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Credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago
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Interview of Walter Massey by David Zierler on July 28, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Walter Massey, chairman of the board of the Giant Magellan Telescope organization. Massey describes his childhood in segregated Mississippi and his academic achievements that led to his admission to Morehouse College from the 10th grade. He describes his developing interest in physics during a formative summer program at Columbia, which convinced him that he could compete at high levels. Massey describes his graduate work at Washington University and how he came to be a student of Eugene Feenberg, who was working on correlated basis functions to many-body physics problems. He discusses his postdoctoral work at Argonne Laboratory and his interest in becoming involved in civil rights issues in the late 1960s, when he became a professor at the University of Illinois. Massey describes his subsequent tenure at Brown, where he focused on mixtures of helium-3 and helium 4 and on the problem of sound dispersion. He discusses the impact of an ACE fellowship which led to his work in the chancellor’s office at UC Santa Cruz, which in turn changed the course of his career trajectory toward policy. Massey describes his tenure at the University of Chicago, his directorship at Argonne, and how he worked through the existential challenge of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island disaster. He explains his decision to accept an offer to head the National Science Foundation and how he grappled with creating a national science policy in a post-Cold War world. He discusses his work in support of the LIGO project and he explains his decision to lead Morehouse College after a brief appointment with the University of California. Massey reflects on his accomplishment at Morehouse, and he describes the ways the college had changed since his time there as a student. At the end of the interview, Massey discusses his work on the board of Bank of America and for the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and he discusses some of the ongoing challenges and areas of improvement to pursue in promoting diversity in the sciences.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 5th, 2020. It is my great pleasure and honor to be here with Doctor Walter E. Massey. Walter, thank you so much for joining me today.
Glad to be here.
All right, so to start, I know you've had many titles and affiliations over the years, but just to keep it simple, perhaps you could tell me your current title and affiliation?
Well, I'm retired primarily. But I am chairman of the board of the Giant Magellan Telescope organization, and I represent the University of Chicago on the board as part of our consortium. And also I'm senior advisor to the president of the University of Chicago.
Very good. All right, Walter, well let's take it right back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they're from.
My parents are deceased. They're both from Mississippi. I was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1938. My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father, who was really my-- he's not my biological father, but he married my mother when I was about four, and adopted me. And he worked in a plant, a chemical plant, Hercules Power Company, in Hattiesburg.
Where did your parents meet?
I don't know. That's interesting.
What level of education did your parents attain?
My mother went to college and dropped out in her sophomore-- no, junior year, because she was pregnant with me by my biological father. And she went back, and you could teach in Mississippi in those days, you could get a certificate without having actually finished college. Because when I went off to college, she started taking courses on the weekends at Jackson State University. And she finally received her bachelor's the same year I did, 1958. My father did not-- my father who raised me, Mr. Massey, did not go to college at all.
Did you have a sense that with more opportunity, he would have pursued higher education?
I don't know. In those days, he went to the Army, he came back, he had a very good job. One of the best jobs that an African American could have in Hattiesburg. So I just don't think that's something he thought about. And it wasn't necessary then for him to provide, you know, live a decent life, economically.
Walter, tell me a little bit about the schools that you went to in Hattiesburg.
I started out, the schools were all segregated then, and I started out going to an elementary school in the community, that's the same school my mother taught at, then I went to a school called Eureka School, which was first grade through 12th grade, and it was quite, I learned later, didn't know then. It was quite an exceptional school. It was the first real maybe stone or concrete, I mean, really, first really nice school in the state of Mississippi for colored, as we were called then. So I went to Eureka, which actually now, getting ahead, has been restored as a museum in Hattiesburg to celebrate the history of high school education in Hattiesburg. So I went to Eureka for a couple of years during the fourth, fifth grade, then they built a new school nearer where I lived called Royal Street High, but it started at the seventh grade, and I went there until the tenth grade, when I went to Morehouse College. I didn't finish high school.
Walter, looking back, in what ways was a segregated education-- in what ways did that provide you with some advantages that you might not have gotten in a mixed school, and in what ways did that provide or limit your educational abilities?
Well, that's hard to answer, of course. But I had a very good education. I don't know if it would have been better if we'd been an integrated school. What I know, the downside of being in a segregated environment, not so much being segregated, but just being treated second-class, is that our textbooks, our materials, our laboratories, were inferior. I learned later. How I would have known then, I had nothing to compare it with. Our teachers, however, remarkably were in many cases better. How could that be? Well, then, under the "separate but equal" policies of Mississippi and some other southern states, African-Americans who wanted to go to graduate school could not go in the state of Mississippi, so they could go to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Mississippi Southern, but the state would give them a stipend to go out of state. So that many went to University of Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Cornell, our high school principal, Mr. Burger, got a Masters at Cornell. In their desire to keep the schools segregated, ironically, the state of Mississippi provided an opportunity for colored teachers to get a better education. So I was very well-prepared on a-- I didn't, again you don't know this then if it's after the fact, but I know when I got to Morehouse and I began to compete with other students, I found that I was pretty well-prepared, except that I had, you know, came from the tenth grade, and so I had not taken a number of courses in different fields.
Walter, in what ways was your educational experience growing up representative of the larger racial politics of the time? In other words, was your entire life segregated? Did you and your family not really interact with white people on a daily basis?
Of course, you had to interact with white people. You worked for them. They were (laughs) they were throughout the city. I think people have a misconception of what growing up in a segregated environment-- it meant that you could not access certain institutions, schools, universities. There were segregated public facilities. Drinking fountains were labeled "white" and "colored." Restrooms and the bus stations were labeled. The waiting rooms were segregated. There was a colored waiting room, a white waiting room. Certain stores, you couldn't shop in or you could only shop in certain areas. You could not go into movies through the front door. You had to go up and outside, fire escape, to sit in the upper balcony. So it's all those things about segregation. But my grandmother worked for whites, of course. My mother did part-time also, even though she taught school, she did sometimes housework for whites. And the housing was somewhat-- it was segregated, but not as much as it is in the north, because blacks and whites, you know, during slavery, of course, blacks lived with the whites who owned them. So living near each other, in the south, was not as unusual as it is in the north, where housing id really segregated. So sure, white people were everywhere.
Walter, what did you learn from your parents or other people that you looked up to in terms of how to navigate this kind of a situation? In terms of, on the one hand, wanting to maintain your dignity as a person, but on the other, not wanting to make too much trouble for yourself?
