MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

26th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration
February 3, 2000

"Engineering Bold Leadership for the 21st Century: A Blueprint for Full Participation in Academia, Government and Industry"

photo of Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Today we are celebrating one of the greatest men to ever live - the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King had a tremendous influence on my life - as he did on many Americans. His dreams and ideals transcend race and time, and his "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the great speeches in American history. While opportunities for African-Americans have improved since the untimely death of Dr. King, we have by no means attained his vision of a better world. Prejudice and racism are still thriving in our society - and education is the best way to kill them. In the past few years, we have seen an African-American man dragged to his death because of his color; a gay man beaten, tied to a fence post, and left for dead because of his sexual preference; government workers killed by a man who hated the government and decided to blow up their place of work; and, a man so threatened by technology that he sent mail bombs to individuals he believed were furthering its development. These types of heinous crimes drive the imperative, during our celebrations of Dr. King's life, to rededicate ourselves to working toward his vision of America.

When I spoke to you at this celebration in 1986, I never could have guessed the road that I would be traveling in the ensuing years. While working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, I became involved with issues of science, technology, economy and public policy, and served a number of terms on a variety of State Commissions in New Jersey. Then, in 1994, I was approached by the Clinton White House about serving as a member and the Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). I served in that capacity from mid-1995 until this past July, when I began my tenure as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Being the Chairman of the NRC was truly an honor and an awesome responsibility. In that role, I oversaw the development of policies to ensure the protection of the public health and safety, the common defense and security, and the environment in the peaceful uses of nuclear materials in the United States. I also had the responsibility to ensure that the NRC staff carried out these policies in accordance with statutory requirements. As you might imagine, I interacted daily with government officials, scientists, and engineers from around the world, as well as with the White House, the Congress, and public policy makers in Washington, DC. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job was representing the government of the United States at various international bilateral and multi-lateral meetings and commissions. Knowing that the policies that I helped develop influenced international nuclear safety and non-proliferation was a heady, yet sobering, experience. Despite the gravity of my position, I could not help smiling from time to time as I traveled internationally, because I realized that Dr. King would have been proud that the face representing the United States at major nuclear energy meetings and summits around the world was black and female. His activism and leadership surely made a difference!

Yet, there is still much to be done. When I last spoke to all of you in 1986, MIT enrolled approximately 300 African-American students. Last year, MIT enrolled only 348 African-American students. In 1986, there were 14 African-American faculty members - today there are 25. While these numbers are improvements - they are not enough. And, MIT is not alone. Minority representation in science and engineering fields is embarrassingly low across the country. This issue has been discussed continuously for the last 15 years - but little has actually changed.

A particularly troubling related statistic concerns the numbers of African-American students who are completing four or more years of college. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1985, only 59.8% of black students completed high school - in 1997, 74.9% of these students graduated. Despite this marked increase - the number of students going on to complete four years of college only increased by 2% -- from 11.1% to 13.3%. This situation is a larger problem than merely increasing the number of African-American students enrolled in engineering and science fields - we must all work to increase the number of African American students attending, and graduating from, institutions of higher education.

Interestingly enough, whether our students like it or not, serving as role models is important for each of them - and one often overlooked. Because of the influence of the media, our young people often look toward role models and heroes from pop culture and athletics. While there are worthy individuals among these ranks, they cannot be the only possible candidates to which our youth can look. We need young people to see role models of color in corporate America, academia, and government - which means that we must push our current minority students to help accomplish this. We, as leaders, must explain to our students the important role they play in diversifying all sectors of our society, and the impact that fact will have on the next generation. That means imposing demanding standards of excellence and achievement, even as we strive to create more community in the higher education institutions at which they study. We need high achieving minority (especially African-American, Hispanic, and Native American) scientists and engineers, professors, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, and government officials, to expand the vision of our young people of what they too can accomplish.

Because of the progress that has been made since the 1960s - we have more role models in the professional ranks than ever before. Women, for example, are finally moving into the highest ranks of corporate America - including the first CEO of a Dow 30 company - Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard. And, women have led the successes of newer companies that have become household names - Meg Whitman has built eBay into an overnight success story - and Joy Covey is currently the chief strategist behind In fact, two of the three largest U.S. banks have female finance chiefs - Dina Dublon of Chase Manhattan and Heidi Miller at Citigroup.

African-Americans also are finally appearing in boardrooms and at the executive level in corporate America and in government. Franklin Raines is the former Director of the Office of Management and Budget and currently is the CEO of Fannie Mae. In Silicon Valley, John Thompson is President and CEO of software manufacturer Symantec. The current United States Secretary of Labor is Alexis Herman, and the Secretary of Transportation is Rodney Slater. While these and other successes are an improvement, we have a long way to go before corporate executive ranks and high level public policy positions are representative of the face of America.

