Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Interphase 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala

Category: Regional
October, 2019
Boston Long Wharf Marriot
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Good evening. I am so delighted to be able to join all of you, including my dear friend, Priscilla Gray.

It is very unusual, in a world in flux, to be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of any program in academia. The fact that the program we called Project Interphase at its inception, now Interphase/EDGE, has endured, suggests that it has been an enduring good — the springboard that has launched so much talent into the world, some of it here in this room.

Please allow me to offer some historical context on the conception of Interphase.

When I was an undergraduate at MIT, I was one of just two African American women in my class. It was a lonely, chilly experience, and although I was a very good student, I was not entirely accepted by my classmates, or even by some of my professors. This came in the form of women in my class in McCormick Hall not working with me, or sitting with me at meals; classmates not sitting next to me in class; my being left out of study groups; and so on. One professor even told me, after I sought his advice on majoring in physics, that “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

I was hurt by this professor’s low expectations of me, especially considering that I was, by far, the best student in his class, at the time. But I decided, after thinking about it, that I would not give in to ignorance, and that I would make physics my trade, a choice that has served me very well!

In the spring of 1968, I was deciding which graduate school to attend — more than ready to be elsewhere. I was on the way to the Philadelphia airport after a visit to the University of Pennsylvania, which was trying to recruit me into the physics Ph.D. program there, in a car with my sorority sister, when we heard on the radio that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.

We nearly drove the car off the road.

Inspired by the courage and sacrifice of Dr. King, and others in the Civil Rights Movement, I decided to remain at MIT for graduate school, even though it meant switching from my first love, theoretical condensed matter physics, to theoretical elementary particle physics, where, at the time, the MIT Physics Department was much more active. But I knew MIT, and knew that it was the place where I was most likely to make a difference for others like me. And it certainly had a very strong physics department.

MIT needed to become a much more welcoming place for African Americans, for women, for people from all backgrounds and origins. And, given its outsized influence in science and engineering, if one could change MIT, one could change the world.

At the time, there were very few African American faculty members or administrators to spearhead a diversity effort. So, a group of like-minded students and I formed the Black Students’ Union in my last year as an undergraduate and first year as a graduate student, and we presented a list of demands to the MIT administration. Only, we politely called them “proposals.” In response, MIT formed the Task Force on Educational Opportunity to address the embedded issues, and invited me to join it.

In its infinite wisdom, MIT asked then-Associate Provost Paul Gray to lead the Task Force. Paul always said that this was his “first real chance to exercise leadership of any form at MIT.” He soon demonstrated that he was a true leader — a calm, reasonable person who moved the ship forward during a stormy time.

Paul took what could have been an adversarial situation — and sometimes it was — and instantly identified our shared objectives. He immediately grasped that MIT could, and should, be better.

Paul told me, freely, that he had grown up in an all-white community, gone to an all-white high school, and served in an all-white unit of the Army. I was one of the first African Americans he knew personally. There was one African American woman in his class, who did not remain at MIT to graduate. But he was an empathetic person, who could always pull something up from inside himself, to find common ground with the person sitting across from him. As a teenager, he had felt like an outsider. He had some insight, therefore, into how difficult that could be.

So he was ready to listen, to learn, and to act.

Thanks to Paul, the Task Force on Educational Opportunity spurred a breathtaking change in MIT. Until then, MIT had never done much recruiting of any kind. Why would it? It was MIT, after all.

For the first time, the Institute developed special recruiting materials, and a stronger financial aid package for African American and other minority students. MIT began visiting predominately African American high schools, and saying to the most talented young men and women there, “We want you at MIT.” Paul also had the wisdom to send the Black Students’ Union students, including me, 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.

We had convinced Paul that merely bringing underrepresented minorities to MIT was not enough. Some of their high schools did not offer advanced science and mathematics — it was akin to asking Olympic track athletes to start the race meters behind the other runners. These young minority scholars needed an introduction to the rigorous coursework of MIT, and to become confident that they could succeed here. So the Task Force on Educational Opportunity initiated Project Interphase in 1969.