It was a fine line. And from parents either formally or just informally through the way they behave, you learn how to walk that line. You learned there's certain things you could not do, certain things you should never say to whites, you deferred. But it wasn't as if every day you felt that day your life was threatened or you were (inaudible 10:17). Because even though you were intermingled-- not intermingled. You were around whites in public places. We lived in a segregated community, which was our own community. So most of the time, you were with friends and family who were all black, all colored then. The most forbidden thing was to have any kind of interaction with white girls or white women. Anything that could be misinterpreted in terms of your dealings with them. Don't argue back to whites. But I had a very happy childhood in spite of that. I've just written my memoir, in fact. Part of it. And I reflect on that. And I think it was because I had a pretty close family. My grandmother, my cousins, aunts and uncles. We all lived in the same community. We were considered, I guess, we could be considered middle class, because my mother was a school teacher, which was respected. And my father, as I said, had one of the best jobs. He was also a deacon in the local church, sold insurance on weekends. So you learned how to navigate your way through the system.
So it sounds like it was obvious to you that it was an unfair way for society to be set up, but it didn't make you angry?
Oh, you would be angry sometimes, but no, I wasn't in a sort of constant state of anger.
Walter, when did you realize that you had special talents in the math and sciences?
When I got to Morehouse.
And was this because, did you graduate high school early because your abilities had surpassed what your high school was able to do for you?
No. The Ford Foundation had a nationwide program to try to identify students, males mostly I found out later, pupils in high school who might be able to attend college without graduating. And they had about, oh, 20 schools nationwide to which they would give scholarships for these students. And Morehouse College was one of those, for African American students. Morehouse was all an Historically Black institution. And the exam in Mississippi was given in Jackson, Mississippi. And I went along with my mother who drove some of the students from Royal Street High who were identified as being smart enough to possibly pass and get a scholarship. And I just went along for the ride. I wasn't identified as one of those students. And I took the exam, and lo and behold, a couple of months later we got this letter that I had been admitted to Morehouse. So this was not planned at all. And so I left, and I was still 15 that April. And so that August, I went off to Morehouse.
So it sounds like you didn't have time to give much thought to whether you wanted to go to a historically-black college or not?
No. It was tenth grade. I wouldn't have started thinking about college until the next year. And we had talked about it. My mother had gone to college. My aunt had gone, my cousins. But most of them had gone in Mississippi. I knew I didn't want to doi that. I knew I wanted to go to college, I had read about northern schools where blacks were accepted. So I knew I wanted to do that, but if I hadn't gotten a scholarship, I might have wound up going to one of the historically-black schools in Mississippi.
Now, even though you were young, because of your education, did you feel pretty well-prepared compared to your fellow classmates who were two years older?
I was not the only one. This program had gone on at Morehouse for three years, and I was in the last year's cohort. And there were about 15 of us. So it wasn't just me. So I had colleagues and friends who were all kind of in this together. Some had gone out of the eleventh grade, some tenth. And so we had a nice cohort. But I didn't, I was very nervous and very afraid. So when did I think that I was smart? When I arrived at Morehouse after being there for a couple of days and listening to how my fellow freshmen talk about the classes they had taken in high school and what they were going to major in,I was really very afraid that I wouldn't be able to compete. Because I hadn't taken any of these courses. I hadn't heard of some of them before. Calculus, psychology, physics, philosophy. And so I called my mother and told her I wanted to come home. Of course, she didn't let me do that. But all freshmen in those days, you took a placement exam so the college would know which courses you should be required to take in your freshman year. And they-- It was about 100, 110 of us in the freshman class. And they posted the results of the test. Now, nobody would do that to now, but they posted the results on the front door of the freshman dorm, Graves Hall. By name and order, from one to 110 or so. If you can imagine how embarrassing it would be if you were 110. But they went through the list, and there I was number five. I could not believe it. I was totally-- I just could not believe it. And that's when I first thought that, well, maybe I'm smart. You know, because it was-- there was, this is not a fake. Everybody took the same exam. And that's when I got confidence that I had some abilities, even though, as I've said to students over the years I found that I was ignorant but I was not dumb. I was ignorant just because I hadn't taken things
For this exam, it was for overall aptitude or specifically in math and science?
No it was in all subjects., I was good. I was pretty good at most things. Most classes. But I was more interested in math and science, but I did well in everything.
How did you use this exam to help you decide what course of study you wanted to focus on?
Well, I said, I'm going to-- I liked math. I knew that even in high school. I liked numbers. So I started taking math courses, and then going into my sophomore year, I said I'm going to take the hardest courses here. Just to see what I can do. Actually to try to show people I was smart. Even in Atlanta, Georgia—and most of our students were from the south, but not all. There were some Detroit, Chicago, big cities. New York. And a couple had gone to prep schools. William Churchill had gone to Andover. So there was a mix. I was teased because I was from Mississippi, even in the south. (laughs) Even if you were from Alabama, Arkansas, you were known to be better off than if you were from Mississippi. I said I would show them. And they said, well, nobody majors in physics. Nobody. That's not done. So I said to muself I'm going to take this physics course. (laughs) And I did and I liked it.
That was it.
And I liked it, and it wasn't quite it, but I did, and I did not do well the first semester, and this happened two or three times to me. Because simply, I had never had trigonometry. And so when they got to vectors, you know, which was trigonometry, I had to learn trigonometry at the same time I was learning physics. I mean, taking the physics course. And my professor was really so helpful. A white professor. Doctor (Sabinus Hobart Christiansen 20:23). I have a lot of stories about Chris. And so he encouraged me to come back my junior year and take advanced courses. And I did that. I majored in physics. But in my English class, same thing. My freshman English class, I didn't know what a dangling participle was. Or agerund. I just, I didn't know things. And so this is why Morehouse was so good. The teachers were so understanding and supportive. Professor Chandler gave me a high school English book and he would tutor me after class and give me things to do while I was also studying the college English books. So I had to sort of catch up as I was doing things. So one of the life-long lessons of that, is I learned very early how to learn things. How to learn on my, not so much on my own, but I learned how to learn, and I lost fear of tackling new things because I had experienced the fact that I could learn new things if I spent enough time in pursuing, trying to master them. I learned how to learn.
When did you realize, since you were strong across the board, that you wanted to focus on physics?
By my sophomore year.
Walter, did you have any internships in the summer that were relevant for your science education?
