Remembering John Brooks Slaughter, Visionary Engineer and Champion of Diversity in Engineering

Mon, February 26, 2024

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This feature appears in the spring issue of The Bridge, which will be released in March. For additional information and resources on the life and legacy of John Brooks Slaughter, please click on the links under Resources at the bottom of this page.

John Brooks Slaughter, a visionary engineer who established himself as a foremost champion of diversity in engineering and engineering education, passed away on December 6, 2023, at the age of 89. He was elected to the NAE in 1982 for “contributions to the design of digital, sampled-data control systems, and leadership in shaping national engineering science policy and in fostering increased participation of minorities in engineering.” He was the third Black person to become a member of the NAE.

Slaughter was born on March 16, 1934, in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up during racial segregation. In an interview with NAE President John Anderson, one of Slaughter’s last recorded interviews, he recalled, “We had to adjust our lives to the fact that there were things we were not going to be able to do.” At the same time that racial segregation constrained the possibilities for Slaughter and his family, he said that it also “provided us an opportunity to develop some resolve that was necessary to be able to survive and be productive in that environment.”

He had a front-row seat to the events surrounding the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine. His cousin, Lucinda Todd, was among the original petitioners in the class action suit seeking to bring about integration in Topeka’s elementary schools.

Slaughter began his formal education at Washburn University, and then he transferred to Kansas State, becoming the school’s first Black engineering student. “I had no Black classmates. I was the only African American in my graduating class,” he remembered. He earned a BS in electrical engineering from Kansas State, an MS in engineering from UCLA, and a PhD in engineering science from UC San Diego.

John Brooks Slaughter_credit_Courtesy of USC Rossier School of Education.pngSlaughter was a trailblazer throughout a distinguished, six-decade career that traversed government, nonprofits, and academia. He became the first Black chancellor of the University of Maryland and the first Black president of Occidental College. A cornerstone of his leadership in higher education was his belief in the importance of undergraduate education. Reflecting on why he accepted the position of president of Occidental College, an undergraduate institution, he said, “I believed that undergraduate education was critical. Too many large universities spent more focus on research and graduate education than they did on preparing undergraduates.” He also became the first Black director of the National Science Foundation, where he continued to advocate for the inclusion of women and minorities in science and engineering, and he served as president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, where he worked toward increasing the number of engineers of color.

Slaughter was never just focused on getting his own foot in the door. “John also used his professional success to further the cause of minorities in engineering,” said Percy Pierre, Glenn L. Martin Endowed Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, former president of Prairie View A&M University, and former acting secretary of the United States Army. Slaughter made it his life’s work to open the door for other Black engineers and engineers of color. “As a Black man born in segregated America, it was inevitable that, once having attained his education in engineering, against the odds, during America’s civil rights decades, almost every position he took was assumed as ‘the first.’ But throughout his career, he worked tirelessly to make sure he would not be ‘the last,’ ‘the only,’ or ‘one of a few,’” said Shirley Malcom, senior advisor and director of SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Slaughter was unwavering in his commitment to the social good, and he saw engineering as responsible for ensuring the welfare of humanity. As such, he was steadfast in calling on the engineering profession to live up to its full potential. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his Special Lecture on Racial Justice and Equity, which he gave at the 2020 NAE Annual Meeting amid the COVID-19 pandemic and weeks after the summer protests that took place across the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd. “I believe that the events of the past few months, where white supremacy and anti-Blackness have been on display in ways not seen heretofore in the 21st century, have opened a window of opportunity that we cannot afford to allow to close without making major strides in guiding the discipline of engineering toward becoming a more diverse, pluralistic, and inclusive profession,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter stressed that diversity is crucial to the health of the economy, productivity, and the welfare of the United States’ citizens. He contended that “diversity drives innovation,” a fact that he pointed out the field of engineering has been slow to fully grasp. But Slaughter also reminded the audience that “mere diversity is not enough. While diversity is necessary it is not sufficient to ensure that an institution practices equity and inclusion […] We must commit ourselves to make engineering a professional discipline that is an example of equity and inclusion.” For Slaughter, the ability of the United States to flourish hinged on removing systemic racial barriers. “If we were to eliminate the systemic racial impediments that crush the aspirations and potentialities of so many Black Americans our nation would not only be more just and equitable, but it would also have an even greater capacity for innovation and productivity. We must let opportunity meet talent.”

Slaughter is remembered by friends and colleagues as a kind, humble advocate of all that was right and good. He was gracious and attentive to everyone who crossed his path. “I have always appreciated his warmth and his inquisitiveness,” recalled Warren “Pete” Miller, Distinguished Scholar Professor of Practice, Nuclear Engineering, at Texas A&M University. “We’ll miss his commitment and optimism,” said Shirley Malcom.

The Viterbi School of Engineering at USC, where Slaughter taught as a professor of education and engineering from 2010–2022, honored Slaughter by renaming the Center for Diversity the John Brooks Slaughter Center for Engineering Diversity. He is survived by his wife, Bernice Slaughter, his son, John II, and his daughter, Jacqueline.