools of Washington, D.C. I tested into an honors track, became high school valedictorian, and was a social as well as academic leader.

So it was a shock to find that my classmates at MIT were so resistant to meeting me, that if I joined their table at lunch, they would stand up and leave.

I was making my way through my very first physics problem set, in my dorm at MIT, when I stumbled across the other freshmen women, sitting in the hall working together on the problem set. When I asked to join their study group, the other women told me to “go away.”

Only when my classmates discovered that I was a top student, would they talk to me about the problem sets, and then only about the problem sets.

There was just one other African American young woman in my class, Jennifer Rudd, and our classmates were so little interested in us as individuals, that we were frequently mistaken for each other.

In short, my undergraduate experience at MIT was extremely lonely, and I spent most of it working in isolation.

But I loved the science and math I was learning and the research I was participating in. And I had the great advantage of having arrived at MIT with a strong sense of obligation to those who supported and loved me. I knew it was important to my parents and my family, and to the community I came from, that I succeed. I could not give up.

I also had a strong religious background, and was raised to believe that it was not enough for me to succeed alone. It was important to help somebody else along the way.

In other words, my background gave me an inherent sense of community, and of service to community. Since I had not fallen into a welcoming group at MIT, I knew I had to create a sense of fellowship for myself.

So that is what I did. Beginning as a freshman, I began volunteering at Boston City Hospital in a pediatric ward for infants. Holding these very young patients in my arms every day, some of whom had no other visitors, and seeing what they were dealing with, from physical deformities to leukemia‚ put my own burdens in perspective and made me recognize how very fortunate I was.

Then in my sophomore year, I pledged the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, founded by African American college women. We were the New England regional chapter (Iota Chapter), with membership drawn from as far away as New Haven, Connecticut (Yale). My sorority gave me a larger sense of what other African American women were dealing with at college. Although the numbers of us may have been minuscule at MIT, they were not large at any college in the region.

I ended up serving as president of the chapter for two years. Some of the Deltas at other Boston area schools grew up in Roxbury. They would invite me over on weekends, and I got to know their families. Again, I was creating my own community.

A large part of the Delta’s mission is service, and I began tutoring in math at the Roxbury YMCA.

All the while, I was focusing on, and enjoying my studies, in physics, and doing well—so much so that I was accepted for graduate school at MIT, Penn, Harvard, Brown, and the University of Chicago.

So by the time the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed—which led me to decide to remain at MIT for graduate school to ensure that the African Americans who followed me would be less isolated—I already had a substantial history my classmates did not know of: of working on more than problem sets, of working on real social problems. I also realized that my own academic success, and later professional success, were key to my ability to change MIT, and to effect change in the larger world.

I felt that the MIT community would be richer if it embraced the values of the community I had come from, including hospitality, tolerance, and a humble sense of service to others, even as one reached for excellence.

In the fall of my first year as a graduate student, I joined forces with other African American students, including Jim Turner, Linda Sharpe, and others—to found the Black Students’ Union, and to change the MIT experience for African Americans. We soon presented the MIT administration a set of demands.

We were very fortunate that our counterpart in the administration, Associate Provost Paul Gray, also saw that MIT needed to do, and to be better. He founded the Task Force on Educational Opportunity, appointed Jim Turner, me, and other BSU students to it, and the rest is history. We developed strategies for recruitment, admissions, financial aid, and a transition program (Project Interphase) that transformed MIT.

We BSU students spent the year travelling to predominantly African American high schools around the country (I went mostly to the Midwest—Michigan, Ohio, Illinois), assuring the most talented students that if they came to MIT, they would have a community in us.

It worked. MIT went from enrolling just a handful of African Americans in each class, to having 57 African Americans start in the fall of 1969.   

At the same time, my apartment off-campus became a place where younger students in physics would gather to study and to borrow my old problem sets, while I worked on calculations related to my thesis research. So, I did indeed, eventually have my own study group, though I was generally in the role of teacher there!

The students I helped to bring to MIT—and helped to adjust to its culture—did very well, and helped to prove that scientific and mathematical abilities are not restricted to white men.

As I progressed in my physics research, I proved that I could assess an intricate challenge, such as the dearth of minorities at MIT, and find practical ways to address it.

And I had found common ground with the wonderful Paul Gray, who became the 14th President of MIT—someone of a different race, gender, role, and generation. Together, in a very heated time, we withstood many insults from those who did not understand the purpose of the Task Force—and we got something truly big done. I learned that people whose perspectives were very different could unite around the desire to make the world a better place—that communities do, indeed, coalesce around the intent to serve.

My experience at MIT led to many more opportunities for leadership.

After obtaining my Ph.D. in particle physics from MIT, I was fortunate to gain a postdoctoral position at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. While there, I worked on a refinement of my thesis—which concerned a model for many-particle interactions. During my first year at Fermilab, I got to know another woman theoretical physicist—we were a rare breed!—Dr. Mary K. Gaillard, who was visiting from CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).

She persuaded me to spend the next year working with her in Switzerland, which I greatly enjoyed. After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second post-doctoral year.

Jobs were hard to come by in high-energy physics in those days—in physics, generally, but there were a few opportunities in my original field of interest, theoretical condensed matter physics.

Through the intervention of a theorist at Bell Labs (whom I had met at a theoretical physics summer school at the University of Colorado, Boulder), who facilitated an introduction to the head of the Theoretical Physics Department, I won a limited-term appointment at the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. A year later, after doing some interesting work on charge density waves in layered materials, Bell Labs made my position permanent.

