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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Making Diversity a Priority

Category: University Events
October, 2016
EMPAC Goodman Studio

Remarks at Black Student Alliance 50th Anniversary Kick-Off Event

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

I am delighted to be here to kick off the 50th anniversary year of the Black Student Alliance.

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, in my role as Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. It truly was a great day for our nation, as the contributions, and the heroism, of African Americans now are recognized fully as crucial to the history of our nation—and are given a place of honor on the National Mall.

That heroism has taken many forms over the last 400 years. It includes, as people here this evening can attest, triumphing in attending, and graduating from, a major technological research university as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s. 

I know a bit about this myself! I was one of just two African American women in my class at MIT, so atypical that some of my fellow students believed common courtesy did not apply to me. I was not invited to join the study groups in my dormitory. Indeed, some of the other students refused even to eat with me. The professors could be equally unwelcoming. As I was trying to decide whether to major in physics, electrical engineering, or materials science, one professor advised me, "Colored girls should learn a trade." I excelled in his class, by the way, and eventually he offered me a job in his laboratory. I did not major in his field, but I like to think that I taught him that theoretical physics was a perfectly appropriate trade for a young African American woman.

When I was a senior at MIT, deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania invited me to visit. One of the physicists whose work most interested me was there.

As I was leaving Penn in April of 1968, 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, inspired by the courage of Dr. King, I knew that I would remain at MIT for graduate school, because it was excellent in physics, but also the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. It was important to do so, given MITs high place in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

So, with a group of like-minded students, I formed the Black Students' Union, and we presented ten proposals to the MIT 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, actively to recruit minority students, faculty, and administrators. The minority students I helped to bring there, of course, excelled—proving to the world that science and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, ethnic origin, or gender.

If this story sounds somewhat familiar, indeed, it should!  Something very similar happened at Rensselaer. Fifty years ago, a group of students at the colleges and universities in the Capital Region formed The Tri City Afro-American Student Alliance as a vehicle for social connections.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, however, this group soon achieved a true policy focus and power as the Black Student Alliance. The Alliance offered the administration a series of proposals that echoed the proposals we offered at MIT—the recruitment of more black students, faculty, and staff—putting a halt to ugly stereotypes in campus publications—ensuring that African Americans freely could join the organizations here on campus.

The Black Student Alliance changed Rensselaer for the better—eventually encouraging the administration to put wonderful people in place who made Rensselaer a happier, more vibrant, and openhearted community. They include Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles, the first Director of Minority Student Affairs, whose music you will hear shortly; and Mark Smith, whom we lost this year, who also served as Director of Minority Student Affairs before being named Dean of Students.

The significance of organizations such as the Black Student Alliance in making Rensselaer more welcoming for all should not be underestimated. Currently, African Americans make up less than 5% of the science and engineering workforce in the United States. As we all know, given the challenges humanity faces, we cannot afford to allow underrepresented groups in science and engineering to remain underrepresented. The moment demands that we muster and develop the full complement of talent available to us.
By making generations of African American students feel more at home here, all of you have expanded that talent pool. You also have generously shared African American culture with Rensselaer as a whole. In short, you have made Rensselaer better.

Although organizational structures supporting African Americans at Rensselaer have evolved, we have elevated diversity to be an Institute-Wide Highest Priority, with a particular emphasis on greater recruitment and graduation of African American males--through greater academic and financial support, and working to ensure a more supportive campus climate.  As an Institute-Wide Highest Priority, enhancing diversity becomes a requirement to be addressed by every portfolio, and, therefore, every vice president and dean—with metrics for success against which they will be evaluated. Please hold our feet "to the fire."
I thank you for what you have done, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of your reunion weekend.

Thank you.