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America's Need for Diverse Leadership

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

Gates Millennium Scholars Leadership Conference
Los Angeles, California

Saturday, November 20, 2004


It is a pleasure to speak with you this evening. Being in the company of bright, motivated, young people is a privilege. You are brimming with talent, enthusiasm, energy, determination, hopes, and, most importantly, dreams. I have enormous faith and confidence in you.

You are scholars poised on the launch pad of an adventure in learning and discovery. How could we not have faith in you? How can you not have faith in yourselves? As a diverse community of scholars, you reflect our society — which means that you are especially valuable and needed.

My remarks this evening will address why you are so valuable, and why America needs your leadership.

I expect that most of you are wearing the pin which you gave to each other at the pinning ceremony this morning. I am sure that the ceremony, and the oath instilled in you the sense of responsibility which you now hold toward each other, to your community, to your nation, and, ultimately, to the world. In a sense, this pin marks you for life, because it symbolizes the unique community of scholars you have joined, and, regardless of your individual paths, you will be part of this community forever. These are powerful commitments, which tie you to each other, and tie you to an ideal of scholarship and leadership.

I hope you will think of the pin as your compass, as you embark on a voyage — your own journey of learning, and of discovery, and of leadership.

Two hundred years ago, in 1803, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, together with a small band — including Sacagawea a Native American woman of the Shoshone Tribe, and York, Captain Clark's personal assistant of African descent — set off down the Ohio River in a 55-foot keelboat and a couple of canoes. When they got to the Mississippi, they turned northward. Reaching the Missouri River, they headed west. This was the famous "Corps of Discovery," sent into the American wilderness by President Thomas Jefferson, ostensibly to find a navigable waterway through to the Pacific Ocean, and, along the way, to discover the full richness of resources and mysteries of the North American continent.

Two years and 3,700 miles later, they returned. Although there is no northwest water passage, they brought back glowing reports of the magnificent interior of the continent, prime with verdant prairies, majestic mountains, grand rivers, and its "first nation" peoples. They returned with specimens of unknown plants and animals — a great advance for the science of the day. The voyage of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the "Corps of Discovery" into the unknown transformed a young nation and changed the world.

Today, you stand at the launch pad of your own voyage of discovery. Yours, too, is a voyage to seek the new, to find the unknown. You, too, are explorers. Only instead of uncharted geography, you will be traversing the realm of ideas. And, there will be, along the way, much which you cannot foresee. You will rely upon yourselves and upon each other, upon your own ingenuity, your intelligence, and your initiative. You, too, will change the world.

And, why is that so important?

Let me shift, now, from speaking about you to describing the world in which you currently reside. This world, as you know, is changing rapidly, and the pace is ever swifter. The advent of fast, relatively inexpensive transport in the first half of the last century, and in its second half, the pervasiveness of information technology and connectivity have shrunk the geographic and virtual distances between individuals and nations. National economies and aspirations are knit closely together, and are quickly transforming the world.

The United States, unquestionably, is the preeminent world economic power. However, other nations — China, India, and East Asia — are making huge strides as players on the world stage. This is, of course, a benefit to them and to the world, without question. But, it also tells us that if the United States is to protect and to improve our standard of living, our health and wellbeing, and our national security, we must remain competitive, ourselves. That competitive edge is provided by our national capacity for innovation, because innovation is the driver of economies and of leadership.

But, what is Innovation?

Innovation is the ability to discover and to invent. It is the ability to translate new knowledge into ideas, concepts, processes, and products, and to distribute these advances through the marketplace. When technological breakthroughs occur — the railroad, steamships, electricity, telecommunications, aerospace, computing — they are tried out in new applications, spurring economic growth.

The growing understanding of innovation and its role in a healthy economy are raising the value of diversity to American competitiveness. Innovation derives from the connectivity and overlap among disciplines. Innovation thrives when a great variety of ideas, points of view, and approaches collide, come together, and inform each other.

For 200 years, the United States has been the source of so much that is visionary, transformative, and new in the world. This is no accident. The United States, more than any other nation, has seen the coming together of a great variety of differences. Immigrants — new Americans — came to our shores from all parts of the globe. They brought with them (and, still bring) a unique determination to improve their lives and an eagerness to contribute, to participate. They pooled their talents, differing experiences, unique ideas, languages, perspectives, and cultures. And, out of this great "smelting pot" poured a great array of world-changing discoveries, innovative technologies, life-sustaining initiatives, transformative ideas. It is no accident that the United States has led the world, because the United States has welcomed a diverse population — not always smoothly, to be sure — but welcomed, nevertheless.

