Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Role Model for Diversity

- By Warren Cohen

John Slaughter has always worked hard to attract more minorities to engineering. Now as president of NACME he's in a position to make a real difference.

In 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 appliances—taking them apart and putting them back together—and 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.”

Today at 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 percent—the 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.

Slaughter 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.”

The challenge, 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.”


Education Route

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.

After four 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.

His biggest 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.

He wasn't 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.”

After six 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.”

Of course, 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.”

Slaughter 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.

Slaughter 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.


Staying in School

Because the 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, however—which include internship opportunities, leadership development, and both need- and merit-based financial awards—boast 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.

Another ongoing 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.”

Slaughter 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.”

From his 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.