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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity - Receiving Drum Major for Justice Award

Category: National
June, 2017

American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity - 43rd National Conference

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

It is a very great honor to receive the Drum Major for Justice Award from the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity.

I am very proud to join my fellow honorees today—as well as everyone in this audience—people who have devoted their careers to advancing opportunities for all, and to creating success platforms that allow talented individuals to thrive.

Such platforms are very important. When I was a young girl growing up in Washington, DC—with wonderful parents, including a mathematically and mechanically gifted father, who encouraged my interest in science, and a mother who taught my siblings and me to read before kindergarten—two events occurred that opened up entirely new platforms and new opportunities for me.

The first was the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, which led to the integration of the public schools in Washington, DC. For the first time, I was able to attend a good public school right in my neighborhood, and to encounter people from backgrounds different from mine, providing greater competition—a place where I excelled. It positioned me for placement in an accelerated honors track in junior high and high school.

The second was the launch by the Soviet Union in 1957 of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, which shocked United States policymakers. In the midst of the Cold War, there was suddenly a great fear that United States was lagging behind in science and technology. This led to the Space Race, and a new emphasis on science and mathematics in the public schools, new curricula, and an attempt to identify students who could excel in these fields. Of course, if you saw the movie, Hidden Figures, last night, you know that African American women—a generation or two removed from me—had a very important role in making the Space Race winnable: the NASA human computers, including Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the heroines of the film, who did the complex calculations that defined trajectories, and the launch and re-entry windows for the NASA space flights, including John Glenn’s first earth orbital flight, and the Apollo mission to the moon.

I benefitted greatly from the national emphasis on mathematics and science. I tested into the academic honors track in junior high school, and performed at a level to become my high school valedictorian.

Interestingly enough, it was not the girls’ guidance counselor in my high school, but the boys’ counselor who suggested that I apply to MIT for college.

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 who majored in physics— rather cold on the personal front. I was one of just two African-American women in my class, and the other students were sometimes quite unfriendly. I was not, for example, invited to join the study groups in my dormitory. Nor did some students even sit next to me in class, or eat at my table during meals.

Even the professors could be discouraging. One advised me, when I was considering majoring in physics, that “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

Of course, I was taken aback and hurt by this.

But then, I thought about my chances and my choices. Chance had made me colored. Chance had made me a girl. I readily embraced both. But, as for the choice of trade — I chose physics.

Heritage is by chance. Success is by choice—if a door opens. When I was faced with the option of either giving in to ignorance, or of going on to excellence, I chose the latter. Because the door to science opened for me—albeit under sometimes difficult circumstances—I chose to persevere, and as a result, I have had a wonderful life and career.

By the way, I did extremely well in that professor’s class—earning the highest grade; and eventually he offered me a job in his laboratory, where I did the experimental work for my Bachelor’s degree thesis in physics—which involved both experimental and theoretical work. I believe that I taught him that physics is a perfectly appropriate trade for a young black woman. A door opened.

Please allow me to tell you one other story from my time at MIT—about the moment that I wanted to leave. In the spring of my senior year at MIT, while I was deciding where to attend graduate school, the University of Pennsylvania Physics Department invited me to visit. I fully intended to be a theoretical condensed matter physicist, and one of the physicists whose work most interested me was there. Also, having faced so much isolation at MIT as an undergraduate, and some real hostility, I thought it might be good to go elsewhere for graduate school.

But a strange, tragic coincidence sent me down a different path. As I was leaving Penn after the visit, 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 was inspired by the courage of Dr. King, and MIT was the place where I would have the greatest possible opportunity to change things for the better. Of course, MIT was an excellent place to study physics, but it was not as active in condensed matter physics at that time, so I changed my focus to elementary particle physics.

This sacrifice—if it was a sacrifice!—was more than worthwhile, given the important ways that I was able to influence MIT, and through MIT, our national community of scientists and engineers.

MIT needed to admit more minority students, and to offer them a better student experience than I had—for its own sake, as well as theirs—and for the sake of the nation.

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 to hire black administrators and faculty, and actively to recruit minority students. It also initiated a summer program called Project Interphase that helped to prepare incoming minority freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. In other words, it offered them a success platform. The program was open to all who needed it, and although I was still a graduate student, I was asked to design, and teach in, the physics curriculum after the first year.

The African-American students I helped to bring to MIT—and helped to adjust to its culture—did very well. They proved to the world that scientific and engineering talent is not restricted to one race, or one sex, or one story of origin. And because I had proven that I could assess an intricate challenge, such as the dearth of minorities at MIT, and find practical ways to address it, as I progressed and excelled in physics research, I also became a trusted advisor to many organizations and was offered many more opportunities for leadership—a path that led me to where I am today, as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological research university. But, I have had an interesting journey along the way.

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, and work with, a fellow theorist, 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. As a graduate student, I had a Ford Foundation Fellowship, so although they did not ordinarily grant postdoctoral fellowships, the Ford Foundation awarded me an individual grant for this year, which CERN then supplemented. After CERN, I returned to Fermilab to complete my second post-doctoral year, which I greatly enjoyed.

