John Brooks Slaughter: Courageous Advocate for Diversity in STEM

From humble beginnings to trailblazer for inclusion

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UPDATE 11 DECEMBER 2023John Brooks Slaughter, an engineer and educator highly regarded for his tireless efforts to open doors to underrepresented minorities and women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, died on 6 December at age 89. Slaughter is perhaps best remembered as the first African American director of the U.S. National Science Foundation. He was appointed head of the agency by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

“It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of John Brooks Slaughter,” said Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, in a post on LinkedIn. “A national icon in engineering, John graced us with his many years of affiliation with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Rossier School of Education. He left an extraordinary legacy of excellence inspiring generations in so many places.”

Slaughter’s profound impact at USC and elsewhere was acknowledged in September 2023 when the engineering school’s Center for Engineering Diversity—for which he had been a principal progenitor—was renamed the John Brooks Slaughter Center for Engineering Diversity. —IEEE Spectrum

Our original profile of Slaughter follows below.


If the phrase “lift as we climb” were a person, chances are good he would be John Brooks Slaughter.

For decades, Slaughter has been tireless in his efforts to open doors to underrepresented minorities and women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Despite humble beginnings that did not suggest the direction his life would eventually take, the IEEE Life Fellow has broken barriers and been recognized for his leadership in industry, academia, and government.

Slaughter, probably best remembered as the first African American director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, was awarded the IEEE Founders Medal in 2022 in recognition of his “leadership and administration significantly advancing inclusion and racial diversity in the engineering profession across government, academic, and nonprofit organizations.”

His commitment to the cause of equity and inclusion is so strong that he risked his career to advocate for those attempting to follow in his footsteps.

Why he resigned as NSF director

On 23 February 1982, Slaughter was in the throes of a crisis of conscience. He had been appointed NSF director in September 1980, during the waning days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The president, an engineer by training, had enthusiastically supported Slaughter’s efforts to bolster funding for science education as well as his desire to make the foundation’s support for academia more inclusive. Under Slaughter’s leadership, the NSF had been a strong supporter of science programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Now Slaughter was facing a shift in political winds that threatened that support.

That day in February, he was scheduled to testify at an appropriations hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives’ science subcommittee on research and technology. Although he was expected to declare publicly that he supported the new, Republican administration’s plan to cut the NSF’s budget for science education, he says, “I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to do that, knowing how vitally important the nurturing of new cohorts of scientists and engineers was to the nation’s progress.” He also understood the need for targeted efforts to bring underrepresented minorities and women into the STEM fields.

John Brooks Slaughter

EMPLOYER

Retired, professor emeritus of education and computer engineering, University of Southern California

MEMBER GRADE

Life Fellow

ALMA MATERS

Kansas State University, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of California, San Diego

“I was the first director of the foundation to visit a number of historically Black colleges and universities,” Slaughter says. “I visited schools in Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia, and I established relationships with some of the scientists at Howard University,” an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

Years earlier, when Slaughter was associate director at the NSF, he noticed that HBCUs and less-prestigious predominantly white institutions did not receive the same consideration of their grant applications for funding new facilities and equipment that some of the nation’s most prestigious schools enjoyed, such as Harvard, Stanford, and CalTech. When he became director, he set about fixing that.

“I made every effort to make them realize that they could be successful in competing for grants at the NSF,” he says. He adds that he takes great satisfaction in having been the catalyst for a shift in the schools’ thinking.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, however, the new administration saw no use for such efforts, Slaughter says. It set about eliminating all funding for the initiatives, in particular, and funding for science education in general.

Throughout 1981, Slaughter walked a tightrope, taking the expected public stance in support of the Reagan administration’s desire to eradicate funding for science education while keeping up a clandestine effort to thwart the gutting of important initiatives. But he called a halt to his highwire act on that winter day in 1982.

In one of the great unsung acts of courage carried out by a government employee, Slaughter got up early that morning and wrote an alternative version of the testimony that had been vetted by Reagan administration functionaries and submitted to the congressional committee ahead of time.

