Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
About RPI Academics Research Student Life Admissions News Tour
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Office of the President
Cabinet and Deans
Board of Trustees
The Rensselaer Plan
The Rensselaer Plan 2012-2024
Accomplishments Towards The Rensselaer Plan
State of the Institute
* *

Multiplicity-Enhanced Global Education: A Vision

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

Bouchet Leadership Award Keynote Lecture
6th Annual Yale Bouchet Conference
Yale Graduate School, Hall of Graduate Studies
New Haven, Connecticut

Friday, March 27, 2009


Good evening. Thank you, Dr. Nearon, for your very kind words of introduction.

It is, indeed, an honor to be asked to present this lecture. To remember the life and achievements of Dr. Edward A. Bouchet, as a teacher and a model of excellence, is to pay tribute to one who broke new ground, who led the way for many, and whose example encourages and motivates all of us.

I am impressed by the way in which the collaboration between Yale University and Howard University makes Dr. Bouchet’s legacy live — in a vibrant and practical way. The Annual Yale Bouchet Conference and Leadership Lecture promote dialogue and ongoing awareness. The related Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society recognizes outstanding scholarly achievement, and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate — a key aspect of fostering diversity, which I will speak more about shortly. Importantly, the society encompasses participation by other universities entitled to nominate outstanding scholars.

Dr. Bouchet’s life has inspired a number of tributes, as you, undoubtedly, know. The Edward A. Bouchet Award is given annually by the American Physical Society (APS). I am proud to say that Rensselaer faculty member Dr. Angel Garcia, Senior Constellation Professor in Biocomputation and Bioinformatics, and professor in the Rensselaer Department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy, was the 2006 recipient of the APS Bouchet award.

Another tribute is the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute (EBASI), in Ghana, created by the late Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam. Interestingly, 19 years ago, my paper “Magnetic Polarons and Spin Fluctuations in II-VI Semimagnetic Semiconductors and Their Superlattices,” was published in the Proceedings of the 2nd Bouchet International Conference, held in Accra, Ghana.

The many resonances tell us that Dr. Bouchet’s legacy is, indeed, living and thriving, and inspiring new generations.

I am asked, today, to share my personal story, and, as well, my vision for paving the way for the scholars and leaders of tomorrow.


My story is all-American. My parents believed in the value of family, the virtue of hard work, and the power of education. They believed in their children. They lived what they believed. I, and my siblings, were the beneficiaries.

Building upon this critical foundation, the coalescence of two historic events changed my life.

I was born in Washington, D.C., and I began my schooling within the segregated public school system, which existed, there, at that time. Then, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted its landmark decision — Brown vs. the Board of Education. Shortly thereafter, Washington, D.C. desegregated its public schools. This historic decision enabled me to attend the public school nearer our home, where there were more resources, more competition, and, ironically, greater diversity of thought.

The second event was the 1957 launch, by the Soviets, of the Sputnik satellite. It riveted the nation, and, ultimately, spurred a defense-based science race. The federal government poured resources into public schools to bolster mathematics and science education, and into scholarships for those interested in pursuing advanced study in these subjects.

This convergence opened, for me, a window-in-time — an opportunity and a challenge. Bolstered by my parents’ strength and wisdom, I was able to take advantage of opportunities, as they arose.

I loved school, and I did well. After the public schools in the nation’s capital were desegregated, I was tested in the sixth grade, and, as a result, was placed into an accelerated academic program — beginning in the seventh grade. I was valedictorian of my high school class. My good grades, test scores, and my interest in mathematics and science, sent me to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

Certainly, as a woman and an African American, there were challenges. I was one of two African American women, and one of five African American students, in my freshman class. I found that classmates would not sit next to me in class, or in the dining room, and specifically excluded me from their study groups. This began with the first physics problem set. In fact, I cried, when the women on my floor told me to “go away,” as they worked on the first physics problem set together — out in the hallway of the women’s dorm. Of course, I was hurt. But, after a few tears, I went back to my work, and finished the physics problem set. This type of isolation continued through much of my undergraduate years at M.I.T.

As my coursework progressed, in fact, I chose physics as my major. But one professor had this advice for me. He said, “Colored girls should learn a trade.” I thought, “Well, I will learn a trade. I will learn physics.” I decided that I would not allow other people’s attitudes to discourage me. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in physics, with a joint thesis in physics and materials science — with high grades. I decided to remain at M.I.T. for graduate school, although I could have attended Harvard, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, or the University of Chicago. I did this because M.I.T. was excellent in physics, but, also, because I felt that I could work to get more African American students into M.I.T. In fact, I did this, but that is a story for another day.

