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
* *

The View Above the Earth: A Global Perspective

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

Compact for Faculty Diversity
Institute on Teaching and Mentoring
Atlanta, Georgia

Sunday, October 24, 2004

It is a privilege to be invited here by the Compact for Faculty Diversity. In more than a decade since its formation, the Compact has developed programs and methodologies which receive high marks as an education exemplar from a landmark study conducted by as BEST — Building Engineering and Science Talent.

Under the aegis of the Council on Competitiveness, and with support from the National Science Foundation, BEST conducted a comprehensive tri-part evaluation of programs that work — in pre-K through 12 education, in higher education, and in the work place to increase the participation of under-represented populations in engineering and science. I served as co-chair of the BEST Blue Ribbon Panel on Higher Education. The resulting report identified “best practices” — the benchmarks of excellence. The Compact for Faculty Diversity was one of just two programs in the nation focused on faculty diversity which were considered exemplary.

Speaking as a research university President, with an interest in science and education policy, as well as the corporate and financial markets environment, I can say with some authority that unless we build a diverse faculty, especially in tenured and tenure-track positions in majority institutions, the opportunities presented to this country by the “new majority” will fail to translate into role models, mentors, teachers, and leaders who look like America. And, that will mean we will lack the kind of workforce we must have to succeed as the global environment changes.

The Compact embodies the kind of systemic change that will inform, prepare, and develop faculty as versatile professionals in academic careers who will influence the generations of students to follow. As the Compact celebrates the first cohort of its scholars to achieve tenure1, we have solid evidence of that change and of the Compact’s effectiveness. I offer my congratulations to the Compact, and to the Compact scholars who have achieved tenure, and to all of the participants in this exceptional program.

I would like to speak today about the criticality of building a diverse faculty, in light of a broad context, because it is this context which gives it meaning and import.

As the world grows increasingly global, our national economy and our general safety and wellbeing are increasingly dependent upon our national capacity for innovation.

Innovation — the driver of economies and of leadership — is the capacity for discovery and invention and the ability to translate new knowledge into ideas, concepts, processes, and products, and to distribute these innovations through the marketplace.

The United States has been the unquestioned world leader in innovation for 75 years, because it built a thriving system of sustaining elements. These include a sophisticated higher education system, a well-developed science infrastructure; ready access to venture capital; a long tradition of entrepreneurial investment; government structures supporting inquiry and discovery, policies encouraging entrepreneurship; a history of public-private collaboration; a diverse culture of risk takers; and an ethos tailored for innovation, where ideas are welcomed and varying viewpoints are sought.

But, today more nations are emulating our example, investing in their own institutions of higher education, in research and development, and in employment opportunities for their own citizens.

At the same time, our own innovation workforce (especially scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists) is aging and will retire soon, fewer students are studying these subjects, and fewer international students are coming to the U.S. to study and to work as they once did. This is due, in some measure, to the visa tightening policies instituted after September 11, 2001, and also to new opportunities for the best and the brightest minds to study and to work in their home countries.

The interest in and need for innovation are raising the value of diversity to American competitiveness. This is reflected, interestingly enough, by the corporate sector.

Why is this?

A little later in my remarks this morning, I will speak of the impact of Grutter and Gratz, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. But for the moment, I would like to share with you what the corporate sector said in its strong support of the university’s position in these two cases. In an amicus brief filed with the court, 65 leading American corporations argued the importance of a diverse workforce — coming out of a diverse educational environment for their “continued success in the global marketplace”.

These 65 leading American corporations — Alcoa, American Express, Boeing, Coca Cola, DaimlerCrysler, Deloitte & Touche, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee, Shell Oil, 3M, and Xerox, to name a few — with collective annual revenues of well over a trillion dollars, conduct business around the world. 3M, for instance, is a $16.7 billion diversified manufacturing and technology company with operations in more than 60 countries and customers in nearly 200. Boeing makes 70 percent of its commercial airplane sales to international customers. Procter & Gamble sold a branded product to more than 2.5 billion people in 2002, for more than $40 billion in sales.

