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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at National Museum of African American History & Culture Alumni Event

Category: Regional
December, 2017
National Museum of African American History & Culture

Alumni Event

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

As you know, the National Museum of African American History & Culture is the newest of the Smithsonian museums. I had the pleasure of serving as a citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution for two statutory six-year terms, appointed by two Joint Resolutions of Congress, one signed into law by President George W. Bush, and the other signed into law by President Barack Obama. I also was Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution from 2014 to 2017.

From my point of view, this service was owed. Please allow me to explain what the Smithsonian Institution meant to my education—and how, indeed, the lessons of the Smithsonian inform my vision for Rensselaer today.

I grew up surrounded by the resources of our nation’s capital—but began my education in a segregated school.

I was very fortunate in my parents, whose expectations for me and my siblings were high. My mother taught us to read before kindergarten.

My father was mathematically and mechanically gifted, and encouraged my own interests in this direction. He served in World War II in a segregated Army unit. During the Normandy invasion, the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing the troops to shore were breaking, and my father was able to improvise a special splice to repair them in the midst of the invasion—an act for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. In fact, after this, his splicing technique was taught to troops in France, and before deployment, in the United States, to those who had to make repairs in the field.

As wonderful as they were, my parents, who were born just 50 years after the end of the Civil War, could not have carried me to the life I have had, without the confluence of two events that set me on a new trajectory—and without the Smithsonian Institution to convey me to new ideas.

The first of those events was the Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Instead of traveling miles across Washington to segregated schools, I now was allowed to attend integrated schools right in my neighborhood, and to have the benefit of interacting with children whose experiences were different than mine.

The second event was the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which ignited my interest in science, and the Space Race. Concerned that the United States might be falling behind the Soviet Union in innovation, our leaders strengthened the math and science curriculum in the public schools—fields where I excelled, and which eventually led me to MIT.

I also had the great fortune of having the museums of the Smithsonian Institution as an extension of my classrooms. The National Museum of Natural History and National Zoo expanded my sense of the natural world, and deepened the sense of excitement I already felt about science.

As I have remarked on other occasions, the art and cultural resources of the Smithsonian opened my eyes to other eras, other people, and other ways of living. The paintings, objects, and stories I encountered in the Smithsonian museums fired my imagination, and helped me to develop an empathetic heart and a more sophisticated mind.

In other words, the Smithsonian Institution took a girl—not from a wealthy background, and originally from a segregated environment—and gave her a new sense of the possibilities open to humanity—including the possibility of making a transformative difference in the world.

So, I was very proud to serve as a Regent of the Smithsonian, and particularly proud that, while I was a Regent, the Smithsonian was able to create this magnificent National Museum of African American History & Culture, as a great tributary feeding the larger stream of our national story, so that future generations of children, from all backgrounds, will understand the struggles and contributions of African-Americans. They will have their eyes opened here to other eras, other people, and other lives——and emerge with a new sense of their own potential to transform history, as well.

At Rensselaer, too, we understand that one of the most important things we can do to turn our students into leaders is to open their eyes to unfamiliar perspectives—and to spur new ideas to apply to their own endeavors. Although we continue to educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields, we take our role as a “polytechnic,” which comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts,” very seriously.

Within a paradigm that we term “The New Polytechnic,” we have organized Rensselaer to serve as a great crossroads for talented people from different disciplines, sectors, geographies, cultures, and generations—all working together to address important global challenges.

We work to foster in our students intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view—because these are the qualities required to bring unexpected ideas and people together for innovation and discovery—and to become transformative in the world at large.

We do this in many different ways. One of the most important, of course, is ensuring the diversity of our community. One of 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.

At Rensselaer, we are very proud that since 1998, we have increased the percentage of women in our freshman classes from 24% to over 30%, and the percentage of underrepresented minorities from 10% to 15%. We have made great progress, but more remains to be done.

In 1996, just 17% of our freshmen came from outside the Northeast; today, nearly 40% do. We also have become much more of a magnet for international students. In 1996, just 4% of our freshman class was international students. This year, 17% of our freshman class is international. The record numbers of applications we are receiving—nearly 20,000 for the Class of 2021—are allowing us to assemble both highly diverse classes, and extremely strong classes in terms of academics. This year, the average SAT score was 1400.

Of course, the education we offer at Rensselaer is not inexpensive, being technologically sophisticated and leading edge—with world-class faculty. This presents an obstacle to our tapping the full complement of young talent, particularly underrepresented minorities, whose families often struggle to fund higher education. It is important to note that, in 2016, the median wealth of black households was just one tenth of that of white households; and the median wealth of Hispanic households was one eighth that of white households. A number of non-minority families struggle to afford the highest level technological education as well.

So, at Rensselaer, broad-based diversity, as embedded in The Rensselaer Plan 2024, means that socioeconomic diversity must be a goal as well. To tap the complete talent pool, we are working hard to ensure that all students with the talent, focus, and tenacity to take advantage of a Rensselaer education, can do so—regardless of socioeconomic background.

We also work hard to ensure that our students, faculty, and administrators look outwards, to the world, because the most important challenges and opportunities of our day are global, and best addressed by global teams. Because of our focus and hard work, Rensselaer truly has become an international university with a global brand.

Just last month, I attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai—which is designed to bring new ideas and perspectives to the international community, and from the international community. I am Co-Chair of the Global Future Council on International Security for the World Economic Forum. Rensselaer Professor Cynthia Collins also attended as a member of the Global Future Council on the Future of Biotechnology—and we had the opportunity to meet with our alumni and alumnae in the region.

