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Keynote Address

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

Saratoga County NAACP, Annual Freedom Fund Education Celebration
Saratoga Springs, New York

Saturday, November 1, 2003


Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight as we celebrate the Freedom Fund Scholarship Program. It is so wonderful to see the talented young people the Freedom Fund supports. I offer my deepest congratulations to this year's scholarship winners. You are embarking on a marvelous journey.

Before I begin, I would like to thank Saratoga County NAACP president Jahvtz Blanton for the invitation to speak to you this evening. I also would like to greet Saratoga Springs Mayor Ken Klotz, and his wife Karen, and my fellow president Philip Glotzbach, from Skidmore College, as well as, area NAACP presidents and members, and assembled clergy. It is an honor to celebrate educational achievement with all of you, who do so much to sustain and grow this scholarship program.

Indeed, the theme of this event: "Encouraging Excellence Through Education," is very fitting. I believe that helping talented minority students — indeed, all students — to pursue a college education is one of the best investments we can make in their futures — and, in the future of our country. I applaud the Saratoga County NAACP for putting the education of the next generation front and center of your mission. By giving our best minds the opportunity to learn and to grow, you are helping to mold young people who will, in turn, contribute meaningfully to our society, and who will — who must — lend a hand to those who come after them.

As the president of a university, I know firsthand the importance of higher education to all young people, especially to minority youth. We are fortunate to live in a country where education can make a dramatic and positive difference in individual lives. It certainly did in mine. But, what also is at stake, as the post-September 11 environment has taught us, is the well-being, the safety and security, and the prosperity of our entire nation. To secure that well-being, that safety, security, and prosperity for ourselves, and for those beyond our shores, requires the talents of all of our people. And all of our people are changing — as we see dramatic demographic shifts in our population — a population that is becoming increasingly diverse.

That is what I would like to speak to you about this evening.

Affirmative action in higher education reemerged, this year, as a topic of national discussion. The two Supreme Court cases involving the University of Michigan brought the issue into sharp relief — and, along with that, the time-worn arguments for and against this policy. The court's decisions were, in the end, a reaffirmation of the value of diversity. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the majority decision:

"In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."

Justice O'Connor's argument distills the essence of why diversity is so crucial to our future. Think of the numerous — and unprecedented — challenges facing young people in the coming years. These include a struggling economy; the continuing loss of American jobs to other countries; low-performing and sometimes unsafe public schools; skyrocketing health care costs, and increasing demand on the economic and medical system with an aging population; national security in the time of global terrorism; the war in Iraq, whose costs, both human and economic, grow each day; environmental concerns; the list goes on. And, to that, we must add the persistent legacy of racism in this country.

So, we must ask ourselves: How are we equipping this next generation to lead us out of what one futurist calls "the epoch of uncertainty," and into a future in which the best minds will transform lives, both at home and abroad, for a better world? We must help our young people to find the hope and the opportunities for positive change that lie within the current realities — and education is the way to this better future.

Fortunately, the prospects for African-American and all minority students in our colleges and universities have changed for the better in recent years. When I attended MIT in the mid-1960s, I was told by a professor that "Colored girls should learn a trade." I cannot imagine a university professor uttering these words today. I was, at the time, one of only two African-American women in a class of 900, and therefore, in an exceptional position, and also an object of curiosity among many of my fellow students and some professors. The landscape of higher education has changed significantly in this regard. The number of minority students enrolled in college has more than doubled since 1980. From the campuses of two-year colleges, to the most prestigious universities in the country, African-American and other minority students are taking their places and achieving to the highest degree. The scholarship winners here tonight are prime examples of this.

Yet, we still have far to go. Although more African-Americans are attending college, they still are less likely to succeed in their studies than traditional students with the same high school grade point average. We already have myriad programs to assist minority students in college. The educational opportunity programs, such as the ones Associate Provost James oversees for the SUNY system, are indispensable, as they guide and support minority students through the thickets of the academic, cultural, and social demands of college.

