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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at MIT Black Students’ Union 50th Anniversary Celebration

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

"A Backward Glance at our History and a Look Forward”

I am delighted to be able to join you for the Black Alumni of MIT, or BAMIT, Capstone Weekend, and for this celebration of 50 years of the Black Students’ Union at MIT.

I have been asked to speak this evening about the founding of the Black Students’ Union, or BSU—and then about a few of the large questions all of us face, in opening up opportunities, today, to those underrepresented in STEM (the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics)—and beyond that, in building a better world.

First, let me give you a little personal context.

Those of you who were here at MIT in the 1960s surely will agree with me when I say that we were educated in turbulent times.

As we know, however, upheaval can be another name for opportunity, and I benefitted from the turbulence of my time in two significant ways.

The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C. public schools in 1955, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend a school, right in my own neighborhood, with more competition, and with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.

The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which caused a kind of national panic that the United States might be losing the Cold War—spurring a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools. This offered me—and many of my peers—an opportunity to excel. Here at MIT, Dr. Ernie Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor Emeritus of Physics and Engineering Systems, also speaks about how important that Sputnik moment was to him.

I had excellent teachers in junior high school and high school, including African American women who, in another era, clearly could have become faculty at distinguished universities, and wonderful parents who encouraged my interests in mathematics and science, and who always advised me to aim high. I won a scholarship from the Martin Marietta Corporation, and one from the Prince Hall Masons, and came to MIT prepared academically, morally, financially—but I still was unprepared for the hurtful discrimination I would encounter.

I was one of just two African American women in my class. It was a lonely, chilly experience, and although I was a top student, I was not accepted by my classmates, who told me to “go away,” when I initially asked to join their study groups.

When I was thinking of majoring in physics, I sought the advice of a distinguished professor.  Although I had the highest grades in his class, he advised, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

I was sorry that he thought so little of my prospects, but nonetheless proud to be both colored and a girl. I realized I had a choice—to give into ignorance, or to choose excellence. I chose the latter and decided to make physics my trade.

When I was a senior at MIT, I took a graduate course in solid state physics (condensed matter physics) taught by the legendary Millie Dresselhaus, and knew that this was the field for me.

I was deciding where to attend graduate school, when the University of Pennsylvania Physics Department, which had admitted me to its doctoral program, invited me to visit in April of 1968. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist, and I was very interested in the work of Dr. John Robert Schrieffer, who was at Penn, and whose contributions to the BCS Theory of Superconductivity would soon earn him a Nobel Prize.

As I was leaving Penn after the visit, however, 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, and later died. We nearly drove the car off the road.

By the time I got back to Cambridge, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school. I had been a quiet, focused student as an undergraduate, but I was inspired by the courage of Dr. King, and others in the Civil Rights movement, to do something, and MIT clearly was where I would have the greatest opportunity to make a difference.

MIT needed to become a more hospitable 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.

While MIT was an excellent place to study physics, it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics.

In the spring of 1968, a group of us (African American students) presented a list of demands to the MIT administration. Only, we diplomatically called them “proposals.”

In its infinite wisdom, MIT asked Associate Provost Paul Gray, later the 14th President of MIT, to take charge of the response to our “proposals”—exactly the right person for that moment.

And in my first months of graduate school, a group of like-minded students and I formed the BSU. I became one of its founding co-chairs. Fred Johnson, and later Jim Turner, joined me in leading the group. There were others who were part of our initial efforts—some here today, including Linda Sharpe. At the time, there were very few black faculty members or administrators to spearhead an effort to change MIT, so we BSU students knew that the job fell to us.

Paul Gray took what could have been an adversarial situation, and instantly identified the shared objectives between MIT and the BSU. Although he was MIT through and through, he immediately grasped that MIT could, and should, be better. So, he created The Task Force on Educational Opportunity, and invited me to join it.

The Task Force on Educational Opportunity spurred a breathtaking change at MIT and its culture—developing new strategies for recruitment, admissions, financial aid, and a transition program for entering students.