I tell these stories for several reasons.

First, it is important that we not forget prevailing attitudes in the not-so-distant past that contributed to an environment which discouraged whole segments of our population from advancing and contributing to the general good of society. Some of these attitudes unfortunately still prevail.

Second, it is important to see that prevailing attitudes do not necessarily have to govern our actions. I always remember my father’s wise advice — “You have your greatest control — and certainly your greatest influence — by how you control yourself.” “Aim for the stars, he said, “so that you can at least reach the tree tops.” Barriers can be overcome with focus, vision, excellence, hard work, and perseverance. But, sometimes a window in time must open in order to achieve your aspirations. When it does open — be prepared to step through.

Ultimately, I earned my doctorate at M.I.T. as a theoretical physicist, with an original research specialty in elementary particle physics.  After post-doctoral work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), I moved to AT&T Bell Laboratories to do theoretical condensed matter physics, especially on the electronic and optical properties of 2-dimensional or layered systems.

My initial work at Bell Labs focused on charge density waves in layered transition metal dichalcogenides. I, then, focused on interactions of electrons with surface excitations in 2-dimensional systems, especially so-called polaronic effects, and how these interactions controlled electronic responses to light, magnetic fields, and other stimuli. In these systems, I predicted the formation of certain topological-like structures, which affect the mobility of electrons in systems, and controlled thermodynamic behavior. This work helped in understanding how to tailor the desired properties of various semiconductor systems. I was recognized for this work by election to fellowship in the American Physical Society, and later, to fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

From this point, I credit my natural, scientist’s curiosity about the world and how it works, with leading me down a variety of related paths, which crisscrossed, complemented each other, and each of which helped to prepare me for what came next.

I was drawn to public policy, where one’s role is to “translate” between disparate worlds — the worlds of technology, government, business, and the public — enabling each to inform the other, so that policy better serves science and technology, and the sciences and technology better serve the public realm.

In 1995, I was nominated by President Bill Clinton, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to be Commissioner and Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where I served from 1995 to 1999. My scientific background and early public policy experience in New Jersey served me well as the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as they helped me to “translate” between, and among, the various worlds of the Congress, the public, the nuclear industry, academia, national laboratories, the international community, and NRC employees. The NRC is charged with the protection of the public health and safety, the environment, and the common defense and security by licensing, regulating, and safeguarding the use of reactor byproduct material in the U.S.

As Chairman, I was the principal executive officer of, and the official spokesman for, the NRC. I had ultimate authority for all NRC functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee. This includes nuclear power plants; research, test, and training reactors; fuel cycle facilities (including uranium mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication); reactor byproduct use in medicine, industry, and research; the transportation, storage, and disposal of high-level and low-level radioactive waste; and the licensing of nuclear exports for peaceful uses.

During my tenure, I initiated a strategic assessment and rebaselining of the agency, leading to a new planning, budgeting, and performance management system for the NRC. I conceptualized and introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation (utilizing probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis), which has been infused throughout its regulatory programs. I, also, led the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to develop new risk-informed codes and standards. Elements of the risk-informed approach, also, have been incorporated into the nuclear regulatory programs of other nations. I led the development of a new reactor oversight program, and created, with the Commission, a license renewal process — resulting in the first renewal (in March 2000) of the license of an operating reactor in the United States.

While I was NRC Chairman, I spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) in 1997. The association comprised the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As the first elected Chairman of the INRA, I guided its development as a high-level forum to examine common nuclear safety issues, and to offer assistance to other nations, on matters of nuclear safety. The INRA remains active, today, and now includes South Korea, as a member, and China as an observer country.

My experience as NRC Chairman, led me to make three observations:

First, I found that leadership enabled me to make a national difference and a global difference, and, in those arenas, to use the unique aspects of my educational background, and an inherent multi-cultural sensitivity which I had due to my own background, upbringing, and experience.

Second, I discovered that here, in the United States, we had insufficient scientific expertise at the highest policy levels in our government. This is serious when dealing with nuclear issues, but, also, other issues, as well, including energy security, the environment, space exploration, disease prevention and mitigation, national defense, clean water, civil infrastructure, and much, much more.