But, as you know, we must get more talented minority students to the college classroom door, in the first place. This takes work — and it takes time. And, it takes more than traditional affirmative action policies and remediation programs. The fight for diversity, and for minority student achievement cannot begin at the college classroom door. It must begin well before that with excellence in primary and secondary school education so that when these students reach the point of college admission, there simply is no question of their qualification for entrance.

While I spoke earlier of the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, the only way we, ultimately, will come around such debates is to address squarely two key realities: demographics and achievement. Let me speak first to demographics, because in a real way it represents an opportunity.

We have, now, what I call an "affirmative opportunity." Because population demographics are changing rapidly, we have, in fact, a "new majority." Today, for example, Hispanics comprise the fastest-growing population segment in the nation. They, together with African American youth, Native Americans, young women and persons with disabilities comprise this "new majority" — all of them traditionally underrepresented in the professions and in leadership roles. They are the underrepresented majority. They represent a unique talent pool, which brings with it an inherently multicultural perspective which, the post-September 11 environment also has taught us, we must have in order to address broader global concerns.

Meanwhile, I see a "quiet crisis" evolving in science and engineering education. The number of people educated and experienced in these fields is soon to decline, as the current workforce ages and retires. Graduate and undergraduate student populations in engineering and the physical sciences — and in the computer sciences — are static or declining. The only recent positive trajectories have been in the life sciences. International students, on whom we have depended to fuel our graduate programs, and international scientists and engineers, who have fueled our innovation engine in the last 20 years, either are not coming to the U.S. in the numbers of the past, or are returning to their homelands after their formal education.

What this means is that there will be fewer and fewer young people in a position to do the science and engineering, the foundation upon which American innovation is based. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reported last January — just days before the tragic accident of the Space Shuttle Columbia — that about 15 percent of NASA's science and engineering staff can retire now, while 25 percent will be eligible to retire in the next five years. The GAO cautioned that NASA faces a workforce shortage which will worsen as the workers age and the pipeline of talent shrinks. This dilemma is more pronounced among areas crucial to NASA's ability to perform its mission, such as engineering, science, and information technology.

Of course, NASA is not unique. Most federal agencies face a similar challenge, as does the corporate sector. For example, although the number of trained scientists and engineers in the national labor force will continue to increase for some time, the average age will rise, and retirements will increase dramatically over the next 20 years. Some would say that the current job market indicates that the clarion call for the production of more scientists and engineers is a siren's call. This is simply not true.

It is not just our space program, but our economic well-being ñ our competitive edge in the global economy, and, I believe, our global security ñ which will suffer, if we do not prepare minority students in greater numbers for leadership and professional positions in science and engineering and across the spectrum of disciplines, as well. Fresh blood brings fresh ideas, energy, and new perspectives to the challenges we face ñ nationally and globally.

Here is a clear opportunity for young minority students, and for those of us who are in positions of leadership and influence, to fill these gaps and to ready the next generation for higher education, and beyond.

But this takes time, work, and commitment. For instance, to "build" or to "craft" a scientist or an engineer, we must begin in the middle school years, at the latest. It takes as much as a decade or more to cultivate the interest and excitement, the background and preparation, the education and experience, needed to produce a future Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, for instance, or a nuclear scientist.

The affirmative action debate has focused strictly on access to specific opportunities, or the ability of one group to compete with another at a particular point in time. We need to get beyond this, to attack the issues of opportunity, preparation, and competition where they should begin, and where the most difference can be made — that is, in the K through 12 classrooms. We cannot always guarantee outcome, but what we should guarantee is a level field, or meadow, if you will, of consistent, equal, basic, educational preparation — a field from which we can pick the flowers — those with the ability, motivation, and persistence to become scientists and engineers, or anything else, for that matter. But we must plant the flowers first.

What I believe we need is a national strategy similar to strategies we engaged at times of crisis in the past — during the New Deal and the buildup to World War II and, later, during the Cold War and the space race, which really was a science race. The United States has achieved remarkable progress in the past when faced with national security or economic crises. And certainly, this is a watershed period in our nation's history. We can rise to the challenge, again.