I had a number of successes at Bell Labs, developing theories to explain change density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides, the polaronic aspects of electrons in two-dimensional systems, and the optical and electronic properties of strained-layer semiconductor materials. Because of this research, I achieved recognition within the greater community of scientists, and was elected a fellow of American Physical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I subsequently served on the governing council of the American Physical Society, and on the Executive Committee of the American Institute of Physics.

Two other windows opened for me during my time at Bell Labs, that set me down new paths, and changed my life. First, I was asked to join some corporate boards, including that of the Public Service Enterprise Group, or PSEG. PSEG owned or co-owned five nuclear reactors. Because of my original background in elementary particle physics, I sat on, and later chaired for a number of years, the PSEG nuclear oversight committee.

The second window was government service. I was asked by New Jersey Governor Tom Kean to join the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology as a founding member. The position was unpaid, but required State Senate confirmation, and introduced me to a number of prominent business people and government leaders. Two similar advisory positions in New Jersey soon followed under the next two governors.

We always have, in life, both witting and unwitting mentors. I am unsure how my name arose when President Bill Clinton was looking, in 1994, for a Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—or NRC—which licenses, regulates, and safeguards vis-à-vis nuclear non-proliferation the use of nuclear reactors, nuclear materials, spent nuclear fuel, and nuclear wastes.

After my interview at the White House, I was offered the position of Chairman of the NRC. I knew that managing such a large organization was a considerable challenge. However, given my scientific background, government service in New Jersey, and familiarity with nuclear power plants from the board of directors of PSEG, I was ready for this leap.

I led the development of a strategic plan for the NRC—its first ever. We put in place the first license renewal process to extend the operating life of nuclear reactors, and introduced at the NRC the use of probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis.

I also saw the necessity, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of a new community, and spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) as a high-level forum to allow nations to assist each other in promoting nuclear safety. The initial membership comprised Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S. I was elected the first Chairman of the group. As Chairman of the INRA, and as Chairman of the NRC, I was able to help the post-Apartheid government of South Africa and the governments of some of the post-Soviet newly independent states to strengthen their oversight of nuclear reactors, write nuclear legislation, and create nuclear regulatory programs.

Four years later, another unforeseen opportunity arose, and another decision. I was asked to assume the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by its Board of Trustees, who were looking for a change agent. I took the position—in part because the work that I began in co-founding the BSU at MIT was not yet complete.

At Rensselaer, we take very seriously, indeed, our institutional role in opening doors to talented students who belong to groups underrepresented in scientific and technological fields. One of the six key goals undergirding our strategic plan, The Rensselaer Plan 2024, is strengthening the ethnic, gender, intellectual, and geographic diversity at Rensselaer—among faculty, staff, and students—and every portfolio is answerable for its own contribution to this goal. Our vision for Rensselaer, which we term The New Polytechnic, is fundamentally about serving as a great crossroads for talented people from all backgrounds, disciplines, sectors, ethnicities, geographies, and generations—who tackle, together, the great global challenges.

As a result, our current freshman class includes the largest number of women and underrepresented minorities in the nearly 200-year history of Rensselaer.

On a national level, efforts to encourage women and underrepresented minorities to study science and engineering are crucial. For many years, I have been talking about what I refer to as “The Quiet Crisis”—our nation’s failure to bring sufficient numbers of young people into the science and engineering pipeline. It is quiet—because it unfolds over time, it is a crisis when it occurs—since it takes many years to educate people in technology-intensive fields.

But it is, indeed, a crisis now. In 1987, MIT economist Robert Solow was awarded a Nobel Prize for developing an economic model that illustrated that the majority of economic growth depends upon technological progress—which includes both advancing new technologies, and educating a workforce prepared to design and deploy those technologies.

I had privilege, and was pleased, to work on these issues with President Barack Obama, as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), from 2009-2014.

I also had the opportunity, under President Obama, to work across the community of government agencies concerned with our national security, as co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB).

This reinforces for me that, in the face of increasing competition from other nations, the United States clearly needs to tap the full complement of talent in science and engineering—including the minority-majority represented by women, African American, and Hispanic students.

Yet, we seem to be losing ground. Almost inconceivably, over the last decade, the already low percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women and to African Americans in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and computer sciences has been falling further.

To narrow this gap, we need governmental policies that ensure access to higher education and equality of opportunity—for all—women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation college attendees, and so on. Right now, we have an unconscionable wealth gap caused in part by discriminatory policies in the past—such as the implementation of the GI Bill in a way that kept many African American veterans of World War II from fully realizing its educational and homeownership benefits.

We need leadership to counteract our current divisive political climate, in which civil rights, including voting rights, are under attack, and hate crimes seem to be multiplying. We do, indeed, live in heated times once again.

We need success platforms in colleges and universities, and in the private sector, that will allow the generations that follow us to dream and achieve as prior generations have.

And above all, we need to come together, as a community of African Americans—and as part of the larger community, to help future generations along, and to offer them the same opportunities that so benefitted us.

The African American community of MIT was the very first community I had a key role in drawing together. BAMIT remains my community today.

We truly are a force to be reckoned with. We changed MIT, which is no small accomplishment. I hope all of us will join forces to change the world.

It is an honor to be here tonight, and I thank you all for listening.