Garrett Augustus Morgan (an African-American) made outstanding contributions to public safety, inventing a safety helmet and gas mask used by firefighters, and used to protect soldiers from chlorine gas fumes during World War I. In 1916, Mr. Morgan used his own mask design to rescue men trapped by a gas explosion in a tunnel being constructed under Lake Erie. He also invented the traffic signal to regulate the flow of traffic, as cities became crowded with early automobiles.

Elijah McCoy invented a lubricator for steam engines, which allowed machines to remain in motion while being oiled. The device revolutionized the 19th century industrial machine industry. Inspectors would ask if the equipment contained "the real McCoy" — giving our language a new term for "the real thing."

Granville T. Woods, known as the "Black Edison," was a prolific inventor and pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. He invented a telephone transmitter with more range than that which had been available, to carry voices over longer distances with greater clarity and improved sound, a synchronous multiplex railway telegraph which allowed messages to be sent to and from moving trains, and a safe, consistent dimming system for theaters which lessened the risk of fires and reduced energy consumption by about 40 percent.

More contemporaneously, Dr. Daniel C. Tsui, a Chinese-American, was one of three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998 for "discovery of a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations."

At my university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Wilfredo "Freddie" Colon, a Latino who is assistant professor of chemistry, recently received a Presidential Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation, one of the highest honors a young scientist can receive. Dr. Colon studies the mechanism of protein folding in the biochemical field. The results of his work could provide insight into disease-causing genetic mutations, such as Familial Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (FALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a fatal neurodegenerative disease.

And, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an African-American and astrophysicist, is the Frederick P. Rose Director, of the Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

There are many more examples than I have time to provide here.

But, my point is that the key — all along — has been the great mix of diverse peoples that is the United States. The U.S. population is growing increasingly diverse, and racial and ethnic groups may represent as much as half of the U.S. population at mid-century.

Interestingly enough, corporate America understands this, and has embraced diversity as essential. First and foremost, diversity fosters the creative ideas and innovative discoveries which are necessary to remain competitive. Second, it is good business practice. And third, operating in a global marketplace makes diversity a required asset.

I expect that you have heard of the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, in which the practice of admissions preferences for racial and ethnic groups was challenged.

In a "friend of the court" brief filed in those cases, 65 leading American corporations argued that their continued global competitiveness rests upon a diverse workforce — emerging from a diverse educational environment.

These corporations are names which know well — 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. Together, they have annual revenues of more than a trillion dollars. They conduct business around the world. Boeing sells 70 percent of its commercial airplanes to international customers. Procter & Gamble sold a single branded product to more than 2.5 billion people in 2002, for more than $40 billion in sales. 3M is a $17 billion diversified manufacturing and technology firm with operations in more than 60 countries and customers in nearly 200.

In the brief, the corporations, themselves, argued that today's global marketplace, "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." They concluded that "overall, an educational environment that ensures participation by diverse people, viewpoints, and ideas will help produce the most talented workforce."

Now, there is another U.S. Supreme Court case (whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year) which, also, illustrates the role of the Law and the Courts in creating opportunity and circumstance, and in recognizing the value of diversity. I am speaking of the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, which outlawed the practice of segregation in public schools. My own life reflects the impact of this case, and the movement toward social justice and civil rights which followed its passage.

The Brown ruling was part of a confluence of circumstances, including the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union, and the subsequent race between the U.S. and the Soviets for dominance in arms and in space technology. This prompted the United States to invest heavily in science and engineering education (and research), and this, combined with Brown opened a window of opportunity for me and others like me.

I had attended segregated schools in the District of Columbia where I grew up. With Brown, I was able to attend the local public school, where I was tested and placed in advanced classes, and my education unfolded accordingly. I graduated valedictorian of my senior class.

I was well prepared, then, to step through the window of opportunity which opened as a result of the new emphasis on science, mathematics, and engineering, and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where I studied physics and eventually received my doctorate.

Since that time, I have become a leader in various arenas including industry, government, and higher education. In fact, given the opportunity for leadership, I felt a responsibility to step forward when the opportunity arose because I felt I could make a difference to our nation and to the education of the next generation — you.

The corporate argument in the University of Michigan cases reflects a strong and growing recognition of Americaís need for diversity, and if this is so, then, it follows that the United States has a strong and growing need for diverse leadership.

