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The Legacy of Ron McNair

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

Black Alumni/ae of MIT 25th Anniversary Conference
Great Accomplishments - Great Expectations: Celebrating Over a Century of Impact
Ronald E. McNair PH '77 Legacy Gala Dinner
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Saturday, October 9, 2004


Glancing over the program for the BAMIT 25th anniversary conference, I cannot help but be impressed with the range and depth of experience gathered here — and generously shared among you — from creating wealth, to lessons in senior management, to shaping domestic and foreign policy; the status and future of science education and research; the role and influence of the church in that discussion; medical breakthroughs for community care, and humane models for cities and communities.

What a wealth of talent and accomplishment — of experience and influence!

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Black Alumni/ae of MIT (BAMIT) is a very special privilege. There are many individuals — many of them in this room, tonight — who helped to establish BAMIT and to assure its future. We have good reason to be proud of their work, and to be proud of each other. Founding and carrying on the work of BAMIT helps to fulfill our hopes and our expectations — and the hopes and expectations of many others yet to come.

Nor does the accomplishment of BAMIT stand alone. BAMIT is the living representation of a collective flowering of achievement — a virtual bouquet — of talented and distinguished African-American graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) throughout the decades. Supporting and acknowledging this achievement assures a splendid future for us all.

Being here this evening, also, is a very special personal privilege for me, as we celebrate the life and accomplishments of one of our own — Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair.

Ron, as I am sure you know, was an exceptional achiever. He grew up in Lake City, South Carolina, 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 was intelligent, insatiably curious, eager, relentless in pursuit of excellence, determined to succeed, with a highly developed work ethic. Sputnik caught his attention in first grade, and for a while, that was all he talked about, earning him the nickname "Gizmo."

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. He considered becoming a music major, since he was an excellent saxophone player. Visiting the academic support center, a counselor talked with him, tested 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.

I came to know Ron in 1970, during the spring semester of his junior year at A&T. He came to M.I.T. on a program to introduce a few HBCU students to graduate school opportunities at the M.I.T., part of a general attempt to open up the Institute.

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. I would lend them my previous problem sets. Ron was among this group, and would come to study about once a week. While I did 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.

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 during which 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 set back, 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.

We know the rest of the story. Ron received his Ph.D. in physics in 1976. The next month, he married Cheryl Moore, whom he had met in church, and together, they moved to California, where he 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 came across a NASA application for shuttle personnel and astronaut training. He submitted it, along with 8,000 other applicants, and was one of 35 accepted.

Another setback nearly interfered — he was seriously injured in a car accident and warned that the NASA start up schedule might begin before he had recovered sufficiently. Again, typical of his personal ethic for determination, perseverance, and achievement, Ron recovered fully, and was able to begin the program 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 seventeen 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. Seventy-three seconds after lift off — nine miles above the Atlantic — the Challenger exploded when a rubber ring failed. That ring sealed a joint on one of the solid rocket boosters, and when flames reached the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellant, the Challenger was lost.

I remember exactly where I was at the time. I was at Bells Labs, Xeroxing some journal articles. Someone came 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.

Truly, Ron McNair flew for all of us, and his legacy is remembered in numerous student and teacher aid programs and named schools and buildings, keeping his spirit and his legacy alive. And, of course, BAMIT established the Ronald E. McNair Scholarship Award to recognize a Black undergraduate with strong academic performance, who has made a considerable contribution to the minority community.

The U.S. Dept of Education annually funds the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Programs, which awards grants totaling more than $41.8 million this to 179 colleges and universities to prepare students for doctoral studies. Its website lists numerous public schools named in his honor. The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation, Inc., develops and implements educational programs to motivate and encourage students to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and technology. More than 10,000 students and teachers have participated.

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

As we try to draw meaning from the 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.

This evening is a tribute to the legacy he leaves in our hands. But, before I discuss that legacy, and what it teaches us, it is useful to recall the convergence of events and decisions which created an environment within which Ron McNair's talents and abilities would thrive. That environment, of course, affected all of us, and continues to affect our children, and those who follow.

One element of this environment is, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year. Brown is the baseline for establishing 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.