We must enlist our K through 12 teachers, parents, principals — indeed all our citizens, policymakers, legislators, and leaders — to identify, to attract, and to nurture all talent, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or physical challenges. In the past several years, I have been advocating on the national level that we must develop and engage a national plan to identify and educate our natural talent to produce scientific and technological leaders. The continued economic, technological, and innovative leadership of the United States depends on it.

And, we must do the same for our young people across all the disciplines. We need talented teachers in our public school classrooms — teachers who are knowledgeable in their subjects, and well-trained to identify and nurture interest and talent in their students. We need doctors and nurses who are educated in the latest developments in the rapidly changing health care field. And, we need government leaders and policymakers who are broadly and deeply educated, and who serve in the public interest. All of our professions and disciplines would benefit from the talent of a well-educated new majority. Brown University president, Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first African American woman to lead an Ivy League school, says that giving minorities access to higher education, particularly at elite private institutions, is a "matter of national salvation."

In order for this nation to continue to thrive, we must tap the talent of our entire population, not just a narrow slice of it. Affirmative opportunity then is a matter of enlightened national self-interest.

While affirmative opportunity policies and programs are crucial, I also would like to mention the importance of community support and of mentoring relationships to educational excellence. Choosing mentors and role models wisely is vitally important. Through the years, my own mentors [even those who did not know they were my mentors, whom I called "unwitting mentors"] shared one common characteristic. They all demanded excellence from themselves and, by extension, from me. Through personal example and rigorous instruction, they taught me how to set lofty goals, to shun excuses, and to be satisfied with nothing short of my best.

These relationships are especially important to young African-American students. A study from last year found that African-American high school students are less likely to have strong mentor relationships, which is a significant factor in encouraging students to attend college. Mentors show young people what excellence and success look like, demonstrate what they can bring, and how to achieve them. Too often, our popular culture celebrates people with "luck," rather than talent, and with even less to contribute to society. This is where we, and our communities — even as a diaspora — come in. We need to shine the spotlight on people of all ages from our communities who are pursuing excellence and making the world a better place. We especially need to hold up the young people who are here this evening.

As I look at our young men and women, who are doing their best, one individual who comes to mind is Dr. Benjamin Carson, who was born into poverty, abandoned by his father when he was 8, on the brink of complete education failure in fifth grade, but who, with the support of a mother who encouraged him to learn, became one of the most renowned pediatric neurosurgeons in the world. He has pioneered, among other things, the separation of conjoined twins about which we have heard so much in the news recently. Dr. Carson also knows the value of telling his story and of helping others to achieve excellence — serving as a leader and as a mentor to others.

When we hear stories such as that of Dr. Carson, we understand the seminal role played by family — especially parents — in the life outlook, and ultimate achievement, of a young person — achievement against the odds. What often is overlooked is the role of the community and of community-based organizations in encouraging academic excellence in our young people.

You who support the Freedom Fund Scholarship Program are what this is all about. Your leadership is helping us to realize the vision of a more diverse future that recognizes, nurtures, and rewards excellence, and changes the world for the better. Lending a hand to young people is, perhaps, our highest calling. I think of the passage from Luke (12:48): "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." Although the road has not been easy for many of us, we now are in positions of leadership and influence, positions from which we can help others. And, as the Freedom Fund program shows, what we do changes lives.

Given our successes, we carry a broader community responsibility — not only to help as individuals, to lift our young people — that is always an obligation — but together to serve as a knitting function for community support in fostering academic excellence.

To the scholarships winners, I want to say that you have been given much as well. You are gifted intellectually, and you have the further gift of youth, energy, and optimism. I urge you to use your gifts wisely, and to help those who come after you. Seize leadership and service opportunities through which you can have a positive impact on the lives of others. I assure you, when you are on this path, the rewards are many.

Roy Wilkins said: "The talk of winning our share is not the easy one of disengagement and flight, but the hard one of work, of short as well as long jumps, of disappointments, and of sweet success." Tonight is a celebration of that sweet success. I applaud all that you do. And, especially, I applaud the scholarship winners and wish for you an exciting future in which, I know, you will have the privilege of making a difference.

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.

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