Did you realize toward the end of your undergraduate that you would want to go on and pursue a graduate degree in physics?
No. In fact, I had taken a job as a mathematician. I was a double major, math and physics. I had taken a job as mathematician a civil service job, at White Sands Missile Testing Facility in White Sands, New Mexico. And that's what I was going to do, but the president of the college and Chris, who was head of the physics department, asked would I stay on in Atlanta another year and teach the freshman physics course, because there were only two professors, faculty members, in physics. Chris and Charlie Cook. Well, Charlie Cook didn't have his PhD and they, Dr. Mays, who was the president of the school, Benjamin Mays, wanted him to go and get his PhD. So they wanted him to go back to school that year and work on his PhD, and asked would I stay and teach the course. And if I did, the school would pay for me to go to Columbia... Or maybe it was anywhere. But somehow it worked out that Columbia was the place. To go to Columbia to take some graduate courses in physics that summer. So I'd be better prepared. And I thought that was a good deal.
I got to go to New York. I had never been to New York. And I would be working and teaching, and I thought I'd get another job. And I went to Columbia, and this was another encounter that made me realize that Chris had prepared me very well. And that I was capable of competing at a different level. The first day of the nuclear physics course at Columbia, about 20 of us in the class. And students were from everywhere. I was the only African American. Students not only from Columbia, they were from other major universities around the country, had come to take this summer program in physics. And professor said, "Since we're all from different places," he wanted to get some idea of what we knew. What we had studied. And so he was going to ask us, do you know this, have you had this, and if you have, raise your hand. Who knows abuts Hamiltonians? Who knows the nuclear shell theory? And different people were raising their hands on different things, but it dawned on me and him I was the only one raising my hand to every question. So, and I think, I look back on it, and I imagined this poor guy probably thought I was so dumb I didn't know what the questions meant. (both laugh)
But really what you were saying is, your education at Morehouse was essentially as strong as anyone's education.
It was, well stronger, you know why? I was the only physics major. So after, so we had pre-meds who would take the first year course, and a few chemistry majors would take the second year level courses. But in my junior and senior year, basically I had one-on-one tutorials with Chris. I mean, so I had a very good education in physics. My best friend, my freshman roommate, John Hopps, majored in physical chemistry. My senior year we were also roommates. And I convinced John to take the atomic physics course with me just so I'd have some company. But other than that, I had like an Oxford tutorial. Chris, I'll just skip ahead so I won't forget, was a remarkable man. He had four African American students. We were all either one-one with him, or maybe we were sequential, maybe he would skip a year, but over a period of six or seven years, he had four students who went to graduate school and every one of us got a PhD. At that time, he had probably educated more black physics PhDs than any person in the country. Because there weren't that many black PhDs.
What did you-- in what ways did that summer program supercharge your education?
Two ways. I really learned, I took advanced courses and I found I could-- I don't mean to imply these things were easy. I had to work. I studied very hard. But I found that I could do them. I never breezed through things. I'm not a genius. And I've gone to school with people who are. You know, to whom math and physics are almost intuitive. That's not, I'm not implying that. But I did learn that I liked it, and that I could do it if I worked at it. So I learned substance but I also got confidence in myself. So how I wound up in graduate school. That year when I was teaching, it was the year, it'd be 1958. Yeah. 58-59 in the spring. Went to fall of '58, or... had to be fall of '58, or spring of '59, the National Defense Educational Act was passed. Which was, you may recall it-- You don't recall it obviously, but you may have read about it. It was prompted by Sputnik.
And the U.S. really wanted to drastically increase the number of people getting PhDs in the sciences. And out of nowhere, I received this letter from Howard University offering me a full NDEA scholarship to come to Howard. So I took that, accepted that, and I actually went to Howard for my first year of graduate school. And I can tell you now or later, why I didn't stay.
Please. Now would be great.
I mentioned John Hopps. So John, a very close friend, went to-- when I stayed to teach at Morehouse, John went off to MIT graduate school in chemistry.
And John is from Dallas. On his way home from Cambridge to Dallas at Christmas in 1959... Would that be right? Yes. He stopped over in Washington just to visit with me. And he was taking physics courses also. John began to talk about what he was taking, the courses he was taking? The things he was learning. And I compared that to what I was doing at Howard. And I said, "Well, I will never keep up with John if I'm taking these courses and he's already taking those courses." So I said, "You know, I have to go somewhere else." And I can't remember exactly how it happened. Maybe I called Chris... Christiansen, Dr. Christiansen, I call him Chris. Somehow, we chatted. I can't remember what initiated it. And he suggested I apply to some other schools where he thought I might get a good education that he felt would be schools that would not be, well I don't know how I should say this, schools that would be nurturing and supportive of a black student.
But not necessarily being at a historically black college?
No, there were no historically black colleges other than Howard, that had a PhD in physics. And so I applied, I think to, I can't remember the schools, but know I applied to Washington University. And Chris knew people at Washington, and he thought that would be a good place for me. And I got accepted. I got a scholarship, not full, but I then wanted to go. And I went off to Saint Louis. That's how I ended up in Wash U.
Walter, were there other African Americans at the program there?
At Washington U?
Clay Bates-- There had been a woman there, a black woman, the year before I got there, a couple years. And she had left without finishing, and I never learned why. My second year at Washington U, Clay Bates came. And Clay was from New York, he was an electrical engineer. He already had his masters from Harvard in engineering, that year. Had two masters, and Clay came, and we became roommates. The other African American there, who was at Washington U was a person who would wind up being my best friend, Avon Kirkland. Avon had gone to Clark College, which is right across the street from Morehouse. Morehouse, Clark, and Spelman, and Morris Brown, made up what was called the Atlanta University Center. All historical black colleges. Avon was a chemistry major, and he was already at Wash U when I came. He had gone right out of college. We both finished the same year. I had met Avon in Atlanta, but I didn't really know him that well. So he was there getting his PhD in chemistry, and I met him the first day I was there walking across the campus. And we became very, very close friends. And he and I and Clay, actually, wound up sharing an apartment together. Now, Clay Bates went out to work at Varian, then he went to Stanford, became chairman of the department of material sciences. Became a very, very distinguished physicist.
Walter, when did you meet Eugene Feenberg?