In the ensuing decades, we have learned — and have acquired evidence asserting — that diversity is a desirable, valuable commodity, essential to American competitiveness in a global economy. This is something which is increasingly recognized and acknowledged, especially in the corporate sector. The experience of diversity enables the innovation process so essential to our economy and our leadership; it creates skillful leaders; and, it gives corporations unique ability to function in today's global environment.

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. This has become part of our legacy.

Brown had a powerful impact on my own life and education, as I know it did on yours. Public schools in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, were segregated when I entered kindergarten. After Brown, the D.C. schools integrated and instituted a tracking system. I was assigned to the accelerated track, based on testing. School integration, essentially, put me on the road for high achievement in education. Brown did open up educationóand, by extension, many professionsóto talented and motivated young African-Americans. But, it is fair to say, its full promise has not yet been realized, as today we look at the under-education and under-achievement of and under-opportunity for so many of our young people.

A second seminal event occurred three years after Brown. The former Soviet Union launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite. That event galvanized the nation. The country focused its attention on nurturing youthful science talent with accelerated programs for gifted students. I and many of you, I know, were among them.

The convergence of legal desegregation with the sudden "race for space," and the nation's new interest in science and technology, propelled the highly talented into the top academic tiers.

A third event, about a decade after that, joined this convergence. For me, it came at a crucial time, when I was at a personal crossroad.

I was in my senior year at M.I.T. in 1968 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. His death was a turning point in my life. It came at the time when I was deciding which graduate school to attend and what my focus of study and research would be. On that April day, a soror was driving me to the airport in Philadelphia. I had visited the University of Pennsylvania, where I had been admitted with a fellowship. I was at the point of deciding the path I would take next. The car radio was on, and the announcer said that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis and then, shortly thereafter, that he had passed away. We almost ran the car off the road.

I decided, then, that I needed to remain at M.I.T. for graduate school, and to work at M.I.T. — and with M.I.T. — to bring change, to recruit more African-American students, and more minority students in general, and to create a more supportive environment for them. I believed that M.I.T. was very important because it represented the leading-edge of scientific and technological achievement.

To bring about these changes, I joined with other students and school officials who, also, were moved by Dr. King's death and/or who were impelled to take action, especially Dr. Paul Gray, then Associate Provost at MIT, and later, its President. The Taskforce on Educational Opportunity was formed in 1968, chaired by Dr. Gray, on which served faculty and several of us who were co-founders and officers of the Black Students Union (BSU) — including a student who was a freshman in Fall 1968. We spent hours at a time in meetings — sometimes twice a week — hammering out early policies and approaches which were to be the basis for recruiting, admitting, retaining, and graduating African-American students. The numbers in the freshman class went from 3 to 5 per year to 57 in Fall 1969. Many other things followed: Interphase, BSU Lounge, Tutoring Program, Black administrators and faculty, etc.

It is a rare privilege when, with the perspective of some decades, one witnesses the confluence of forces, decisions, and events — which not only impacted one's own life, and the lives of so many others, but, also, enabled a contribution I feel I was blessed to make to the life of a very special individual. And, this is how I feel tonight, as I look over the assembled company of BAMIT members, and as we celebrate the life of Ronald Ervin McNair.

Ron was a trailblazer, and this is what makes him unique. He pushed the edge of the envelope and challenged himself. He never let adversity 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.

And, what does his legacy mean for us, tonight? For us, tomorrow?

As I look back upon my own past, there were few African American models, in the scientific and technological fields to emulate. There still is a shortage today. With effort, however, appropriate role models of all varieties can be found.

I chose to attend MIT in the mid 1960's, even though I was to be one of only two African American women in a class of 900 students. It was not a path strewn with roses.

I endured — and ignored — many examples of prejudice and misunderstanding — including the advice of one of my professors who assured me, while I was still a freshman debating my choice of major, that, "Colored girls should learn a trade." Now, he thought he was helping me. But. . .

You can imagine the effect this piece of advice had on me. But, I chose a trade, all right — I chose physics. I also chose to earn a Ph.D. — in theoretical elementary particle physics — even though no African American woman had preceded me on that path.