Project Interphase was a summer program for incoming freshmen, open to all who needed it, with classes in physics and pre-calculus, among other subjects — and a wonderful introduction to the MIT culture. I taught physics in Interphase, and although I was still a graduate student, I was placed in charge of the physics program in its second year.

As you can imagine, these were radical changes for MIT in the late 1960s. Paul was criticized on many different flanks, including by some faculty members who actually thought he was lowering the quality of the student body — and also by angry African American students, who felt that we were not acting radically enough.

Some of my peers called me a “collaborationist,” for working so closely with the white administration. But, leadership often requires that one collaborates, and do one’s best to understand the different points of view of the people around the table.

The students that Paul, I, the Task Force, and the Black Students’ Union helped to bring to MIT thrived — and proved, not just to MIT, but to the nation, that brilliance in science and engineering is not the province of any single race, background, or gender. One of my very first students, by the way, was Sylvester James Gates Jr. He became a distinguished theoretical physicist, was awarded the 2011 National Medal of Science, served alongside me on President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and today is the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University, and Vice President of the American Physical Society.

This tradition of excellence has been continued by more recent Interphase alumni and alumnae, including many of the people in this room tonight.

As you know, Dr. Paul Gray went on to other leadership roles at MIT. As Chancellor, he created the first formal plan to increase the presence of women and minorities among the faculty, as well as the student body. He then became the 14th President of MIT, and, later, the Chair of the MIT Corporation, after his tenure as President.  

He had many important accomplishments at MIT, including spearheading the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program with Professor Margaret MacVicar, which also launched in 1969. However, he always cited increasing the diversity of MIT as his most important accomplishment.

Indeed, when Paul Gray arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, fewer than one in 50 MIT students was a woman, or an underrepresented minority. By the end of his tenure as president in 1990, women were more than 30 percent of incoming undergraduates, and underrepresented minorities were 14 percent.

As for me, the Task Force on Educational Opportunity and Project Interphase were my first opportunities for leadership. Because I demonstrated that I could excel in my studies and do physics research, while addressing a complex societal problem, such as the dearth of minorities at MIT, I was offered many more leadership and policy-making positions, and have had the wonderful career and life that I have had. Indeed, shortly after earning my doctorate in theoretical physics at MIT, I was elected to the MIT Corporation, where today I am a Life Member.

Paul and Priscilla Gray became lifelong friends of mine. Paul was a great sounding board, a great adviser, and a great champion who advocated for me for important positions, including the Chairmanship of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my inauguration. In fact, Paul and Priscilla attended my inauguration as President of Rensselaer in 1999.

So, Interphase played a role in altering my life’s trajectory, as it assuredly has altered the trajectories of everyone in this room. It is a great honor to join all of you this evening, and to be recognized alongside Paul Gray.

I often have spoken of the “Quiet Crisis” — our inability to attract and retain underrepresented minorities and women in science and engineering, as we face the risk of slowing immigration of talent from abroad. It is “quiet” because we do not totally realize or embrace what is happening, since it takes decades to educate a high functioning science or engineering workforce; and it is a crisis when it is fully upon us.

That is why Interphase was, and is, so important. More than anything else, Interphase proves that when people of goodwill and focused intent join forces, they can, indeed, change the world.

Thank you.

It is a great privilege to accept this recognition. I only wish that President Emeritus Paul Gray was here with us to accept his share of this honor. But we are blessed to have Priscilla Gray (Paul’s life partner) to do so on his behalf.

The work we did with Interphase was important, but it is in no sense finished. Nationwide, African Americans still represent under 4% of engineering bachelor’s degrees — a smaller share than 20 years ago — while Latinos are just 10.4%. And the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in as essential a field as computer science has actually declined over the last 20 years, from 27% to 19%.

I would urge everyone here tonight to address the “Quiet Crisis” by engaging whenever you can, wherever you can, with the next generations of budding scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists. Advocate for them, support them, and stay visible as an inspiration to those who follow — so that our nation benefits from its full complement of talent, and deserving young people learn that it is entirely reasonable to “aim for the stars.”

Thank you again.