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The 2004 Bueche Award was presented to John Brooks Slaughter, president and CEO, National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, “for support of engineering research and education within the National Science Foundation, many contributions to the development of science and technology policy, and lifelong dedication to increasing diversity in the disciplines of science and engineering.” These remarks were delivered on October 3, 2004, during the NAE Annual Meeting.
I wish to express my appreciation to Dean Terry King and his associates from the College of Engineering at my alma mater, Kansas State University. Their persistence and tenacity made this award to me possible. I also want to thank everyone who wrote letters and supported my candidacy so earnestly. Most of all I want to thank my wife, Bernice, and my children, John Jr. and Jacqueline, whose sacrifices, support, and love have sustained me throughout my professional career. Bernice has been my cornerstone, my fountain of inspiration, and my unending source of strength; I dedicate this award to her.
I had the privilege of getting to know Art Bueche during the last few years of his life. He was extremely helpful and supportive when I took on the responsibilities of the National Science Foundation, and he was a wise and generous mentor. I cannot begin to express my humility as I receive this award recognizing his contributions as a statesman and an advocate for science and technology.
It is also with a sense of humility that I join the ranks of distinguished engineers and public servants who received the Arthur M. Bueche Award in the past. I am truly honored to have my name added to the list of luminaries from our profession who preceded me. Although I hardly deserve to be in their company, I am grateful to the National Academy of Engineering for this honor.
I am not joking when I say I was the first black engineer I ever met. African Americans and Latinos in Topeka, Kansas in the 1940s and 1950s were hardly encouraged to achieve in science or engineering. Nor was Topeka a city with much that could be characterized as scientific or technological, with the exceptions of Menninger’s for the former and the Santa Fe Railroad for the latter. Children in Topeka were unlikely to have neighbors or uncles who were scientists or engineers to inspire them to take courses in math and science or introduce them to the mysteries of nature and machines. Consequently, it was uncommon for youngsters, especially minority youngsters, to want to become engineers. My hardworking, loving parents kindled and kept alive my spark of interest in engineering. They kept it from being snuffed out by the indifference and low expectations of a public school system whose leaders were consumed with defending at all costs the tradition of segregated schools. This year, we have been reminded of the demise of legally-sanctioned segregated schools as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka.
My eyes were opened to the opportunities and excitement of engineering at Kansas State University. In 1956, I was the only African American graduate in engineering at the university. On a recent visit to the campus, I was pleasantly surprised to meet a large group of African American and Latino engineering students who are enjoying their experiences, are supported and encouraged by a dedicated faculty and staff, and are succeeding. Although much remains to be done to eliminate disparities in access and opportunities, the same thing is happening on many campuses across the country.
My organization, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), is working to increase the number of educational institutions committed to improving their capacity to identify, enroll, educate, retain, and graduate minority engineering students. In 2003, NACME joined with the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, MIT, Stanford, IBM, and DuPont in filing an amicus brief in the University of Michigan affirmative-action case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The statement expressed our conviction that “access to the educational opportunities available in our nation’s selective universities is essential if underrepresented minorities are to have an opportunity to contribute to strengthening America’s scientific and technological capabilities.” The statement went on to say, “We can no longer afford the potential loss of creativity, productivity, and talent that results from policies and practices that inhibit the participation of any of our country’s most valuable resource—our youth.”
Although I am encouraged by the number of students in engineering from historically underrepresented minorities, I remain discouraged by the small number of minority faculty members in science and engineering. The argument often advanced by colleges and universities that there aren’t enough minority Ph.D.s in science and engineering in the pipeline is not as tenable as it was a few years ago. Unfortunately, only about 1 percent of engineering faculty nationwide are African American or Latino, a situation that has not improved in the past 20 years, even though the number of black and brown Ph.D.s in science and engineering increases every year and more and more of them are available and fully prepared for faculty appointments.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful—no, I am confident—that the American higher education community will accelerate its efforts to create a more inclusive and pluralistic environment. Then, and only then, can it assist our nation to live up to its promise and ascend to a higher and nobler plateau, a place where both excellence and equity reside.