Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Persuading Talented Teenagers to Dream Bigger

Category: University Events
June, 2013
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Remarks to Black Alumni/ae of MIT

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

Good afternoon. First of all, it is delightful to be at MIT on the occasion of my 45th-year college reunion—though the number itself does sound so large, I instinctively feel it must be incorrect.

Next, it is particularly delightful to be here with the members and friends of BAMIT. We scientists, engineers, and technologists of all kinds tend to be optimistic by nature. We understand that the march of time really is synonymous with progress, because we add to a growing store of knowledge.  However, it is when I visit MIT that I feel most optimistic.  I see that humanity has not just become smarter in recent decades—but also more honorable, reasonable, and wise.

When I arrived at MIT in 1964, it was, as it is today, a challenging and thrilling place to receive an education. It was also, for a young black girl majoring in physics, cold and unwelcoming on the personal front. As one of just two African-American women in my class, I was so atypical that some of my fellow students believed even common courtesy did not apply to me. I was not invited to join the study groups in my dormitory. Occasionally, I would sit down for lunch in the cafeteria, only to watch someone who did not wish to eat with me rise from the table.

The professors could be equally unsophisticated. One advised me, “Colored girls should learn a trade.” I did extremely well in his class, and eventually he offered me a job in his laboratory. So I like to think that I taught him something, too: That physics is a perfectly appropriate trade for a young black woman.

Today, this is a very different MIT. In Raphael Reif, MIT has a President who charges all the members of this community to treat each other “with true decency, integrity, respect, and kindness.” One saw the warmth and power of the MIT community in April, as it drew together in grief, with 10,000 people attending the memorial service of Sean Collier, the campus police officer shot down by the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.

As Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity, Wesley Harris and Barbara Liskov have helped to make MIT a fairer, more expansive community.  Now, a new faculty position is being created, the Institute Community and Equity Officer, to make sure that equity extends to every person at MIT.

Today, African-American graduates of MIT have gone from being anomalies, to taking their place among the nation’s most distinguished scientists and engineers. This year, President Obama awarded physicist Dr. Jim Gates the National Medal of Science. Dr. Paula Hammond of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering recently was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Kristala Prather, also of the Department of Chemical Engineering, recently was awarded tenure.

At this point, we black alumni and alumnae of MIT could declare victory.  However, I believe, most emphatically, that we should not.

Please allow me to tell you one other story from my time at MIT—about the moment that I wanted to leave. I was a senior here, deciding where to attend graduate school and, frankly, ready to be elsewhere. In April, the University of Pennsylvania invited me to visit to meet their researchers. One of the physicists whose work on superconductivity most interested me was there.

I was just leaving Penn, in a car on my way to the Philadelphia airport, when the radio broadcast was interrupted, and we learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. We nearly drove the car off the road.

The day before, Dr. King had given a magnificent speech in which he imagined the Almighty allowing him to choose any era in which to live. Despite the violence of the times, despite the constant threats against his life, despite the cruelty of the institutionalized discrimination he was combating, Dr. King said that this was the answer he would give the Almighty: "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

By the time I reached my dorm room at MIT on my way back from Philadelphia, I knew that if the Almighty posed a somewhat narrower question to me—“Where do you want to study?”—the correct answer was, “Let me spend a few more years at MIT in the second half of the 20th century.”  

MIT was not a leader in the condensed matter physics that most interested me, and it had not always been an easy place to live.  But I suddenly knew I would choose MIT over any other graduate school in the world for one important reason: It was the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better.

MIT needed more minority students, for its own sake as well as theirs, and it needed to offer those students a much warmer welcome.  So, a group of like-minded students and I formed the Black Students Union, and began travelling to high schools all over the country, recruiting brilliant black teenagers to MIT.

Convincing those high-schoolers that MIT was an attainable goal obviously benefited them immeasurably as individuals. However, it benefited MIT and the country at large even more, as those students came here and excelled. They proved that scientists and engineers do not have to be cut all from the same template.

Today, it is astonishing that such a notion ever needed proving. Four-plus decades have passed, and we truly have grown up as a nation. I nonetheless hope that everyone here in this room will take on a similar mission as I took on in 1968, and bring more brilliant African-American students to MIT.  I hope you, too, go out and recruit.

The truth is, persuading talented African-American teenagers to imagine themselves at MIT remains a challenge.  And it is a great contributor to the national problem I call “The Quiet Crisis.”

Given the demands of our innovation ecosystem—and strong projected job growth in science and engineering fields—the country’s  pipeline of science and engineering graduates is not nearly full enough. In China, for example, 31% of all first university degrees are in engineering. In the United States, the equivalent figure is 4%.

Why do we generate only a trickle of science and engineering majors when our economy requires a roaring blast of them? One of the most significant reasons is a national failure sufficiently to inspire women and minorities in these subjects. Today, just 4% of the science and engineering workforce is African American. Just 27% is female, with much lower percentages within the engineering occupations.

The future prosperity of the United States hinges on our ability to invite as many children as possible into the disciplines that have enriched our lives. So, as we celebrate our own connection to MIT today—I want to urge everyone here to help young people make the same connection. 

Open just a few teenagers’ eyes to the possibilities you have embraced, and you may make this university an even more vibrant place to live and learn—as well as enjoy the supremely rewarding experience of helping young people dream a little bigger. 

Thank you.