Today's global marketplace, the corporations argued, “and the increasing diversity of the American population, demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding” which is gained from a diverse educational environment. They continue that “because of the increasingly global reach of American businesses, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

The corporate amicus brief cites specific benefits for innovation and good business practice which compel diversity. So here is the why of diversity — here is what corporate America said:

  • First, that a diverse workforce “. . .has the ability to facilitate unique and creative approaches to problem-solving arising from the integration of different perspectives;”

  • Second, that such individuals are “. . . better able to develop products and services that appeal to a variety of consumers and to market offerings in ways that appeal . . . ;”

  • Third, that diverse managers with cross-cultural experience are better able to work with business partners, employees, and clientele . . . ;”

  • And fourth, that these individuals are likely to contribute to a positive work environment.

They conclude that “overall, an educational environment that ensures participation by diverse people, viewpoints, and ideas will help produce the most talented workforce.”

Allow me to come at this with another, quite different example, although the outcome is equally as telling.

Almost a year ago, a New York Times Magazine cover story highlighted the prevalence of actors and models whose racial or ethnic identity is, in the words of the article, “indeterminate” or “ethnically ambiguous.” The article pointed out that the entertainment industry — and now, the fashion industry — increasingly are tapping young people of mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds to be actors and models. The practice makes their products appealing both to a full-spectrum domestic market, as well as a diverse global marketplace.

It is tempting to dismiss this as an exploitative trend, and, it may well be. But, I suggest it, also, contained a useful perspective.

A magazine editor, interviewed in the article, commented that “beauty transcends race or class” and, also, that this trend “represents the new reality of America.”

Of course, not only does beauty transcend race and class, but, as we know, talent does, as well. For The Times to focus on this trend strongly signals that diversity has become a value worth trading on. This “new reality of America,” and “changing face of America” are embedded in what I have been calling, for some time now, when women are included, the nation’s “new majority” — i.e. underrepresented minorities and women, and those who identify themselves as multiracial.

With the change in the demographics of our country, this is our future. And, does it not make clear the imperative of educating all of our children so that we can assure that all talent is realized?

Corporate recognition of the value of diversity places heavy responsibility on institutions of higher education to create that diverse environment. And it places heavy responsibility on programs such as the Compact for Faculty Diversity, to succeed in graduating Ph.D. students who are racial ethnic minorities and guiding them through the academic processes of faculty careers to tenure.

But, the road is not easy because the fastest growth in the college age population is in the groups which have had the lowest college attendance: one in seven Hispanic-Americans has a college degree, and one in five African-Americans, even fewer Native Americans — on an absolute and proportionate basis. Compare this with one in two Asian Americans, one in three white Americans. The U.S. population grew, over the last decade, from 249 million to 281.4 million. The minority population increased 35 percent overall. The non-Hispanic white population grew only 3.4 percent, while the Hispanic population grew by 58 percent, Asian Americans by 50 percent, and African-Americans by 16 percent.

By mid-century, by some estimates, nearly half of the U.S. population will be from ethnic minority groups, and, of course, half will be women, as well. And, while women are rising in numbers in academe, it is underrepresented minorities who have yet to realize their full potential, and to become the researchers, scholars, educators, role models, and mentors for future generations.

Against this backdrop, on June 23, 2003, the United States Supreme Court affirmed, in two rulings with respect to University of Michigan admissions policy — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — the constitutional legitimacy of diversity as an essential component of education excellence. Diversity is upheld as not only a matter of equity — as legitimate as that is — but, also, essential to American competitiveness.

And, yet, the mixed messages of Grutter and Gratz have left the academy without guidance for extending the benefits of higher education to everyone. That lack of guidance, leads, at best, to confusion over the future of a variety of targeted programs, and at worst is having a chilling effect on them.

There have been few efforts to give university administrators, legal counsel, and program planners the tools to develop effective, appropriate, and legal minority-recruitment programs in the post-Michigan era. But, there is one effort worth mentioning — a report entitled Standing Our Ground, released by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The report, offers material on legally defensible options for protecting diversity, specifically, in science and engineering programs.