My second year in graduate school. When I started out the first year, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And your first year, you sort of get assigned to a research director. And I went to work, I don't know why, it's hard for me to remember his name. I can see his face. But he was an experimentalist, and he did research with bubble chambers. And I went to work for him, and we had to build a bubble chamber. And so what I was doing was welding, soldering, putting together a bubble chamber, and I felt, this is not physics to me. This is not what I look forward to. So I asked around about other possible faculty that I might work with, and for some reason, I don't know if somebody told me or I just went to speak to Doctor Feenberg. And he said, yes, he had some money for a graduate student stipend, and he had a problem that in fact he was looking forward to having a student work on. And he accepted me, thank god. (laughs) And so that's how I got into theoretical physics.
Did you click with Eugene personally right away?
He was-- I don't know, he was not the kind of person-- he was not, what would it be called, the "hail fellow, well met." He was a very quiet guy. We used to joke, his other students, we'd all joke about that when you went in to see him, he'd look at your work, he'd sit there, and we would say, you didn't know if he was through or not because he looked like he was deep in thought and then you might get up to leave, and he would say, "Well, this is interesting." Then you find out the conversation was not over. (laughs) But over the years, we became very close. At one point, I just thought I would never finish. I just had this problem I just couldn't seem to solve. And I went in to see him and told him I just thought I couldn't do this, that I was going to quit. And he sort of stayed his usual quiet self, and he said, "Why would you do that?" And I said, "You know, I've already done the year at Howard. I've been here four years already. Three or four. And I just, maybe I'm not cut out for this, and I just don't seem to be getting anywhere." He said, "Well, you haven't been here longer than most students, and you're doing very well." He said, "I think the progress you're making is excellent. And I just hope you don't do that. I think you can do this and I think you can be a very good physicist." And that saved my life. You know, he could have-- And also this what happens I don't know, maybe still today in some places, where bright students, they don't get that kind of encouragement. In fact, they get discouragement. They get signals that you can't do this, or I'm sure in many cases, some other professor would have just said, "Okay, I understand if it didn't work out." Because they already would have thought because you were black, you couldn't master physics. So we became close after that, and after I finished we stayed in touch over the years. So he was a very decent man, a very good man. And a good physicist. He should have, and this is common knowledge, he should have shared the Nobel Prize with Eugene Wigner for the development of the shell theory of the nucleus. I mean, it was one of those things that's common knowledge in the physics community then.
Right. Politics around the Nobel Prize can get pretty thorny.
Walter, what involvement, if any, did you have in the growing Civil Rights Movement during your time at Wash U?
Not a lot. I didn't go south for, even though I'd gone to Morehouse and many students who had gone to Morehouse were leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, but they were the class of '60, '62. When things really started then, and 1958-9, I was there, things really hadn't begun full-scale. But in Washington-- in Saint Louis, I did become involved in voter turnout kind of campaigns, and worked with groups on the campaign for Bill Clay, who was the first black congressman from Missouri. One of the early black congressmen.
How did you go about developing your dissertation topic?
As I said, Feenberg had, he had a program in which he was trying to apply something called correlated basis functions to many body physics problems. And he had several students, about four or five of us, some were a year or so ahead. And we weren't all in the same class. We were all working on some aspects of trying to use these correlated basis functions to look at many body systems. And the problem that I was working on had to do with trying to understand the properties of liquid helium at temperatures near absolute zero. To calculate the properties, but also in particular, to calculate something called the liquid structure function, that gives information about how the atoms are dispersed in the fluid, and which could be measured by neutron scattering. So you had an experimental test of the theory, if you could calculate this liquid structure function, and also calculate the ground state properties of helium. Chia-Wei Woo, another of his students, was trying to do the similar things with helium-3. So we were doing a boson liquid and a fermion liquid. And our work sort of overlapped. And we worked very closely together, became very good friends. Life-long friends.
After you defended, were you looking for academic positions? Or how did the job at Argonne become available to you?
I was looking-- I just applied. I can't remember if someone recommended it, or.. I applied several places. I don't remember all the places now. I wasn't necessarily looking for academia, but I wanted a job in physics. And I supposed if I'd gotten an offer from a university that matched Argonne's, I might have taken it. I didn't. So I got the job at Argonne, which I thought was very good. Of course it was full time research. I didn't have to teach. I don't mean I didn't want to teach, but it came with a full time research position. Research Associate was the title. Sort of like a postdoc. And it paid well for then. It paid $11,000, it was a lot of money. As much as assistant professors made in institutions. And it was in Chicago. It wasn't IN Chicago, but I could live in Chicago. Which was great for two reasons: I knew Chicago, because we had relatives here, and my brother Al, my younger brother was living in Chicago. And Avon, who I mentioned earlier, who was a chemistry major. Avon was also living here in Chicago. So I had a number of reasons to take the job at Argonne.
Had you ever been to a national lab previously, or did you have a sense of what kind of research had went on there?
No, I didn't. No to both questions.
So what were your initial impressions when you arrived at Argonne?
I was just so impressed. First, have you ever been to a national lab?
I have, yeah.
Oh well, they're huge facilities.
You know, spread out, and they... of course, nuclear energy reactors, I should say, had been the basis of the founding of Argonne, because it was the direct descendant of Fermi's experiment at Chicago, and when they moved the experiment out to Argonne, it was the beginning of Argonne National Laboratory. But they were doing research in, you know, physics, chemistry, solid state physics, reactor research, chemical engineering. Everything. So it was with a vibrant, big community. It was a pretty setting. And the people were so welcoming to me. And they were looking for a theorist, because they group that they wanted-- that I worked with were mostly experimentalists, and they were working on liquid helium. And they were looking for a theorist to work with them to try to understand a problem, and the problem was, and this turned out to be a major, and probably the most significant work of my career, was looking at what was called anomalous dispersion of sound in helium at very low temperatures: phonon dispersion in liquid helium, and there were results, measurements showed that the way the sound was absorbed was inconsistent with conservation of energy and momentum. And there was no explanation there of how that could come about. Well I worked on that with one other theorist, Sheila Eckstein, the wife of one of the experimentalists. But then it wasn't until I went to Brown that I worked with Humphrey Maris, an experimentalist - that we finally figured out the explanation. And published a paper, which actually still gets attention.
Walter, it sounds like at Argonne, you were just able to focus on the science and you didn't have to deal with racial tensions or discrimination too much.