Third, there were very few women in the nuclear arena, especially in leadership positions, and in the international arena. I have seen this repeated in a variety of scientific fields.

These observations reinforced my resolve to change the face of science and engineering — to ensure the participation of women and under-represented minorities, which, together, create a “new majority,” or what I refer to as the “underrepresented majority.”

Now, as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I have both an opportunity and a platform to help drive this change.

What may be of more consequence, perhaps, than my personal journey, is what I have gleaned on this journey, and how it may inform higher education.


As always, I believe it instructive to examine the overarching context.

Some historians contend that the 20th century actually began in 1914, with the first cataclysmic world war, the end of empires, redrawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East, new attempts at international cooperation, and dazzling technological advances that vastly bettered daily life.

I believe we stand at a similar point today — at what is, perhaps, the true beginning of the 21st century — with attendant great change and great challenge. At the moment, nations are experiencing severe economic shocks; including a credit crisis; bank failures; and trade, equities, housing, and job markets that have declined severely. Current economic difficulties demonstrate clearly how globalized, interlinked, and interconnected the world has become. It is a disruptive time — old assumptions hold no longer, former remedies are adequate no longer.

Within this new context, we seek new concepts, new paradigms, new ways of thinking, which will help to disclose the opportunities inherent within this shifting global scene. One concept — the concept of diversity — may well fall into both the “old” and “new” categories. While often overused, and sometimes misused, it continues to be an essential and guiding principle.

I serve on several corporate boards, including the NYSE Euronext, and I chair the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board, so I am familiar with what drives our nation’s major corporations. Perhaps more than is realized, corporations globalized long ago, and once they did, they understood the importance of diversity (and inclusiveness). The corporate sector acknowledges and embraces diversity (and inclusiveness) as strategy, diversity as a spark to ignite innovation, diversity as necessary for the competitive edge, diversity as a pathway to progress. The corporate sector recognizes that it functions in an entirely globalized setting — and that, within that setting, diversity and inclusiveness are essential. To be inclusive is to reduce the risk inherent in limited options. To be inclusive increases the broad scope of available opportunities. Corporate missions proliferate with allegiance to enhancing diversity because the sector understands that its innovative capacity, future production, corporate success, markets, and customer base are global and, therefore, wholly diverse.

The need for competitiveness, innovation, entrepreneurism, and leadership — to promote economic dynamism is echoed in every sector of society and the economy.

This, in turn, places a very special obligation on educators.

To prepare students for global challenges, I believe that our students — all of you here — must be educated to become culturally sophisticated individuals, who can understand and solve complex problems. Your education must prepare you with intellectual agility to see connections between disciplines and among sectors, across a broad intellectual milieu. You need to acquire multicultural understanding, and have the ability to operate within a global context. In fact, at a session I attended last year at the World Economic Forum (in Davos, Switzerland) — a session on leadership — leaders from multiple sectors (industry, government, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], academia), were asked what trait was most important for successful leadership in the global arena. The answer most cited — empathy — the ability to be in another’s place or space, or, at least, to understand it.

You must be prepared to operate in a world which will require you to reason, to question, to analyze, to evaluate, and to assess by bringing together ideas, institutions, and people from around the world, and across cultures, as situations command.

Twenty-first century challenges are seldom borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, multilateral. They may involve a science problem or public policy issue, but they, also, may have a medical component, an aspect of international law, a diplomatic or geopolitical factor, an ethical challenge. Because today’s students are faced with the flattening world — with the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces — they must be prepared to thrive, to contribute, to approach challenge, and to lead within this context.

With the new global context and the need for you as students to prepare for it, this may be the time to sharpen and to broaden what we mean by diversity — and to shift toward a perspective that is inclusive of the complexities of the 21st century.