The obstacles I faced in those early years often were based on racial and gender bias. Initially, I was not welcomed or invited to join study groups. Fellow students would not eat with me, or sit next to me in class. But I used that isolation as an opportunity to study harder and to improve my own skills. It was not too long before some of the same individuals who had snubbed me began to recognize my drive to excel, and even to seek me out as a study partner — which, in some cases, became the basis for more social interactions.

But I came not to talk about me, but about us.

Now, the time has come to "expand our universe" — to become more aware of the power of demographics, to understand and to publicize to our own and to others the value of increasing participation in science and engineering, and to create new "models of success."

Ron McNair was a trailblazer and precedent-setter, who found within himself the motivation to transcend stereotypes, to go beyond the supposed limitations of the minority universe, to make cracks in what I have called "the darkened glass ceiling" — which is that intangible barrier, within a hierarchy, that prevents minorities, and, sometimes, women, from rising beyond a certain level of achievement and recognition. It is a "darkened" glass ceiling, because one may not know precisely what is on the other side, or who is on the other side, but one desires and deserves to go there, to see, to try.

How does one go about creating new models of success? By harnessing all of the sources of inspiration we can. Leaders who have achieved a measure of success and recognition must set an example of vision, hard work, and ethical integrity, and must be willing to cultivate and to serve as mentors to others. Those nurturing activities build small communications networks, which, in turn, can give birth to larger foundations, support programs — vehicles by which successes are publicized, limiting stereotypes are eroded (and, eventually eradicated), and both young people and the larger community are re-educated.

How are we to be more effective?

Ron McNair was a trailblazer, but that path is not open to everyone. But the path which is open to all is to look carefully at how other groups leapfrogged themselves above, or cracked through, the darkened glass ceiling. Too often, we are out there by ourselves on issues, forgetting to focus on how to reach the highest levels we can, without engaging the issues. Reaching the highest levels we can requires continuous, collaborative activity with and within organizations, a collective and sustaining engagement, so that when the time arises, issues can be heard effectively. Doing this helps us to learn who our friends are within the power structure, so that when the time comes we can go to them to make something happen, and to become part of the resolution. It also is important to learn who are not our friends. This requires collective effort and collective power to create opportunity for those who would penetrate the "darkened" glass ceiling.

I ask all of you to join with me — and I will join with you — in pushing back the boundaries still further — in motivating, developing, and mentoring more and more of our youth as scientists and engineers, and leaders, and by creating, even legislating, more opportunities for them in technological fields. In the broader sense, we each are challenged to take up our own roles as sources of inspiration for the next generation of achievers.

Though we speak of our achievements of suffering and achievements of endurance, we must celebrate that we have progressed from suffering to suffrage, from endurance to accomplishment — in science, law, religion, medicine, and education.

As a veteran of the industrial sector, of the academic community, and of the Federal government, I often have made the point that this country does not have people to waste. The present and foreseeable challenges facing our nation are too great for society to ignore, or to undervalue, the capabilities of entire population segments.

If we seek economic parity and equivalence in employment opportunities, it follows logically that we also should encourage our sons and daughters to pursue their dreams across the full spectrum of professions. They must feel that no field is foreclosed to them, no darkened glass ceiling left intact.

We have become known for our achievements in the artsómusic, dance, drama, poetry, and literature, and in sports. And, we will — we must — become known for our achievements in science and mathematics, and engineering and technology. We will — we must — penetrate to the highest levels of finance and capital markets. This is where the power really lies.

And as I end my remarks this evening, I would like to leave you with two thoughts, returning, first, to the legacy of Ron McNair.

When giving autographs after he became an astronaut, Ron McNair always added, "Be Your Best."

I feel that the spirit of Ron McNair is with us this evening, signing an autograph on our hearts. Let us heed his legacy, and his lessons, and take him at his word: "Be Your Best."

My second thought for the evening is from Maya Angelou's poem, "And Still I Rise," which, perhaps, most effectively, describes from whence we came and the inevitability of our successes:

"Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from the past that's rooted in shame
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide
Welling and swelling, I bear in the tide,
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear,
I rise
Into daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise."

Thank you, and Gods speed.


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.

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