I did not, and that's why I left Argonne. Because I felt that I was not really participating in the most important social issues of the time. So much was going on on college campuses then, 1967-68. Martin Luther King then was assassinated in '68. And I was just there doing physics. I lived in Hyde Park. I'd go out to Argonne in the morning, and I thought, you know, the world is passing me by, and I'm not making any contributions to the African American cause. And I sure wanted to somehow be engaged in the changing (Negro, Afro-American Movement. And also at that I had been offered an opportunity to go to Sussex for a year to work with Tony Legget, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize.
This is in England?
Yes. Tony subsequently got the Nobel Prize in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Because he was doing some work, at Sussex related to what we were doing at Argonne. And I thought it would be fantastic. I'd get full expenses paid. Argonne was the one that paid for me to go do that, and Sussex would pay my expenses there, and they would offer housing and a salary, and I just thought it was great. And then I got a call from a classmate of mine from Wash U, Joel Snow. Joel had gone to do a postdoc at Urbana, and he wanted to get my advice on some issues in the department and the school generally, having to do with black students. Joel wasn't black, Joel was white. And he asked me if I would be willing to speak with some of the physics faculty at Urbana about these issues, and see if I had any advice. So wrote him a very long letter explaining what I thought some of the things they might consider doing, and then I got a call from, a letter or a call from Gordon Bahm a very prominent theorist, was and, still is now. Turns out he was doing some work on liquid helium, and as a result of my writing this letter, he looked up the physics I was doing and they called and asked would I be interested in coming to Urbana to join the faculty? And that was really marvelous. Urbana at that time had the best theoretical condensed matter group in the world. John Bardeen was there, Bob Schrieffer had just left, Leon Cooper had just left. Leo Kadanoff was there. I mean it was known throughout the world. So the opportunity to go work with those guys was just mind-boggling.
But the thing that really made the difference, I felt, "Ah-ha. Was that they wanted me to help with programs for black students. also.Now I can be involved. I can do something I thought you know, for the black community. I can go onto campus, I can help teach, help them work on issues having to do with black students. I can be involved." So it was a sort of a double win for me. So that's how I wound up in Urbana.
So Walter, it sounds like you were quite happy at Argonne, but the opportunities both academically and politically to get involved in a campus were simply too promising to pass up?
That's true. That's true.
What had changed, both about you and about the Civil Rights Movement that made you think that even though you were happy and you were doing really good work at Argonne, that it was simply too important for you not to get more involved?
Nothing had changed about the Civil Rights Movement. It was me. I just felt it was almost selfish for me to just be doing physics research - I felt I was not making a contribution, and I should be making some contribution, and I wanted to find a way to do it using my physics. I didn't want to give up physics to go out and try to be something that I was not. You know, I could have quit physics and gone full time and joined an organization to work on issues, but I felt that would not be the best contribution I could make to the community or for the community. That the best contribution I could make was to do something that nobody, or few other people, could do. That is, go work with these students, all students, to do like teaching, go work at a place where I could be involved with students, encourage them to go into science, and then later on, not much later but just a couple years later when I went to Brown, I actually started a program called Inner-City Teachers of Science, ICTOS, to try to, encourage and prepare, students, hopefully African American, but not solely... to go to work in inner-city schools, which were primarily overwhelmingly African American. So, I felt then, you know, I'm doing something, and it can make a difference, and I'm using some very rare skills in the African American community. I think when I got my PhD, I knew every black PhD in physics in the country. We all knew each other.
It couldn't have been more than 20 overall. So that was the motivation.
Walter, in what ways were you prepared and in what ways were not prepared when you got to Illinois in terms of what was going on with campus politics?
My first night on campus... I got a call. I was sleeping on the floor, a pallet, I recall, with blankets and stuff. Because my furniture hadn't arrived. About 12 o'clock, or maybe later, the phone rang, I answered it, and said, "Professor Massey?" I said, I had never been called "professor," so I was a little hesitant, and I said, "Well, yes, I guess." He said, "My name is David Addison, and I'm president of the Black Students Association, and they've arrested, the university and the police, have arrested 250 black students who were in the Illini Student center. And we're trying to find faculty members, especially black faculty, who can come help us get them out of jail." And that began my time at Urbana. So I became a faculty advisor to the Black Students Association. I became the founding chairman of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. There were less than ten tenure track black faculty out of the faculty of over 1000.
And so then I was thrown immediately into all of the racial politics on campus. The university had a program called Project 500. They wanted to get 500 new black students. And they would give them scholarships and special programs, etc. And they brought these students to campus from mostly, from Chicago and Philadelphia. The reason from Philadelphia was because they sent out advanced students, sophomores, juniors, etc, who were already there, black students, to go recruit around the country. And there was one up in Philadelphia who recruited all of these students from Philadelphia to come. But when the new students got there, the things that they felt they had been promised were not the things the university, you know, was offering them. So it led to a lot of unrest on the campus throughout the entire year. I got very much involved with that. Because I was chair of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, I got involved in trying to put together programs for black students, academic and extracurricular programs, all different things. And in those days, protests on campus could get violent. The Black Panthers would come down from Chicago. And people were armed. People would carry guns. And then we had conflicts between the black students from Philadelphia and Chicago, and those in the local community, who felt that they had been shortchanged. They felt that the university had been there forever and hadn't been recruiting from the local black community. Why would they go to Chicago and Philadelphia?
Also, I was teaching a freshman physics section and I had some of these students in there and I could tell they were not prepared. And that's when I first got interested in high school science education. Because I could see that the problem was not going to be addressed fully by special classes and tutorial sessions once they arrived at college, but they had to be addressed by improving the quality of science teaching in high school. Or at least that was my theory. That's what got me involved with pre-college science education.
Walter, I wonder how much your own experience in high school informed what you learned about some of these African American students and their lack of preparation for college?
Not much. No, I think my situation was very different. As I said, I felt my high school courses were very good, and I felt very prepared in Morehouse. I simply didn't finish high school. You know, so I did not take some courses. So no, that didn't really inform my views on the issue.
What did you want to achieve with sort of going back to root causes to ensure better preparation for college for black students?