MIT soon hired an Assistant Director of Admissions who was African American. For the first time, the Institute developed recruiting materials and a scholarship package—tailored to minority students, and began going to predominately African American high schools, and saying to the most talented young men and women there, “We want you at MIT.” 

The BSU students, including me, went 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.

Without all that travel, and an infinite number of meetings, I might conceivably have finished my doctorate in physics a year sooner—but those recruiting trips were both meaningful and successful.

MIT had never had more than a handful of African American students in any class. In the fall of 1969, suddenly, 57 African Americans entered.

Of course, we had convinced the Task Force that merely bringing underrepresented minorities to MIT was not enough. Some of their high schools did not offer advanced science and mathematics. They needed an introduction to the rigorous coursework at MIT, and to become confident that they could succeed here.

So we also founded Project Epsilon, then reconfigured as Project Interphase, which continues to this day as Interphase EDGE—a 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, and although I was still a graduate student, I was asked to run the physics program in its second year.

One of my first students, by the way, was Dr. Sylvester James Gates Jr., the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University, who has done pioneering work in supersymmetry and supergravity, and who, among many other honors, was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2013. He was, needless to say, a very good student!

As you can imagine, all of these were radical changes for MIT in the late 1960s, and there was plenty of criticism for all the members of the Task Force, both those in the BSU, and those in the MIT administration. Indeed, some of my peers called me a “collaborationist” for working so closely with the white administration

However, the students I helped to bring to MIT thrived—and proved, not just to MIT, but to the nation, that brilliance in science and engineering is the province of no single background or origin.

I am proud to have contributed to that sea change as a young woman—while also excelling in theoretical elementary particle physics here.

And the leadership experience I gained in the BSU, and in the Task Force on Educational Opportunity—an experience of working calmly across racial and generational divides to get things done, and of taking a complicated problem and breaking it down into a series of achievable steps—has stood me in good stead in every role I have had since.

As I have progressed in my career, I have faced challenges and questions about my abilities, motivations, leadership. I think that, taking off from my MIT experience, I always have been impatient to change a situation for the better, Because of that, I have been a change agent in my key roles, including during my tenure as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). At the NRC, I led the development of the agency’s first strategic plan; the introduction of risk-informed, performance-based regulation; the re-shaping of the reactor oversight program; and license renewal for nuclear power reactors. I also spear-headed the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA), and was its first chairman—for two years.

Sometimes what I have done has garnered vitriolic responses, but I have learned that how one responds is critical—that one must (in the words of Winston Churchill), “keep calm and carry on.” And that one must decide what hill one is willing to “die on.” I have learned the importance of listening and gathering input, and to be firm, but fair, in decision-making. I also have used strategic planning as a way to get buy-in, effect change, and institutionalize change.

Because of challenges I have overcome, and have helped others to overcome, I have learned that it is important to uplift oneself, and others, as the basis for personal happiness, and social and global stability, as one works to ensure more security in the world.

Today, as a Life Member of the MIT Corporation, as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and in many other roles—including serving, from 2005-2017, as a Citizen Regent and Vice Chair of the Smithsonian Institution, and now as Regent Emerita—I continue to work for equality of opportunity, particularly of educational opportunity. In service to the nation, I have done everything I can to encourage the United States to draw on its full complement of talent in science, engineering, and mathematics.

As all of us know, some 50 years after the founding of the BSU, its work—our work—is not yet complete.

Indeed, growing income and wealth inequalities in the United States and languishing social mobility—along with a political climate in which civil rights are under duress—threaten some of our accomplishments.

African American young people still are only half as likely to have college degrees as their white peers.

I long have spoken about our nation’s failure to bring sufficient women and underrepresented minorities into the STEM fields, in particular, as a “quiet crisis” that threatens our national leadership in scientific discovery and technological innovation. In the last 10 years, the already low percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women and African Americans has actually declined in fields such as computer science, the physical sciences, mathematics and statistics, and engineering.  Given the opportunities in these fields, that almost defies belief.