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, 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 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 Public Service Enterprise Group (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.

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. 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. This plan, and the related planning, budgeting, and performance management system (PBPM) I instituted, still is in use at the NRC.

We also 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—risk-informed, performance-based regulation—which influenced nuclear codes and standards, and informed the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. Risk-informed regulation in the nuclear area persists to this day.

I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association 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.

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.

Many doors have opened for me through the course of my career. Having accomplished what I have, it is important to know what I stand for. That is reflected through the university I lead.

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—and every portfolio is answerable for its own contribution to this goal.

Our diversity efforts pertain not just to our students, but also to our faculty and staff, since we believe that diversity among the people they learn from, and rely upon, is key to drawing to the university more underrepresented minority students, women students, and international students, and retaining them. We are doing a better job than before on this front, and are seeing significant increases in the total number of applications from underrepresented minorities, women, and international students. Our current and our incoming freshman classes are the most diverse in our history.

Because of the disparities among public high schools, we are working to have all of our freshmen prepared to take on the rigorous Rensselaer curriculum— with our Bridge Scholars Program—a 6-week summer academic readiness course in the foundations of either physics, calculus, or both. Our Bridge Scholars Program takes place both on-campus and on-line, helping students to make a seamless transition to college life—something that is particularly important for those students who are the first in their families to attend college. The Bridge makes a difference.

We nurture and encourage all of our students—as individuals, and in groups, through our Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS. The clustering at Rensselaer is both residential, ensuring that students live in tight-knit groups that give them a sense of belonging—and developmental, offering all of our students extraordinary professional and extra-curricular opportunities when they are ready for them.

On a national level, such 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, since it take many years to educate people in technology-intensive fields.

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

In other words, we need technologically savvy people to support our economy—and to continue to boost our gross domestic product (GDP), in the face of increasing competition from other nations.

In China, for example, which has been investing heavily in research and STEM education, 32% of all first university degrees are in engineering. In the United States, just 5% of all bachelor’s degrees are in engineering. And clearly, we will not raise that figure until the minority-majority represented by women and underrepresented minorities is drawn in larger numbers to science and engineering fields.

Yet, as a nation, 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 physics, engineering, computer sciences, and mathematics and statistics, has been falling further.

I said earlier that heritage is by chance, success is by choice. There is no question, however, that even if one chooses excellence—one cannot go through a locked door.

Ironically, many talented young men and women have been locked out, for example, by the design and/or implementation of federal government policies instituted early in the 20th century. And the effects of decisions made many decades ago, linger today.

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, offers a prime example. After World War II, it allowed the formation of a vigorous American middle class by supporting both homeownership and higher education among veterans of modest means.

More than one million African American men served in the military in World War II—many in combat roles.

But because the implementation of the G.I. Bill was locally directed by the Veterans Administration, its promises could be, and were, undercut by discrimination. In the South in particular, African American veterans were returning home to a segregated system of higher education—and historically black colleges did not have the resources to accommodate so many veterans, who were often steered instead into vocational training or menial jobs.

In homeownership, as well, the promise of a low-cost mortgage did not matter, if a bank refused to lend to one, or in one’s neighborhood, or if one were locked out of the neighborhood of ones choice by restrictive covenants. Out of 67,000 mortgages guaranteed by the G.I. Bill in New York and New Jersey, fewer than 100 went to nonwhite veterans. Women veterans, as well, were not always treated fairly under the G.I. Bill.

The effects of such discrimination linger, of course, across the generations, since education largely determines income and the ability to save for the future—and homeownership is a prime engine of wealth creation. Indeed, white families have had startlingly different trajectories in terms of wealth creation than African American and Hispanic families. As of 2013, the average net worth of African American households was about $11,000, while the net worth of white households was 13 times as much—over $144,000. And the wealth gap has widened since the Great Recession.

Without family wealth, it is harder for parents to help the next generation to afford a college education, or to help their children with the down payment on a first house, or to stake their entrepreneurially-minded sons and daughters in a business. And so, the wealth gap widens further.

Now, coming out of the Great Recession, even members of the majority are facing similar challenges. We are, indeed, in danger of becoming again a nation in which heritage and chance determine the fate of our young people—rather than their own commitment to excellence.

To narrow this gap, we need governmental policies that ensure equality of opportunity. We need success platforms in our educational systems (including our universities)—and in the private sector—that will allow the generations that follow us to dream and achieve as prior generations have.

We need the help of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity to ensure that the United States becomes and remains a great meritocracy, which is, as we all know, the happiest kind of society, one in which hope, and the rewards of hard work, can be shared by all.

I am very glad that we have an American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity to open previously locked doors for talented young people—because our nation needs you—indeed, the world does.

I am so very honored to be recognized by all of you.

Thank you, and please enjoy the rest of your conference!