At Rensselaer, to expand the opportunity for our students to gain greater national and international experience, we are transforming the complete academic calendar. Under a transformation of the academic calendar we call The Arch, all rising Rensselaer juniors, beginning in the summer of 2019, will remain on campus for the summer after their sophomore year, for a full semester of junior-level classes—as well as the opportunity to enjoy the cultural and recreational opportunities in the Capital Region of New York State that are only available in summer.

Then, during one semester of the traditional junior year, they will have an “away” experience designed to allow them to test their growing knowledge and skills out in the world. They will be able to work on a research project, an internship, a coop experience, a volunteer project, or a new entrepreneurial venture.

At the Institute, we nurture not only a diversity of backgrounds and experiences—but intellectual diversity as well, embedded in novel approaches to problem-solving. It is at the interstices between disciplines, and the collaborations occurring there, where the most creative research and education is taking place, where new disciplines are being born. So we focus new research on five “signature thrusts” in crucial multidisciplinary areas:

  • Biotechnology and the Life Sciences;
  • Computational Science and Engineering;
  • Media, the Arts, Science, and Technology;
  • Energy, the Environment, and Smart Systems; and
  • Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials.

Within these areas of focus, we are working to expand our faculty—in order to ensure intellectual critical mass in fields that truly can change the world.

We are looking to build out our campus and expand our technological base to accommodate our overall growth.

With 21 new degree programs developed over the past 18 years—including a new Bachelor of Science degree program in Music—our campus is alive with students working at the nexus of art, architecture, science, engineering, and management. As a spur to their creativity, we have created Art_X to ensure that all of our students are exposed to the aesthetic concepts that also are useful in fields such as architecture, engineering, mathematics, and the sciences—concepts such as symmetry and the Fibonacci Sequence. They also will expand their knowledge and appreciation of the arts, and where science inherently is part of, and embedded in, art.

We also want all of our students, in every field, to develop the skills that will allow them to find new insights within the enormous amount of digital data humanity is generating. So we are incorporating “data dexterity” into “data intensive” classes throughout our curriculum. At our Data Interdisciplinary Challenges Intelligent Technology Exploration Laboratory, or Data INCITE Lab, Rensselaer students address important data analytics problems posed by industry, foundations, and researchers. In one fascinating recent research project, our students were able to combine gene expression data, with disease association, pathway, and protein interaction databases, to determine when, during the development of an unborn child, there is a window of vulnerability that allows the Zika virus to cause microcephaly. Clearly, such data, properly analyzed, can be powerful—and such work can point the way to the timing of treatments.

A Rensselaer education always has been special, designed to nurture true pioneers—and today, we are educating the pioneers of the 21st century. Given our legacy, it is not surprising, therefore, that a number of our alumni and alumnae and their inventions appear in a variety of Smithsonian museums.

Tonight, we are proud to honor an alumnus who is featured in the National Museum of African American History & Culture—Wesley A. Brown of the Rensselaer Class of 1951. He is included in an exhibit on the third floor devoted to the African American Military Experience.

One of the true wonders of this museum is the way that it highlights the often unsung patriotism of African-Americans. Although African-Americans arrived here as slaves, and were treated unjustly throughout much of U.S. history—many African-Americans also believed deeply in the principles of our great democracy, and made great sacrifices serving our nation. This was true of my father, and it was true of Wesley Brown.

Wesley Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., and went on to attend the United States Naval Academy. He was not the first African-American to attend the Naval Academy—in fact, he was the sixth. But he was the first midshipman to graduate and be commissioned, in 1949—a milestone that encouraged other African-Americans to aim high in our newly integrated military.

The African-American midshipmen before him endured unbearable hazing and hostility. Wesley Brown came through a window-in-time where his academic ability, athleticism, confidence, and optimistic temperament, allowed him to succeed and to prevail.

At the U.S. Naval Academy, he ran on the cross country team with an upperclassman named Jimmy Carter, who encouraged him to “hang in there,” despite the racism he was encountering. This was an early example of leadership from the man who would become the 39th President of the United States.

After Wesley Brown’s commissioning, and a brief assignment at the Boston Naval Shipyard, he went on to continue his studies in Civil Engineering at Rensselaer. He then served as an officer in the Civil Engineer Corps, at many different postings around the globe. Among them, in the early 1960s, was a leadership role, as the Navy Seabees took on construction projects in the Central African Republic, Liberia, and Chad.

Of course, the Seabees were co-founded and directed initially by another member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame, Rear Admiral Lewis B. Combs. 

After his retirement from active service in 1969, Lieutenant Commander Brown brought his talents and skills to higher education, working for the State University of New York and Howard University. In 2008, the United States Naval Academy dedicated a field house named in his honor.

Lieutenant Commander Brown frequently attended his class reunions, by the way, at the Naval Academy. When his classmates tried to apologize for their poor behavior to him in their youth—he graciously professed not to remember anything negative. “You remember the good stuff,” he said. “A lot of the bad stuff, I can’t relate to it.”

At Rensselaer, we also are so proud to call this wise, kind, and accomplished man one of our own. Therefore, I am so pleased, tonight, to induct Lieutenant Commander Wesley Brown, posthumously, into the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

Here to help us honor Wesley Brown are Lieutenant Bailey Hackbarth and Lieutenant Christopher Simmons of the Diversity Office of the United States Naval Academy. May I ask that you both stand to be recognized?

Thank you for joining us. And, from the family of Wesley Brown, we have:

  • Ms. Billie West Scott, Wesley Brown’s daughter,
  • Mr. Issac Collins, son-in-law and husband of the late Carol Brown, Wesley’s daughter,
  • Mr. Don Scott, son-in-law of Wesley Brown, and
  • Ms. Johanne Greer, Wesley Brown’s niece.

Now, it is time for all of our guests here tonight to explore this magnificent museum.

I thank all of you for coming. Please enjoy the rest of your evening.