He fully understood the risk he was taking, he says. There he was, the first Black man to be appointed the nation’s chief science officer, adhering to his integrity instead of bowing to political expediency. That day, in what would prove to be his last hearing before a congressional committee, Slaughter expressed his personal views.

“And, of course,” he recalls, “this led to a considerable amount of backlash from the Reagan administration.”

Having made it abundantly clear that he was not on board with the new administration’s vision for the agency, he says, “I was convinced that I could not continue.”

His potentially career-ending risk was swiftly rewarded. He had just received an invitation from the University of Maryland to consider becoming chancellor of its flagship campus, in College Park. He resigned his NSF directorship and took the Maryland position.

The shift from government to academia allowed him to continue, unfettered, with his mission to pave the way for the next generation of scientists and engineers to achieve what he had in his career—and perhaps more.

Unshakable faith in being gifted and Black

The fuel that powered his personal mission came from a life spent overcoming obstacles. People helped him walk through doors that had been closed to others who looked like him.

Slaughter was born in 1932 to working-class parents in Topeka, Kan. His mother, a high-school graduate, was a homemaker. His father, who had an elementary-school education, worked odd jobs such as custodial work and running a used-furniture business.

“These are the ingredients of a successful person: You must be willing to work hard. You have to be resilient and willing to commit yourself so strongly that regardless of how daunting the challenge, you can overcome it.”

“I was a curious kid,” Slaughter recalls, “and I liked to build things. I made a lot of my own toys and games because we couldn’t really afford much. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a lot of money for things, so I built radios and cameras and various electronic devices. I fell in love with what came to be engineering. That’s why I decided to study engineering in school.”

Asked what gave him the faith in himself that it took to make it through the rigors of engineering school at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, and eventually a doctoral program in engineering science at the University of California, San Diego, he says without hesitation: “I have to give almost all the credit for what I’ve become to my parents. My dad and mother did not necessarily understand what I was doing, but they supported me. They believed in me, and they gave me the confidence to do whatever it is that I felt that I wanted to do. They were really the major factors.”

Slaughter also acknowledges others who helped him along the way:

“I did have supportive teachers throughout my education—elementary school, junior high school [both of which were racially segregated by law], and high school [which was integrated]—who pushed me to achieve, so I had no reason not to feel confident.” (The U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down segregation in education until Slaughter was in college.)

“My second-grade teacher stayed in touch with me well into my adulthood,” he says.

Stumbling blocks in his path eventually became stepping stones. One example that Slaughter cites was the tendency to push Black students to take courses that would set them up to work as tradespeople or factory workers—no matter their academic ability—instead of preparing them for college.

“As I proceeded through my professional career, I came to the conclusion that I really enjoyed working with people more than I enjoyed working with things,” he says. “And that’s how I became more interested in administration.”

A devoted community of advocates

How did he reach that epiphany? Oddly enough, the story starts after he took a vocational course of study in high school that left him without the necessary classes engineering schools looked for.

He spent two years at Washburn University, in Topeka, where he took several liberal arts courses that, he says, had a big impact on his life.

“I think that’s why I became more of the engineering manager/engineering administrator/scientific administrator, and then ultimately a college president,” he says.

He went on to attend Kansas State, graduating in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He then attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree in engineering in 1961.

His first job after completing his undergraduate studies was in San Diego at General Dynamics’ Convair division, which made military aircraft. From there, he moved on to the information systems technology department in the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory, also in San Diego.

At the Navy lab, Slaughter’s supervisor encouraged him to get a doctorate.

“He told me that if I wanted his job, I would have to get a Ph.D., so I began exploring nearby universities,” Slaughter says.

He eventually chose UCSD. At the time, it did not accept part-time students. But, Slaughter says, “there was a professor there that I got to know who advocated for me to get admitted.”

He also was fortunate to have another advocate there, a coworker from Convair who had become a professor.

“He became my advisor, and he was a friend, so that made him a very good connection,” Slaughter says. “With his help, we developed a committee of people who assisted me in my graduate research work.”