We are working toward this goal at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — toward what we term Diversity-Enhanced Education. The concept has four primary pillars:

  • Diversity of Approach. Beginning with disciplinary fundamentals, students must acquire the vision, motivation, and capacity to work across, between, and at the intersection of multiple disciplines and sectors. As education has evolved — and, indeed, as there is considerably more knowledge to acquire to achieve mastery — we have moved away from a basic integration of knowledge into distinct and isolated specialties. This may be to the detriment of comprehensive vision, and to the understanding of the complexities of the whole.
  • Diversity of Pedagogy. Education must be enhanced and expanded through the utilization of new media and tools. New technologies — such as simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion (which allow collaboration in real time across geographies), even social networks — to help students extend their reach. Opportunities for undergraduate and graduate student research fall into this category, as do, interactive multidisciplinary, team-based experiences.
  • Diversity of Outlook. Students must be exposed to diverse cultures and lifestyles, to experience and to absorb associated differences in thought, approach, and practice — to build a global perspective, to operate within a global context, to collaborate across borders, and to recognize unforeseen opportunities. We want students to acquire a grounding in fundamentals, of course, but, in addition, to be able to take what they know, and apply it in multiple arenas, to be critical analyzers and consumers of information, to evolve with the times.
  • Diversity in Fact.  All of our young people — young women and students of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, must be encouraged and inspired to achieve at the highest levels. Education always has been the pathway to a better future — a moral obligation, if you will. With all of the global challenges, we need all of our talent, more than ever. We must inject fresh thinking and new perspective into addressing challenges, whether in basic research, artistic creativity, financial markets, engineering design, or global diplomacy.


            At Rensselaer, the four pillars of diversity/multiplicity-enhanced education work together, to enhance and augment each other, to create a multiplicity of living/learning experiences to foster these concepts, and to engage students in global endeavors. International experience is a key aspect of this endeavor.

At the undergraduate level, we are expanding programs of international experience and study that long have been a part of Rensselaer education. We began this year with 60 engineering students spending the spring semester at partner universities in Denmark and Singapore — the result of our Rensselaer Education Across Cultural Horizons (or REACH) program. Concomitant numbers of Danish and Singaporean students are enrolled for this semester at Rensselaer. When REACH is fully implemented, all engineering juniors will be expected to participate in an international experience, and ultimately, we anticipate that all of our undergraduates will be required to have a global experience — through various programs, which we are developing, as part of his or her undergraduate education.

These steps are paving the way for offering graduate students, as well, the global experiences that will enhance their goals, and involve them in global professional circles. This might include involvement in international public policy, multi- and cross-disciplinary research, and in university/industry partnerships. 

International exchange, we believe, provides a two-way benefit. It builds the international and multicultural outlook of students and faculty at partner institutions.

International exchange, likewise, enhances the experiences of Rensselaer students and faculty on our campuses. We are signing, and implementing, Memoranda of Understanding for student and faculty exchange with universities around the globe to provide our students with the breadth of experience and depth of understanding that can only be achieved when they are challenged in a new environment.

I recently returned from leading a delegation to South Africa, where I spoke at the Stellenbosch University commencement. It is a fascinating place, with a riveting history. Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy spoke at commencement there in 1966, when Stellenbosch was the intellectual cradle of Afrikaner nationalism and Apartheid. Stellenbosch alumni ruled South Africa in white domination. But Robert Kennedy spoke honestly, and warned of a globalized future in which “No longer can any people be oblivious to the fate and future of any other.”

Thirty years later, Stellenbosch University awarded Nelson Mandela an honorary degree, two years after he was elected President of South Africa. In accepting the degree, President Mandela said, “This occasion says much more about South Africa and South Africans than about the individual to whom the degree is being awarded. This occasion is testimony to the fact that we South Africans have struck out on the road of building a joint future, that we are in the process of breaking down the divisive bulwarks of the past and building up a new nation - united in all its rich diversity.”

Today, Stellenbosch University is led by its first black African Vice Chancellor and Rector, Professor H. Russel Botman, who repeatedly speaks of “a pedagogy of hope” in the University’s approach to education. Stellenbosch University, itself, may be viewed as a symbol of the new South Africa — a beacon of hope for the world.

We have signed, and will implement, a Memorandum of Understanding with Stellenbosch University. The plan provides for teams of U.S. and African engineering and science students to work jointly (over the course of an academic year) on projects to resolve problems in that part of South Africa — with each team spending a month in the summer, at both Rensselaer and Stellenbosch to culminate the project. From Stellenbosch, the focus will be primarily on students who, historically, have had less higher education opportunity in South Africa — Black South Africans and Coloreds — but later involve others. There, also, is the expectation of developing joint faculty research projects and exchanges, as well.

Several in our delegation, also, visited Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. We expect to establish a similar exchange program there.