So, as we grapple with the Grutter and Gratz rulings, we celebrate, this year, the 50th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It is worth remembering this baseline, which established the legal, moral, and social imperative for assuring equality and diversity within the American public school system. It formed the basis for taking official action to establish diversity. It provided the opportunity and brought forward talent that otherwise would not have been discovered and nurtured.

Those in my generation remember Brown well, as it had a dramatic impact on our own lives, and on the unfolding of our educations. The Brown ruling helped to move forward society’s collective perspective on the issues of differences between peoples, and the question of how to assure a just society. Brown ultimately made Americans acknowledge and begin to live the values upon which the nation was founded. There is not a person in this room, nor, indeed a child in America, whose lives have not been impacted by this landmark judicial decision. It is a part of our legacy. The confluence of the Brown decision and the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in 1957 — which launched a space/ science race-opened doors for me which would have been unimaginable a few short years before. Public schools I attended in Washington, DC were now integrated, the curriculum I took was accelerated, I was high school valedictorian, and I ended up at M.I.T.

So, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown, and acknowledging the corporate sector recognition diversity value, is a mark of real progress. But the mixed messages of Grutter and Gratz impel us to redouble our efforts with new conviction and new energy, if we are to see the beneficial legacy of Brown continue to unfold.

Before I close, I would like to pay tribute to the McNair scholars and to their directors. I knew Ron McNair quite well during our years at M.I.T., and I believe that his life teaches us some lessons which we might well employ as we leave the Compact’s Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, and continue to work toward its goals.

Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair, as I am sure you know, was an exceptional achiever, the product of a segregated community, the son of an auto mechanic and a high school teacher. He was taught to read by his grandmother who could read, but not write. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class, and went on to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University (A&T) where he studied physics. Once at A&T, however, he had a rare — for him — moment of uncertainty, wondering if he was “good enough” to study physics. Visiting the academic support center, a counselor tested him, talked with him, and said, finally, “I think you are good enough.” That was all he needed. He graduated magna cum laude and was named a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar. He was intelligent, insatiably curious, eager, relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic.

I came to know Ron in 1970, during the spring semester of his junior year. He came to M.I.T. on a program to introduce HBCU students to graduate school opportunities at M.I.T.

I met Ron McNair at Logan Airport — I was to be his mentor — and, off the plane stepped this eager, young guy wearing shades and a big, open grin. We stayed in touch over the spring, but it was when he came back in the fall of 1971 as a graduate student that I came to know him well. At the time, I had an apartment off campus, and a group of black students, in both physics and chemistry, would come to my house to study. This was because I was a little ahead of them in graduate school and had been through many of the courses already. I would lend them my previous problem sets and old tests. Ron would come to study about once a week. While I did my thesis research calculations in one room, he would study in another room, for hours at a time. When he had a question, we would go over the material together. Then, he would go back to studying, and I back to my calculations.

He was an exceptional competitor — a fifth level black belt in karate — who would never permit himself to be defeated. The story about him which best shows this aspect, concerns the time when he was working on his doctoral thesis. One night, he was mugged and lost his case which contained all his data — the accumulation of two years of specialized laser physics research. Despite this setback, he began again, and produced a second data set in less than a year. He never complained and claimed that the second data set turned out better than the first.

Ron received his Ph.D. in physics in 1976 and joined the staff at the Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu. There, he continued his work with lasers, specifically laser application in isotope separation and photochemistry reactions in low-temperature liquids.

Two years later he submitted an application for NASA shuttle personnel and astronaut training. Of the 8,000 applicants, Ron was one of 35 accepted. Immediately, he faced another setback — he was seriously injured in a car accident and warned that he might miss the start of NASA training. Again, typical of his personal ethic of determination, perseverance, and achievement, Ron recovered fully, and began training on time.