Well, the most important thing was just to improve the quality of the science education so that students would have the opportunity to go on to college and succeed by having a better preparation. The other was then to try to improve the quality of science teaching. And that's the key to have teachers prepared. And I, what I found when I was researching the issue, is that many of the high school teachers who were themselves not that well scientifically-prepared. Now, they weren't-- many of them were education majors, who had taken some science courses. And they were dedicated people, but if you would go into a high school, you would see that they could have been better-prepared. Secondly, many of the teachers were white. And a lot, still now in fact, teachers are white in urban schools. And they hadn't really had any experience with students from urban areas. So the program I started along with colleagues at Brown was to tackle two issues. One, giving would-be teachers a stronger grounding in the science. So we put together courses that would be just as rigorous as the courses for majors. And to have them start to go into the schools earlier on so that you'd learn the culture of these schools. Start tutoring in the schools early on. Not to wait until their senior year, which had been the norm, to do a semester of "practice teaching." Which in many education programs, the first time that a would-be teacher actually went into a school was that year of practice teaching, where they're already either a junior or a senior. And then the next year, they're out teaching in schools. So that was the sort of theory and philosophy behind the program.
Walter, obviously this can't be a one-man show, given how grand the ambitions are. Who are some of the most--
No, my co-conspirator and colleague was the head of the professor of education, Herman Eschenbacher. Of course, I didn't know anything about education. And he joined me, and then we recruited, because we also wanted to be interdisciplinary. We recruited faculty members from engineering, chemistry, and biology, and other fields, to work with us on the program. And we got a big NSF grant. No, that wasn't a one-man show. No.
Did racial politics subsume so much of your attention that it was difficult to keep up with the research?
It was beginning to at Urbana. I found that I was just... it was difficult to be as engaged as I was. You know, head of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, advisor to the student-- all of these things. It wasn't just me. Many black faculty that year or even later, were just burned out. We would call it "burn out" because black faculty were so involved with those issues that it was difficult to keep up their research. And the universities would encourage that kind of engagement because there weren't that many black faculty, and they wanted faculty to work with students. However, when it became time for tenure, that was not the major factor. The major factor for tenure was going to be your research or teaching, and that was going to cut into your research at a research university. And recommendations for tenure came out of your department, right? Not from the administration. The administration rarely gets tenured deeply involved in early tenure decisions. They act on recommendations from the department. So I had this opportunity, I had an offer to go to Brown, which is another story, and at Brown, I felt I'd have the opportunity, and it did work out, to do both. To do something of substance with respect to racial issues, and maybe with science education, and also do my research. And that really, it happened.
Walter, I want to ask a broader question that might bridge your time between Illinois and Brown, and that is, in teaching and working with African American students, did you see any generational divides between where you were coming from and where they were coming from? In terms of expressing frustration with the state of racial affairs in the country? And how to be most productive in moving forward?
I don't think so. I was fairly young then. I was... was I 30? I was 30. No, I don't recall that. And of course, nowadays, you know there are generational differences between younger African American-- young whites, young people, and older ones with respect to how one deals with these issues. If there was, I don't recall that being something that I spent a lot of time worrying about it, thinking about. No.
Was Brown University, just by virtue of it being smaller in the years going on, was it a bit quieter there and were you able to focus a bit more on your research than at Illinois?
Yes. I know it was just the history of Brown. The students the year before that, or was it two years before that? There was a very famous issue incident at Brown I went in the second semester of the academic year, '69-70. Because the offer came in too late for me to, you know, resign from Illinois. I had already had classes scheduled for the first semester. So I stayed and taught the first semester. The year before that, the black students at Brown who had been pushing, you know, the same issues. More black faculty, more black students, more scholarships, etc. On many campuses, students, during that period was also the Vietnam War... Their way of protesting on campus was to sit in buildings. At Wisconsin they even blew up, was it Wisconsin or-- it was Wisconsin. I remember I saw this. The SDS, Students For a Democratic Society, blew up a building. Things could get pretty hairy. At Brown, the black students walked off campus and went down the First Baptist Meeting House, which is a historical church where Brown has its commencement. And they sat in the church. And so they had, and the administration negotiated with them, and you know, and so their whole way of dealing with these issues was just very different from what I had experienced in Illinois. Leo Kadanoff, who had convinced me to jump to Brown, had left Illinois the year before and gone to Brown. Leo was white and Jewish from New York. We became very good friends, and even though he wasn't much older than me, he became a mentor of mine. He was just so much-- he was just a fantastic theoretician. He died just a few years ago. Leo wanted to do urban studies. So Leo was interesting, he had some of the same feelings I had. He felt he wanted to do something that would make a difference in the social issues of the day. And he thought he could apply mathematics and physics to problems of urban areas. And Urban Studies became a discipline about that time. And so Brown gave Leo an appointment as a professor in urban studies and physics. And Leo, when he talked to me, he said, "Walter, you know I found here, I can find the way to do both things. I'm still doing my physics, but also feel very good about working with these sociologists and economies all the issues that have to do with urban areas. And he said, "You know, I suspect if you come here, you could find a way to do both things." So that's what attracted me to Brown, and that turned out to be true.
And Walter, you said you had more time to focus on your research during your Brown years. What were you working on personally during that time?
I was working on two things. Then, I was looking at mixtures of helium-3 and helium-4, how they behaved at low temperature. I was looking at the problems of atoms on the surface of a liquid helium, and how the atoms behaved. And I was still working on this problem of sound dispersion. And that's when, as I said, really I began to work on that problem with Humphrey, who was an experimentalist, and we worked together and wrote a paper on that.
Do you feel like, by the time you had gone back to Argonne, you had accomplished what you wanted to both as an educator and as a mentor to African American students?
No, no. No, I never felt that accomplished. And I still don't feel I've accomplished what I wanted. But my life changed again because I was offered-- But when I got involved in the INCTOS program, I found out two things. One, that I liked the kind of administrative role that I took on being the director and I liked being the head of the project. And I found out that people liked working with me. I also learned that I was pretty good at that kind of thing, and I got a great deal of satisfaction from it. And then I got an offer to be an American Council on the Education Fellow, ACE Fellow. This was a program, it's still going on, that allows faculty members who think they might want to go into administration but are not sure, to actually take a year and go work in administration, usually at a college other than their home college, but you could stay at your own college, to see what it's like before they make the final leap, so to speak.
