By Warren Cohen
Topeka, Kansas, where John Brooks Slaughter grew up, most people
thought that a person who worked as an engineer drove trains for
the Santa Fe Railroad. And so did Slaughter, who, as a young boy
in the 1940s liked to tinker with small appliancestaking
them apart and putting them back togetherand read Popular
Mechanics magazine. All of his neighbors asked him to fix their
radios, which he did in a small shop built for him by his father
in his family's backyard, charging four dollars, plus parts.
The radios were stacked up next to the cameras and bicycles that
he also repaired. Slaughter had no idea how to apply these skills
academically, but decided that he wanted to learn. His high school
teachers, all of whom were white, shunted him into vocational
courses instead of encouraging him to take the math and science
classes. Recalls Slaughter, I was the first black engineer
I ever met.
67, Slaughter is one of the most prominent engineering leaders
in the country. He served as the first African-American director
of the National Science Foundation, and later became chancellor
of the University of Maryland and then president of Occidental
College. He serves as a director on a number of corporate boards
including IBM and Northrop Grumman. Last year, he became president
of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering,
an organization whose mission is to attract more minorities to
engineering. Although no longer working directly for the government,
the academy, or corporate America, Slaughter says the experience
he gained at those places has proved invaluable at NACME. And
after all these years, he has finally found his true calling.
I find the thing I enjoy most is working with young people
and helping them get an education, says the soft-spoken
executive from his 22nd-floor office in midtown Manhattan.
In some ways,
bringing more minorities into the field is like trying to solve
an extremely perplexing engineering problem. In 1974, the year
that NACME was founded, Slaughter worked on one of the group's
first committees. The group's goal at that time was to increase
the proportion of African-Americans getting engineering degrees
to seven percent, and ultimately to 13 percentthe same percentage
of African-Americans in the United States. But despite all of
NACME's efforts in the past 27 years, including providing
scholarships to more than 10 percent of all minority engineering
graduates, the proportion of engineering degrees going to African-Americans
has only reached a little over 5 percent. At the same time, the
percentage of college graduates that are African-American increased
from 5.5 to 16.5 percent.
admits to being frustrated by this lack of progress but hopes
that new initiatives under his leadership will get the numbers
moving upward again. Minorities need to know that engineering
is a growing field with unlimited opportunities. Minorities are
a great untapped labor source, he says. If the current disparity
persists between the number of people entering the field and the
increasing need for scientists, the country is in danger of running
short of engineers. Our nation has a history of ignoring
the contributions of women and people of color in science and
engineering. Engineering has largely been considered the province
of white males, and young people sense this, he says. If
America is going to be successful in the global economy, we have
to utilize all of our resources, and we can't do that by
continuing to exclude part of our population.
of course, is to find solutions that marshal the resources from
all of Slaughter's varied worlds. There may be no better
model for budding minority engineers than the career of Slaughter
himself, who managed to overcome embedded racism and passive discrimination
in his life and in his work. Many of his peers are already betting
on Slaughter. I can't imagine a more ideal combination
than John and NACME, says William Wulf, president of the
National Academy of Engineering. He's such a great
leader and his low-key way is amazing to watch.
By the time
Slaughter reached college, he knew that he wanted to pursue engineering.
But because Slaughter's teachers had encouraged him to take
a vocational path in high school, he was unprepared for the rigorous
four-year engineering curriculum at Kansas State University in
which he enrolled in 1951. He spent two years at Washburn University
in Topeka to make up for some of the courses he should have taken
in high school. After finally graduating from Kansas State in
1956 with a degree in electrical engineering, he moved to San
Diego to work in the field of missile systems at General Dynamics,
but soon found life in the corporate world stifling. I was
one of thousands of young people and I wasn't receiving very
much guidance and support, he remembers. Slaughter decided
that large bureaucracies weren't for him.
and a half years, he took a civilian job with the Navy, where
he performed some of the early work on digital control systems.
This work ultimately led to his election to membership in the
National Academy of Engineering. During this time, he received
his master's in engineering at UCLA and then his doctorate
in engineering science at the University of California at San
Diego. Four years after receiving his doctorate, he became the
director of the applied physics lab at the University of Washington,
but in 1997, only two years into it, President Jimmy Carter appointed
him assistant director for astronomical, atmospheric, earth, and
ocean sciences at the National Science Foundation. Later after
a brief return to academia, he served as director of the NSF under
Carter and President Ronald Reagan.
challenge at NSF was restoring the science education budget that
suffered deep cuts under Reagan. The prevailing sentiment in Washington
was that NSF should be focusing on national science research.
Some of the department's traditional science education programs
were slated to be abolished and cuts were also to be made in the
Department of Education. Slaughter was horrified and helped put
together a bipartisan coalition in Congress for restoring the
funds for science education. That's the thing I'm
most proud of, he says.
enthralled by Washington's hardball politics. Slaughter was
beginning to realize that what he really liked was working in
a university setting. In 1982, he became chancellor at the University
of Maryland, a school that didn't admit African-Americans
when he graduated from high school 30 years earlier. I felt
my real strength was helping people get the resources they needed
and serving as their cheerleader, he says. I always
feel something wonderful being on a college campus.
years, he was named president of Occidental College, a small liberal
arts school in Los Angeles. Although the school was located in
a city heavily populated with Latinos and African-Americans, Occidental
was nearly all white. But Slaughter helped the college define
and pursue a mission of creating a diverse educational community.
During his tenure, the number of African-American, Latino, and
Asian students increased from 22 percent to 45 percent, and more
than half of the new faculty hired were women or other minorities.