For that matter, the road to travel to executive leadership in academia is also long, although progress is being made. While women presidents of higher education institutions may not be commonplace across the country (especially African-American female presidents of majority institutions) - they are in the Capital District of New York. In fact, four of my colleagues at neighboring colleges and universities are women - at Skidmore College, the Sage Colleges, Empire State College, and SUNY Albany. However, our numbers are few. According to the 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, the most recent data from 1995 showed only 16.5% of college presidents were female. It also stated that approximately 10% of the presidents belonged to a minority - 5.9% were African-American. The diversity among faculty ranks is even worse: only 3.2% of all full-time professorships are held by African-Americans, 5,240 of 163,632. This fact is not just appalling-it is unacceptable.

Leaders in higher education, then, must take a bold approach toward effecting the change needed to correct this situation. Americans look to institutions of higher education for leadership in a variety of areas - including the production of future leaders. To be effective, we in leadership positions must look introspectively at our own leadership qualities and abilities, and at our own institutions. Are we living the gospel we preach? Are we talking about the changes that need to be made, and are we rolling up our sleeves and effecting those changes? Are we developing programs to promote diversity, while also working to diversify our own workforce? Are we looking at our current structures and programs to see if they can meet the needs of the student body we want to attract and retain? We each need to ask ourselves these questions - and more. We cannot expect more from our students than we ask of ourselves.

The American system of higher education is lauded around the world because of its independent nature. Each school, within broad statutory, or regulatory, or accreditation guidelines, is autonomous to create its own policies, curriculum, and standards. This model gives us a great advantage to adapt to the needs of the country. However, as leaders we must be willing to take on the challenge of doing so. Change does not come easily - especially in academia. The traditions of the ivory tower of education are very strong. But, as Dr. Robert Jarvik, one of the first designers of artificial hearts, said, "Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them. They make the impossible happen."

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I have begun a process - the development of the Rensselaer Plan. This plan will be a blueprint for the future - identifying the direction in which we need to travel to achieve a position of prominence in the 21st century as a world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact. The Rensselaer Plan will take shape from three informing principles: Excellence, Leadership, and Community. The process is still underway, but it has been enlightening for all involved. Students, faculty, staff and alumni have all made contributions during the public comment period that just ended. The next draft is being completed and will undergo another review. I plan to present the final plan to our trustees in May. Two core tenets of the Rensselaer Plan are diversity and community (or communiversity as I like to put it). To be competitive in the 21st Century, our universities must reflect the society we hope to serve and to lead, and we must develop multi-cultural awareness among our students. Recognizing this fact, I have insisted that diversity be a major tenet of our Plan.

Technological advances have made our world smaller than ever. Things we consider passe and almost obsolete today -the calculator, tape players, and TV dinners- were great advances twenty years ago. Now, our students have the ability to instantly communicate with someone sitting at a computer on the other side of the world. Most of us have concentrated our efforts towards giving our students the technological tools they will need to be competitive in the computer age. However, we often have overlooked the importance, in their future success, of their ability to deal with change and diversity. Having a diverse student body is one way to assist our students in this area.

Diversity in the Rensselaer context has four elements: geographic, intellectual, gender and ethnic diversity. Tolerance and communiversity will make it all work. Communiversity refers to the university as a community, as a family. It also is meant to describe the fact that a university is part of the city, town, indeed the larger society of which it is a part. Members of the communiversity can and should work together to ensure the viability and vibrancy of their shared community.Traditionally, institutions of higher education have used their admissions policies to ensure the diversity of their student bodies. During the past few years, however, affirmative action and the college admissions process have been under intense scrutiny. The usefulness and fairness of affirmative action practices have been debated both publicly and behind closed doors. In their book, The Shape of the River, William Bowen and Derek Bok took a systematic look at race-based admissions policies and affirmative action. They studied graduates of a carefully chosen group of selective-admissions colleges and universities, and the subsequent successes of their alumni. In their summary, they concluded, "Substantial additional benefits accrue to society at large through the leadership and civic participation of the graduates, and through the broad contributions that the schools themselves make to the goals of a democratic society." In other words, higher education administrators and public policy decision-makers must recognize the importance that minority graduates of these institutions play in American society. Without the contributions of minorities and women, America would quickly lose its ability to adapt and compete in the increasingly global economy.

Much attention has been paid to the issues of underrepresented minorities and women in the science, technology and engineering fields. Unfortunately, all of the discussions have done little to change reality. To make any real difference, I believe we must try a more holistic approach. We cannot merely focus on the students who are getting ready to apply to college - we must look at the system in which they are being educated. Currently, many of us in universities are seeking out those underrepresented students whom we believe can succeed; but, we also must begin to create opportunities, at an earlier stage, for those students who may not recognize their potential for success. This "pipeline" needs to be fully developed, and supported, by the universities, local communities, industries and school districts.

A full pipeline depends upon key points of intervention along the way. These interventions must address the achievement gap of African-Americans and other underrepresented minorities when compared, by conventional measures, with their white (and Asian) counterparts. I am talking about testing results, and, sometimes, actual achievement in college. Before you all fall out of your seats, let me say - while I do not believe that SATs or any test scores give the full measure of the individual, and while I certainly agree with William Bowen and Derek Bok about the societal benefits of successful graduates of selective institutions (MIT and Rensselaer among them) - I also know that the achievement gap is a nagging concern that threatens to undermine the continued, and needed, expanded opportunities for underrepresented minorities in these institutions. That means we must look at the institutions themselves and we must look at the "pipe."