So I got I an ACE senior fellowship, and Brown approved it, because the university actually pays your salary, and the ACE pays expenses and provides workshops and courses. They would bring all the ACE fellows from around the country together in that class. And I went to UC Santa Cruz to work in the chancellor's office. And I found I liked it. But the thing that really changed my career trajectory is when I was at Santa Cruz, I was asked to apply for the position of Dean of the College at Brown. I did and I got the position And that was a big deal. And then I found that I really enjoyed that. Now I'm working with students and faculty and staff. The dean of the college oversaw the undergraduate curriculum, had a budget to put together special courses, interdisciplinary courses, and admissions and financial aid and student affairs reported to me It was a big deal. And I really enjoyed it. And I found that, again, people liked working with me and people liked working for me. I don't know what it is, but I'm good at this. Now, still, I had a graduate student then when I went back to Brown, and when I was at Santa Cruz, and he was trying to finish up this problem on the surface properties of mixtures of helium-3 and -4. He finished and then I got the offer to be director of Argonne. And once that happened, I stopped doing physics research. And became a science administrator at Argonne and then of course an administrator after that.
Walter, do you feel like that opportunity represented a sort of quantum leap? In other words, if you had stayed at Argonne throughout, were you on a trajectory to assume this position? Or it was only because of your leadership work in academia that this level of responsibility became available to you?
Well, you never know in life what leads to the next thing. You know life's not linear like that. However, I can be pretty sure of two things. That if I had not gone to Urbana, none of this would have happened, because I wouldn't have met Leo Kadanoff. So what would have happened if I had gone to Sussex? I suspect that if I had gone to Sussex and worked with Tony Leggett, that I would have gotten just that much deeper in physics. And I might have just returned to Argonne as a staff member. I might have spent my career working at a national lab. Which is not a bad thing. People do that. People aspire to that. (laughs) It's a good job. And you spend your whole life doing something you like. And at that time, I loved doing physics research. So I suspect that is would have happened. Now, when I was at Brown, if I hadn't had the ICTOS program, I wouldn't have gotten all around campus. One reason the administration asked me to apply to be dean, is they knew I was thinking about the possibility of administration, because they had paid for me to be in the ACE program. And also I had developed somewhat of a reputation around the campus that was broader than just the physics department, because of ICTOS. So the quantum leap was being dean. Of course people who become deans oft go back to their discipline all the time. People become provosts and go back to their discipline. It's a little harder in the sciences, as you know. Than it is in other-- excuse me. In other fields. I may have just stayed after a while., in the deanship for five or six years, which is typical, and then gone back to the department, to teach and do research. I don't think so. I might have applied elsewhere, because my appetite was whetted for the administrative possibilities in life.
Now, was the professorship at the University of Chicago, was that sort of a package deal, or you arranged that separately?
When I became director of Argonne?
It was a package deal.
Was that enticing to you because you wanted to keep a foot in education?
Huh? I'm sorry.
Was that enticing to you because you wanted to remain active in education?
Well I had been at a national lab, right? I knew Argonne. And even when I left, I would come back in the summer. When I was at Brown, I came back in the summer to do research at Argonne. So you know, I was there, for me it was at Argonne at least. And I was familiar with universities. And at that time in my career, I wanted to be associated with a university. I didn't know-- people don't become lab directors for life, you know, that's not like a tenured full professor. You become the lab director, you do something. I had no idea where my career would take me, but I knew wherever it did, I wanted to be associated with a university. So yes, that was very important. I wouldn't have taken the job without that. And I was already a full professor at Brown, so... that did prove to be very important to me.
What did you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities that laid before you in assuming the directorship at Argonne?
Well, I knew Argonne, I knew the culture of the lab, but I didn't know anything about running the laboratory. And then we had about 3,000 staff... The budget was about $350 million. And maybe 1,000 PhDs. Huge enterprise. The biggest thing I ever managed was the dean's office of maybe 100 people. So I had a lot to learn. I didn't come with any agenda. I just, it was an opportunity to do something different, do something on a large scale. But I didn't have to wait long to figure out what I needed to work on. Two issues: that April or May, must have been April, after I accepted the job, Three Mile Island occurred. And then Argonne was still, its largest program was reactor research and development. And we had a site in Idaho, Idaho National Engineering Lab ground, that Argonne led. We were one the major player in the nation's nuclear energy and reactor research area. And so the politics of nuclear energy became something that affected Argonne, something that I had to become very engaged in and had to learn a lot about.
And Walter, what were some of those larger political considerations surrounding nuclear energy? What else nationally were you thinking about? MASSEY Whether or not we should be pursuing the development of nuclear energy, and after Three Mile Island a lot of research programs around the country were shut down. Nuclear energy departments started to lose students and lose funding. It was a matter of funding research at the lab, and we were also the leading research lab on what we call "fast breeder reactors" which were supposed to be the next generation of reactors, but which were very, very controversial I don't even know where to start. So it would affect us because we had a great deal of funding at the lab in those areas. And if they were going to cut back research in those areas, it would affect us greatly. So that was one. The second big issue-- also maybe a year later, we also began to build up research in alternative energies, it was called then. Mostly solar, clean coal, magneto-hydrodynamics. All of these areas. And we had quite a large program in environmental research, because we were some of the first programs in environmental research. Whereas President Carter, even though he was a nuclear engineer himself, he wanted to cut back the nuclear program, and Reagan came in. He cut back the environmental programs and alternative energy programs drastically. And we had to lay off about 800 people. That was my second year at the lab. So I was hit in the face with big problems right away.
In addition to that, the rumors were around Washington that the nation didn't need all these national labs. Whatever came out of them? Now that we were going to cut back on nuclear energy research, energy itself was an issue, but why shouldn't some of this research from solid state physics, chemists, and all-- why shouldn't it be done at universities? Why fund the national lab? So we should close some of them. And Argonne was rumored to be a prime candidate, and because I had met people in Washington that told me that.. So that issue became one we had to deal with, and with the DOE, and the White House, and the universities in the midwest. So, I didn't have an (laughs) agenda, but what became my agenda, which became clear is that we needed, that we needed to stake out a major research program to indicate the value of the lab. And the thing we could do best was nuclear energy. So, we had some very good people, and after we put together some groups to study the problem, we decided that we should just double down on our expertise in fast breeder reactors and sell that program. And that happened.
So the other thing we knew we had to do was to have a major facility. Why are national labs important? Why do you need them? Why can't universities just do what they do? One is you're working on problems like nuclear energy that are just so big and require such a massive investment in facilities and people, and are sometimes classified, that it's just not suitable for a university campus. The second is that you need a major facility, a facility that's too large to go on a university campus, but which is accessible for scientists from all over the country. Now we had had a couple of those, we had high energy research accelerator there, and then we'd had the Intense Pulsed Neutron Facility. Well, those were being shut down. they weren't cutting-edge anymore. And so we needed a big facility, and that's when we went after what was called a photon source. The Advanced Photon Source. A big synchrotron facility. So that became my agenda. I say, "my." Of course, I was director, but it was all of us in the lab.