This conference focuses on leadership — on your role not only as scholars, but, also, as leaders. You, and the cohort of 20,000 scholars which this program will build over the 20 years of its lifetime, represent an investment in leadership. How and where you find your unique leadership role will depend upon many things: your own natures and aspirations; the disciplines and professions you choose to pursue; and, in some measure, luck and circumstance.

But, your very talent and your opportunity — here — place upon you a unique obligation and responsibility to lead. There are numerous ways to lead. First, you must lead by developing your own unique talents to become the very best that you can be. You must lead by sharing your talents and your interests, your energy and your ideas, and by contributing to the innovations we need in whatever discipline you settle upon. You must lead by seizing upon opportunity when it presents itself. You must lead by example for those who are coming up behind you. You must lead by reaching back and helping others. That is a responsibility you have.

Responsibility is why we are here together in this room this evening. You are here because someone took responsibility for you — someone raised you, nurtured you, taught you, mentored you, pointed the way, gave you help, and scholarships, and opportunities. There is no question that you earned them — that you are worth it. You have done us all proud.

But, the responsibility shown to you is a kind of currency, and, it is important that you not shortchange those who gave you this gift. And, that means taking responsibility for yourselves, taking yourselves just as far as you can go. That may mean many things, but for the undergraduates in the room, I believe that means going for the gold — achieving a graduate degree.

Investing the currency of responsibility also means investing in others. It means taking responsibility for those who come after you, for the generation which follows. Nor are you giving to individuals, alone. Leadership means your community, your nation, and, yes, your world.

Before I close, this evening, I would like to tell you a story about a man I knew whose life holds some important lessons for all of us, and especially for those who would be leaders.

I expect you will remember how shocked the nation was, on February 1, 2003, when we lost the space shuttle Columbia, which broke up in the clear blue skies over north central Texas. Seven astronauts died — six Americans and a former Israeli Air Force combat pilot, who was his nation's first astronaut.

You may not remember the loss in 1986 of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after take-off in January of 1986. The seven Challenger astronauts were the first space crew which reflected all of America — diverse in gender, race, religion, and in aspiration.

Astronaut Dr. Ronald Ervin McNair, a friend of mine, was a member of that crew.

I came to know Ron while I was working on my Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in 1970. During the spring semester that year, he came to M.I.T. on a program to introduce HBCU students to graduate school opportunities there. 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 better. At the time, I had an apartment off campus, and a group of African-American 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.

Ron was 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 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.

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, California. 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, but almost immediately, he faced another setback — he was seriously injured in a car accident, and was warned that he might miss the start of NASA training. Again, typical of his personal ethic of determination, perseverance, and achievement, Ron worked to recover fully, and began training on time.

Ultimately, astronaut Ronald Ervin McNair, Ph.D., 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. 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, and its crew of seven, was lost.

I was at Bells Labs, at the time, 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. 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 a physicist, a husband, an astronaut, a father, a pioneer, a trailblazer.

Ron's Ph.D. in physics led him in unexpected directions and into unknown territory. I spoke with Ron a few weeks before he took that second Challenger flight. He expected that to be his last shuttle flight, and was talking of becoming a professor. No doubt he would have, had he not been on the Challenger that fateful day. Had he become a professor, he would have come full circle — beginning in academia, working in industry, after his Ph.D. — and finally for the government as an astronaut. Instead of becoming a professor, he became a national icon because he lost his life doing what he loved — stretching the edge of the envelope.

The meaning, for me, of this tragedy, rests in the lessons we can draw from Ron's life — a life which offers us a double metaphor for inspiration. His accomplishments, and especially his personal ethic, propelled him to the highest achievements — to the stars, and beyond.

For one, Ron felt that being in space, and seeing Earth from a great altitude, is 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.

The second lesson of Ron's life is that he believed that pushing at the edge of the envelope — 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.

I believe that the metaphor of Ron's life and the lessons which it teaches us are worth taking to heart. The determination which he demonstrated is what it takes to achieve — whatever the goal. This determination — this refusal to be deterred — which Ron modeled for us is what we need to be reminded of — often — as we work to see the value of diversity unfold in all of its strength.

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

Ron McNair had all of the characteristics which I and the Gates Millennium Scholars program see in you — and this is my essential message. 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. Use that for all it is worth. Invest your currency well. And, give it back — with interest — in the leadership which you command as a diverse community of scholars.

America needs you, and everything you have to give.


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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