I always have believed that success for young people requires four things:

First, history has to be on their side, as it was for me—windows of opportunity have to be open for members of their gender or racial or ethnic or religious group. I stepped through my own window in time—opened through the confluence of events I described—reached for the stars, and stayed the course. That is why I am standing before you today.

Second, there have to be career opportunities worth pursuing to motivate young people. With the world on the verge of technological revolutions powered by genome editing, immunotherapy, artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics, 3D printing, and many other advances—I believe that most of us would agree that this second condition is being met.

Third, there have to be leaders willing to move institutions along and to create opportunity for underrepresented talent. Paul Gray was such a leader here.

And fourth, there must be personal motivation—a sense of focus that allows one to maneuver around obstacles, and to excel undeniably.

The third element—moving our institutions along—is where most of us here today have the greatest opportunity to do good. I include in this, the students in the audience, many of whom will soon be leaders in industry, government, and academe.

What, for example, can we do about K-12 education, to help create a pipeline of women and minorities in STEM fields?

Our children’s performance on international tests of math and science literacy is mediocre at best. Only 21 percent of African American SAT test-takers this year achieved scores that indicate college-readiness in both math and English, and only 31 percent of Hispanic students.

At the same time, what barriers to higher education can we eliminate, particularly for first-generation students, who may not have savvy parents to guide them?

For example, those states that now give free, mandatory SAT and ACT tests in public high schools are finding that they are revealing low-income students with high abilities who might never otherwise have applied to college.

Regarding the fourth element—encouraging focus and personal motivation—we know that elementary school teachers, for example, often underestimate girls’ abilities in mathematics, undermining their confidence, even when they are interested in math. A 2012 study by a multidisciplinary group of Yale researchers found the same of both male and female science professors at research-intensive universities: They judged undergraduate applicants for a laboratory manager position less competent, when the identical application materials were assigned a female name.

How do we make young women and underrepresented minorities aware that such bias exists, so they can prepare themselves actively to combat it, but not be hamstrung by it?

How do we teach young people never to allow anyone to rob them of their confidence?

How do we teach resilience, and how to leave behind bitterness—to stay the course?

       How do we, also, convince our national government that failing to shepherd talented young people into science and engineering is an issue of national security and economic leadership?

China, for example, is making enormous investments in human capital and education in scientific and technological fields—to point that the United Kingdom has now adopted textbooks from Shanghai in hopes of improving mathematics instruction for its primary school students.

China now publishes more articles in peer-reviewed scientific and engineering journals than the United States, and the National Science Board believes this may be the year when China surpasses the United States as the world’s largest funder of research and development. 

Finally, looking out into the future, what can we do to offer opportunity to talented young people around the globe? 

The world is dividing demographically, into aging developed nations and developing nations experiencing a youth boom.

A dozen years from now, the median age in the United States will be around 40—relatively low for a developed nation, because of immigration, though current policies may alter that. Many European countries, China, Japan, and Russia are likely to be even older. Much of Africa, on the other hand, will have a median population age under 20.

In the future, working age populations are going to grow the most in African and South Asian countries where average education levels currently are among the world’s lowest. How do we help these nations develop foundational education, and infrastructure, to educate these young people and uplift their economies?

What can our institutions do to encourage international linkages that take advantage of both the wisdom and experience of age, and the energy and inventiveness of youth?

How do we develop talent everywhere to the very fullest, to create a better world?

These are not small challenges.

However, having seen the transformation of MIT in a very short amount of time, thanks to the goodwill and effort of both the administration and the BSU—I cannot help but be optimistic that a path forward is findable.

Fortunately, today, we have a multigenerational, multidisciplinary, multisectoral panel, who will help us to think through the issues surrounding equality of opportunity and education, here at MIT, throughout the nation, and around the globe.