We needed to draw a significant number of students from
the community of which we were a part, says Slaughter. We
became very aggressive in our recruiting, going to high schools
with large minority populations. Faculty recruitment was
also key. We were flying in the face of the commonly held
position that you couldn't find minority faculty of quality,
he says. But no one will argue that the faculty is not a
lot better today.
there were a few people on campus, and members of the board of
trustees, who feared that the college's standards might be
weakened by his recruiting efforts. There were even some on the
board of directors who initially resisted the changes. But there
was no erosion in standards and the school's national rankings
improved. The reputation of the faculty grew, and students began
winning Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman scholarships on a regular
basis. Slaughter is credited with getting the college through
a tricky transition. People would complain that we were
harming the institution and he would patiently explain that training
future leaders was consistent with the values of the institution,
says David Axeen, Occidental's dean of the college and vice
president for academic affairs. Those conversations weren't
always easy and sometimes people said hurtful things to him. But
he's a patient person, very committed, and able to focus
on what's important.
says that the key factor in improving Occidental was convincing
minority students and faculty that the college was serious about
making the place more diverse. Of the students he brought in,
some have ended up being the school's biggest recruiters
as well as providing financial support for other minority students
that come from impoverished backgrounds. Slaughter also made sure
that minority contributions were reflected in the core curriculum.
Slaughter refused to set up separate African-American or Latino
studies programs. I encouraged the faculty to build stronger
cultural studies programs that incorporated those disciplines
as central themes, he says. Historically, professors
in some of those departments have not been accorded the same level
of respect for their research as other members of the faculty
and I wanted to avoid that.
At the same
time, Slaughter doesn't want to be defined by race. When
the Los Angeles Times announced his retirement from Occidental
in 1998, they described him as one of the most prominent
African-American leaders in higher education. Slaughter
called the newspaper to complain, saying that no white college
president has ever been defined by his or her race. I would
hope that my contributions and performance would determine how
I am viewed, he says. This practice of pigeonholing
people has got to stop. Besides, it was unnecessary since my picture
was in the paper as well.
Now as head
of NACME with its $11 million budget, he can put some of the ideas
that worked at Occidental into play on a larger field. Historically,
NACME has recruited bright African-American, Latino, and American
Indian students and awarded them scholarships that would allow
them to pursue engineering. That has certainly helped some students,
but as Slaughter admits, It's not going to change the
numbers significantly. He envisions a more holistic approach,
which includes not only reaching out to college bound seniors
but middle-school children and engineers in the workforce as well.
At the elementary
and secondary school levels, there's a huge disparity in
resources between predominately white neighborhoods and mostly
minority areas. Many minority students don't even think about
a college education because they believe it's beyond their
reach financially. And if the education they get in K-12 isn't
good, particularly in science and math, pursuing an engineering
degree is all the more difficult. NACME conducted a survey
in which we found that more minority youngsters want to study
math than their white counterparts but they are more likely to
be in an environment with unqualified math and science teachers.
And the courses they need aren't always available,
he says. Slaughter says these kind of environments breed low expectations,
somewhat like his own experience. I still talk to kids who
say they have been discouraged by their teachers or counselors
from taking courses in math in science, he says.
will continue to promote NACME's Math is Power
initiative to schools nationwide. This is a program in which teachers
are given funds to obtain training in math so that they can do
a better job of preparing students. Another purpose of the program
is to make high school guidance counselors and parents more aware
of engineering as a potential career. NACME has created a Web
site through this initiative that challenges children with math
games and other learning activities. The program has received
an estimated $130 million in donated advertising space since it
began in 1995.
curriculum is so rigorous and the costs so high, only 68 percent
of all engineering students graduate within five years. And for
minorities, the rate is just 37 percent. NACME's comprehensive
scholarship programs, howeverwhich include internship opportunities,
leadership development, and both need- and merit-based financial
awardsboast an 80 percent rate. Approximately 200 of NACME's
current 700 students participate in the group's innovative
Engineering Vanguard Program. Vanguard, which currently operates
at nine universities, identifies at-risk students and places them
in study groups with other minority and non-minority students,
building an academic community that has proven to
be the key to success in engineering. It's a program that
Slaughter plans on developing into a national model. Through
personal attention and individualized assistance, these students
are successful, says Slaughter.
push involves the recruitment and training of more minority engineering
faculty members. NACME alumni currently serve on the faculty of
institutions such as Vanderbilt, Florida A&M, New Mexico State
University, Howard University, Morgan State University, and the
universities of Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Washington.
Slaughter says that role models are crucial for minority students.
The students can see that someone like themselves made it through
the program. These faculty members understand that they may have
to go the extra mile to help minority students. Many members
of the science and engineering faculty are not nearly as sensitive
to the problem as they should be, Slaughter says. Students
need role models who are really concerned about assisting them.
also wants to use NACME's resources to make the workplace
more diverse. He envisions NACME adding a training arm to help
industries and companies train supervisory personnel to create
opportunities for new minority engineers. Slaughter says that
many minorities drop out of engineering because the environment
is alienating and hostile. Many corporations are not prepared
to work effectively with heterogeneous populations at the professional
level, he says. NACME could help private industry
understand how to help make minority students successful.
pulpit at NACME, Slaughter also hopes to encourage changes in
engineering instruction from its focus on training to a broader
scope. He recalls that when he took extra classes prior to entering
engineering in college, he was exposed to history and literature,
subjects he might not have encountered had he immediately taken
the science route. I believe it is essential to have an
appreciation for ethics, values, and principles of living found
in a liberal arts education, he says. It's essential
to have both Giovanni and geometry, Carlisle and chemistry, Isaiah
and isotopes because you get more well-rounded people. Of
course, with engineering curricula already stuffed to the gills,
adding other requirements might lengthen the time it takes to
graduate. But for someone who loves the learning process as much
as John Slaughter, it's easy to see how he would consider
it time well spent.
Warren Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York City.