Climbing the university administrative ladder

On the day he defended his dissertation and was called “Dr. Slaughter for the first time, he got the job of director at the Navy Electronics Laboratory.

What followed was a string of successes that took him to prestigious administrative posts around the country. He was recruited to become director of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Then, in 1977, barely settled in, he was appointed assistant director in charge of the NSF’s Astronomical, Atmospheric, Earth and Ocean Sciences Division (now called the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences), in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he accepted an appointment as academic vice president and provost of Washington State University. And just when he figured he and his family were done crisscrossing the country, he received another career-changing call. It was President Carter’s administration asking him to become NSF director and return to the nation’s capital.

After six years as chancellor at the University of Maryland, he became president of Occidental College, in Los Angeles. Having transformed the school into one of the nation’s most diverse liberal arts colleges, he moved across town to teach graduate education courses in diversity and leadership at the University of Southern California for a year.

The next opportunity to further his mission came when he was offered the job of president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, in Alexandria, Va.

Slaughter says he is pleased that in his nine years at the helm of NACME, from 2000 to 2009, he was able to focus his efforts on the same initiatives that had occupied his time as NSF director, albeit with a much smaller budget.

By 2010, he was feeling the call to rejoin the classroom, so he returned to USC to teach courses on leadership, diversity, and technological literacy.

Slaughter has been writing his memoirs since he retired in 2022 after a 12-year stint teaching at the Rossier graduate school of education at USC.

Instilling confidence in children to overcome barriers

The self-confidence instilled by his parents shines through in Slaughter’s response to a question about what he believes are must-dos for parents who want their children to replicate his academic and professional success.

“First of all, parents must instill confidence in their children,” he says. “They have to show them that they are there for them. They also have to provide unconditional support that instills in the child a sufficient amount of desire to overcome the barriers that inevitably will be put in front of them.”

He told his two children to be willing to take risks and to be willing to fail, because “that’s how you learn what it is you can actually do,” he says.

“As I look back on my own career, I can see the places where I took risks,” he says. “Some were risks that may not have been the wisest at the time, but fortunately things came out okay.

“I always tell young people these are the ingredients of a successful person: You must be willing to work hard. You have to be resilient and willing to commit yourself so strongly that regardless of how daunting the challenge, you can overcome it.”

Slaughter acknowledges that his accomplishments point to the possibilities for children of color, rather than the probabilities.

“We’re now seeing a backlash to many things that we achieved” [during the Civil Rights Movement], he says. “It’s largely because of the fact that, while we have made considerable progress, at the same time we have caused a significant portion of our society to become defensive. That’s why we see challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as challenges to education that would include [teaching about] the lives and the history of Black people in this country.

“Our society right now, more than ever, needs people who share a common vision and a common sense of the importance of American democracy. That’s what can be achieved in an integrated environment.”

USC recognizes Slaughter’s contributions by renaming diversity center

On 20 September, Slaughter received the latest in a multitude of well-deserved honors that recognize his monumental contributions to the field of engineering education. In a ceremony at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, the school’s Center for Engineering Diversity, founded in 1975, was renamed the John Brooks Slaughter Center for Engineering Diversity. Putting his name on the center makes sense because, for the bulk of the past five decades, Slaughter has been synonymous with diversity and inclusion in engineering.

In an announcement posted on the USC website about the rededication, the university’s president, Carol L. Folt, said, “All his life, our friend John Brooks Slaughter has lived the words: ‘lift as we climb.’ He has spent decades helping others climb to new heights—in engineering, education, public life, and simply as humans. Now we have a center whose name will keep his story front and center.”

Reflecting on the center’s renaming in a separate video interview Folt said, “My hope is that every single time anyone sees his name, it will lift our students’ spirits and teach everyone that they too can be a champion for diversity in all fields.”

“It’s perhaps the greatest honor that I’ve ever received,” Slaughter said in the video. “I just hope that it’s something that will inspire young people for a long time.”

This article appears in the September 2023 print issue as “The Courage of Conviction.”

This article was updated from an earlier version.

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