In each case, we will also hold a Summer Leadership Institute for African university faculty leaders and administrators, when the African student teams come to Rensselaer in the summers.

I must tell one more story. Before leaving South Africa, our delegation visited the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). The Institute resides in a collection of buildings in a small town outside of Cape Town. The director asked me to make a “short” speech to a group of students. When we got to the classroom, it was crammed with about 80 students. I spoke, briefly, about Rensselaer and then showed a video and a PowerPoint about Rensselaer. Finally, I asked how many were from South Africa. Only about three students raised their hands. The rest were from 19 other African nations — including Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia, Sudan. All of them had finished four-year degrees at regional or national universities, for most of them clearly against great odds. All of them hoped for graduate education — one to study advanced computational science, another to study condensed matter physics, and on and on. They came to AIMS for one year, completing a curriculum that is made up, primarily, of compressed 3-week courses, taught by visiting professors. When the session concluded, the students surrounded us. Most hoped that, somehow, they could obtain a graduate education, an advanced degree in the United States. Their desire was palpable. Their home countries need the talents and the energies of these bright, motivated young people. We intend to bring a number of them to Rensselaer.

Our recent experiences in Africa, the university partners with which we have established collaborative initiatives in China, in India, and in Europe, and the diversity toward which institutions of higher education are striving, coalesce to provide the multiplicity of experience — geographic, intellectual, cultural, social, ethnic, experiential — that tomorrow’s scholars and leaders need to step into their own in the globally interlinked 21st century world. This great diversity — this multiplicity — is the very richness of life, itself.


Before concluding, I draw a parallel from the life of Edward Bouchet with where we are today. Dr. Bouchet was able to achieve what had not been done before, by becoming the first African American Ph.D. in the United States — in physics, from Yale. His achievement “disrupted” what had been established. He heralds — for all of us — the goal that we, too, can accomplish the unanticipated, the unforeseen, the innovative. Unfortunately, despite his high-end education, Dr. Bouchet was unable to find a position in academia, or employment as a professional physicist. For twenty-six years, he taught chemistry and physics at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) — at the time, the only high school for black students in the City of Philadelphia. Later, Dr. Bouchet held a number of positions, teaching mathematics and physics at the Sumner High School, St. Louis, Missouri, as the business manager for the Provident Hospital in St. Louis, as a U. S. customs inspector at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a teaching and administrative position at St. Paul's Normal and Industrial School (later renamed, St. Paul's College) in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and finally, principal of Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio. Even though he was never recognized by the academic or professional worlds, he touched, and inspired, thousands of young people through his teaching.

His educational breakthrough, however, opened doors for people like me. I enjoy my work as a University President, and it is important in its own right, as I look to educate the technological leaders of tomorrow. But, I, also, have an obligation to continue to open doors, and to show you — and the world — a new path for all people, including people of color.

We have extended the path with a multicultural President who is moving away from past models, working to change outmoded systems in many sectors including health care, education, energy, financial institutions, and recasting our role in international affairs.

While we are acknowledging these world-changers, I believe that it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the transformative role played by Dr. John Hope Franklin who passed away this week. Dr. Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, was a consummate historian, scholar, and civil rights advocate, who created the academic field of African-American history. His book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, published in 1947, is considered the definitive account of the black experience in America.

He assisted Thurgood Marshall (later the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice) on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1995. The grandson of a slave, Franklin's scholarly work was informed by his first-hand experience with racism. He was 94 years old.

President Barack Obama said in a statement: “Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people."

Dr. John Hope Franklin was an exquisite scholar, and a disruptive/innovative thinker — in all the positive senses of those words.

Swiftly changing global circumstances may produce the kind of “innovative disruption” that Dr. Franklin’s scholarship represented — the kind that opens the way for new thinking, for restructuring, for new paradigms that uncover and unfold new opportunities.

As you engage in the dialogue proffered in this conference, keep foremost in your minds that the pathway to inclusive democracy and a cohesive global society necessitates the richest of multiplicity. Inclusive democracy and an inclusive global society require multiplicity, diversity — certainly. But, there are yet two other essential elements. And they are: your scholarship and your leadership. 

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

Page updated: 12/17/10, 6:59 PM
Copyright ©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)  110 Eighth Street, Troy, NY USA 12180  (518) 276-6000  All rights reserved.
Why not change the world?® is a registered trademark of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Site design and production by the Rensselaer Division of Strategic Communications & External Relations