Competitive institutions have cultures that can view excellence and caring as an oxymoron. This is not so. If we admit the best students, we cannot squander the talent. We must have an equal commitment, as universities, to their academic and life success. The four years between high school and college graduation are key years in the development of a successful adult, and in their view of their alma mater once they have graduated.

An expectation of excellence and a nurturing of that excellence go hand-in-hand. This is the standard at Rensselaer, especially with our undergraduates. But the standard cannot disappear when we get beyond majority and/or male students. That is the challenge we face - to walk that talk - with all of our students.

Universities, especially highly selective ones, must take a more activist role in pre-college education. Let me tell you about an example at Rensselaer, about which I am very excited - Project RAISE - The Rensselaer Alliance to Increase Student Excellence. More than 900 local low-income students will receive advanced instruction in algebra, chemistry, physics, and trigonometry, beginning in seventh grade and continuing through high school. This ambitious effort also will involve mentoring and college financial planning for the students and their parents. While this activity only recently got underway, it recognizes that preparation to enter scientific and technological careers is a cumulative process. One cannot aspire to be a scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, or technological leader without a grounding in calculus. One cannot do calculus if one cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide, and if one cannot do geometry, trigonometry and algebra. But the learning also depends upon incentives to the students, and the understanding of their parents. Project RAISE tries to build these factors into the program.

Higher education also must take a more active role in the professional development, and continuing education, of outstanding primary and secondary school science and math teachers. Who better to identify future successful students than these teachers? And, who is in a better role to interest students in the opportunities in mathematics based and scientific fields than these teachers?

Universities and corporate America need to develop sustaining partnerships and programs to make teaching attractive to talented individuals in mathematics, science, and engineering, to expose these teachers to the latest innovations and research currently being conducted. The fields of mathematics, science, and engineering are changing so rapidly that we can not expect teachers educated even five or ten years ago to have any grasp of the current innovations and cutting edge technologies. Teachers need the opportunities to work on a continuing, multi-year basis as partners in innovation, and as researchers, alongside colleagues in the universities and industry. Teachers can then take these professional experiences back to the classroom and share them with their students. The enthusiasm and excitement the teachers develop through their own relevant experiences will translate into a more vibrant and exciting class for our students. Excitement is contagious, and I have no doubt it will influence some students who may never have considered a career in science, math, or engineering to explore these fields.

We also must take a look at how we are preparing our current student body to be successful alumni. Are we preparing them to be only successful scientists and engineers - or are we also preparing them to be informed and participatory members of our society? These issues go hand-in-hand. How can we prepare students to succeed in an increasingly global economy if they have no idea how to deal with the real diversity and complexity of the global workforce; if they do not value and embrace it? Higher education must offer students the opportunity to explore the entire universe around them, not just the universe of their field of study.

A concomitant challenge then is to make communiversity a daily reality. This means not only fostering community within the campus, but to provide opportunity beyond the campus - perhaps as part of the structured curriculum - for our students to collaborate with the larger community to improve the quality of life experience that redounds to the benefit of all. This can be local, at remote locations, or even through virtual interactions. We are experimenting with these ideas and their combination at Rensselaer.

I remember how easy it is to get caught up in one's studies. The pressure on students to be successful is huge. Yet, I also remember that some of the greatest lessons of life I learned while attending MIT did not happen on the campus, or in a classroom. They happened when I was volunteering in the pediatric ward at Boston City Hospital, or tutoring at the Roxbury YMCA, or planning an event for my sorority - Delta Sigma Theta. Those lessons - the lessons of humanity and humility, of organization, of realizing that another's struggles can be greater than ones own - helped me to become a better human being, and consequently, have contributed to the successes I have attained.

Research institutions such as MIT and RPI have an added duty to fulfill these needs because of the professional successes of our alumni. We should not only be creating leaders in the engineering and science fields - we need to be creating role models for others to emulate.Paul D. Shafer said quite aptly, "The most important single influence in the life of a person is another person . . . who is worthy of emulation." As administrators, we must keep this fact in mind at all times. We must create opportunities for our students to be engaged in realms beyond their studies, and to help them develop into confident, high achieving, well-rounded, mature role models for the next generation of students.

Finally, let me speak to leadership on a personal level. I firmly believe that we who are in leadership positions must set personal examples of commitment, hard work, adherence to high ethical standards, and the courage to take on the status quo - in how we shape our own institutions, and in how we speak to the larger society. Taking on these challenges will not be easy, but they must happen. In What Manner of Man, Dr. King wrote, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." By creating an atmosphere in which our students can be academically challenged, with an expectation of excellence, while learning to embrace and celebrate diversity, to explore broader cultural and intellectual interests, to become confident, we can positively influence an entire generation of Americans. That should be the goal to which we all aspire and to which we dedicate ourselves - as leaders and as role models. Then and only then will we be creating the world of which Dr. King dreamed.

Thank you.