Ultimately, astronaut Ronald Ervin McNair became the second African American in space. On his first flight in 1984, aboard the multipurpose orbital space shuttle Challenger, he conducted experiments involving, among other things, optical and electrical properties of arc discharge, atomic oxygen erosion, cosmic ray physics, growth of spores, protein crystallization, and seed germination, And, he operated the remote shuttle arm.

In January 1986, he was a crewmember aboard the Challenger, again. And we all know that shortly after lift off, a rubber ring, sealing a joint on one of the solid rocket boosters, failed. When flames reached the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant, the Challenger was lost.

I was at Bells Labs, Xeroxing journal articles, when someone rushed up and said, “Did you hear that the space shuttle exploded?” I was shocked and had a sense of foreboding because I knew Ron was on that shuttle. More than anything, I was hurt — for Ron, his family, his friends, and his colleagues — for America, for we had lost a great son of the Black Community, a great son of America.

The seven Challenger astronauts were the first space crew which reflected all America — diverse in gender, race, religion, and in aspiration.

It is hard — even in retrospect — to think about January 28, 1986. I have often thought about Ron McNair — about him studying for hours on end at my apartment on Henry Street in Cambridge, Mass. I have thought about how hard he worked to become what he became — a physicist, husband, astronaut, father, pioneer.

I spoke with Ron a few weeks before he took that second Challenger flight. He expected that to be his last shuttle flight. Interestingly enough, he was talking of becoming a professor. No doubt he would have, had he not been on the space shuttle Challenger that fateful day. In fact, if Ron had been able to become a professor, he would have come full circle. He began in academia — it launched his career. He worked in industry after his Ph.D. — at Hughes Research Laboratory. He worked for the government as an astronaut — and was a hero because of it. Instead of being a professor, he became a national icon because he lost his life doing what he loved — stretching the edge of the envelope.

As we try to draw meaning from that tragedy, and more importantly, as we draw meaning from Ron’s life, we must remember, and be inspired by, his accomplishments and his personal ethic. That ethic propelled him to the highest achievements — to the stars, and beyond.

Ron was a trailblazer and a precedent-setter. He pushed the edge of the envelope and challenged himself, never allowing adversity to deter him. He was willing to do whatever it took, and this is what makes him an ideal role model.

His life, I believe, is a metaphor, giving us important lessons which we must learn, both collectively, as a community, and personally, as individuals.

For one, Ron felt that being in space, and seeing Earth from a great altitude, gave him clear evidence that we are one community, interconnected, and fragile — that what affects one affects us all. This lesson teaches us nothing if not that we must care for each other and for the world community. We would do well to keep Ron’s “above the Earth” perspective in mind, for it is an elemental truth, and one too often thrust aside in the rush and crush of events.

And, here is the second lesson: Ron believed that pushing at the edge of the envelope — pushing technology and challenging ourselves to the limit — engages us fully, and stretches our imaginations and our achievements. He believed that the risk is not in the doing, so much as in the not doing. He believed that to remain where you are most comfortable — that is the greatest risk of all.

In fact, I go back to my original description of Ron McNair for my essential message to you. You are intelligent and, I am sure, insatiably curious and eager, or you would not be here. You must be relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic.

I believe that the metaphor of Ron’s life and the lessons it teaches are worth taking to heart. The determination he demonstrated is the kind it takes to complete a task of academic study and the rigorous path to a faculty career and tenure. This determination and refusal to be deterred is what it takes to change a culture — whether it is in one academic institution, a corporation, or in a whole society. The determination Ron modeled for us is what we need — often — to be reminded of, as we work to see the value of diversity unfold in all of its multi-dimensions and multiple facets.

But, what also is required is the courage and determination of institutional and national leaders to set the tone at the top — to take on the need for social and cultural change at all levels, and to lead a national dialogue and to create policies that open — and keep open — the windows of opportunity for the next generation of Ron McNairs — namely you.

Our capacity for innovation, and the safety and wellbeing of our nation — and ultimately — of the world, rest, firmly, upon that “above the earth” perspective and that determination.

I wish you much success. Godspeed.

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