Walter, in what ways did you see opportunity in this position to continue on with your interest in promoting education for under-represented groups?
Well, it was a very good time. We had the then-secretary, Admiral... oh, what was his name? It'll come to me in a minute. He was an admiral, and he was very much interested in science education. Admiral Watkins! So he was the secretary of energy. The laboratories got all their funding from DOE based on their programs: there's a nuclear energy program, they fund nuclear energy research in all the labs. There's a basic energy sciences program. They fund the chemistry, physics, and all of the lab. So the money comes in chunks to programs. You can keep a certain amount of overhead, to invest in things that you want to do at the lab. Not a lot, but you get some. So we could use some of that money for education. Having scientists go into the schools or bringing students out to the lab on the weekends for a special program. But Admiral. Watkins.. he actually put in a direct line of funding for education. So the labs could get funding that was dedicated for educational projects. So we developed an office of education. That's not the name, but basically... to develop programs with the schools. Now Argonne was out in the suburbs, so there weren't mostly minority institutions, but there were some in the schools. But we also had some projects with schools in Chicago.
Walter, by the time you were coming to an end of your tenure at Argonne, what do you feel like your primary legacies and accomplishments were?
Oh, I think there's the history of Argonne. So it's not just my thinking. I think really being very, I shouldn't say-- making the case for the lab not to be closed. So reviving the nuclear energy program and getting the project, the APS started. Which is still our biggest facility at the lab. And also helping to change the governance system. We had something called a tri-partite contract when I became director. The University of Chicago and the AAU. Associated Argonne Universities. Which was a consortium of about 25 mostly midwestern universities. They were a partner in the management of the lab with DOE. And it was not working, this tri-partite deal, AAU and Chicago. It was causing friction between other universities and the lab, other universities and Chicago. It wasn't clear whether the locus of accountability was. The DOE was frustrated because they couldn't hold Chicago totally responsible for things not done at the lab, that were not done to what they believed were their requirements. They couldn't hold AAU responsible. So we had to change that contract. So I think I would be... I know I could be remembered for helping to change the arrangement and getting that contract changed so that the University of Chicago became the sole manager of the lab. So you had a real locus of accountability and there wasn't dispersed responsibility. So those would be the things
By the end of the 1980s, were you looking to move on to new opportunities or the AAAS came to you and that first made you think about leaving Argonne?
Well I didn't go to work for the AAAS full time. I was just the President. That's a volunteer association. So I was just president of the AAAS and then I become chairman.
So it was a direct transition to the NSF from Argonne?
No. When we changed the tri-partite contract to have Chicago be the sole manager We still wanted, DOE still wanted anyway, and Chicago also wanted input from other universities. So we created a Board of Governors of Argonne. And the president of the university would be the chairman of the board of governors. But we'd have other representatives from other universities and now we could also have representatives from industry, other labs, maybe, so it actually turned out to be a wonderful thing. Still is. In addition to that, the university created a position called vice president for research and for Argonne National Laboratory. And the position was created because the president of the university was chairman of the board of governors and was the titular university person overseeing the lab. But of course, the president doesn't have time to do all of that. So we created this position of vice president for research and for Argonne National Lab to oversee research on the campus and to be the university "overseer" of the lab. The person to whom the director would report. The director on paper reported to the president, but in every-- you know, day-to-day issues in actuality reported to this vice president. You know, just like vice presidents for the medical program, you know, and so forth. I was asked to take that position. So for a year, I was both director-- I was double-hatted, as we say. I was both director of Argonne and vice president for research and for Argonne. So I had two jobs. We knew that was not a tenable long-term solution, but the idea that I would do that and then we'd search for my successor as director, which we did. And so we brought in Alan Schriesheim from industry as senior deputy director or the lead deputy director of the lab. With the explicit plan that after a year or so, I would transition full time to the university and Alan would be director. So, when that happened, I still had an office at Argonne, but not in the director's office. But I was spending most of my time on campus and that's where I transitioned to NSF.
What was particularly exciting about the NSF opportunity for you?
Well, I'd been on the National Science Board prior to that for six years. I think I'd just gone off a couple years before. Well, it's the National Science Foundation. (both laugh) It's the premiere scientific agency (not in the medical sciences) it's the premiere agency for the basic research in the country. That was just one of the most respected agencies in the world. You have probably as much influence on science and science education, woah. And engineering, than you do, or more, than any agency in the country and probably in the world because it's so respected around the world. However, I wasn't really looking for the position. I had joined PCAST, President's Council on Science and... P-C-S... Science and Technology. And Alan Bromley, who was then George Bush's, President Bush's, science advisor, he also ran PCAST, which has lines to the president. And I was on PCAST and I got to know Alan-- I'd known Alan before, because he was a nuclear physicist, and he had been on some Argonne advisory committee. But Alan was very close to the president, knew the president, and happened to have very good access. Alan was probably the last science advisor to have that kind of direct access to the president. And John Sununu was chief of staff, and he and Alan also got along well. I was not keen on going to Washington. I had been offered... I'd been asked to apply for the position of deputy director of the NSF and I said no. I didn't want to go up to Washington. I really didn't want to go into that political arena. And I liked the University of Chicago.
But Alan called me one day, and said, "Walter, are there any circumstances under which you would allow the president to nominate you to be director of the National Science Foundation?" And I laughed. I said, "How would the NSF think of some circumstances under which I would do that?" And we kind of chatted and I said, "Yes. of course if you're serious?" He said, "Yes, you are the person and you know, we vetted this. So it's not as if you were one of several people." I said, "Okay, but I have a sabbatical coming up." I had never had a sabbatical in my life. So I need to think about that.
And I had spoken with Hannah, Hannah Gray, and I said I really would like to start getting more into science policy and getting into technology transfer. And we had, I had... Something I skipped over very quickly, but it's very important. Alan and I, Alan Schriesheim, we got very interested in how could we get Argonne to transfer its research into commercial enterprises? How could you develop new companies out of research done at the lab? And so we talked about that, and now I'm vice president for research at the university and for Argonne, so we looked at how do we create an entity that could help both the University of Chicago and Argonne spin off research into companies? What's the end requirement? And then, what made it possible, it was... '88. The Bayh–Dole Act was passed, I wrote for. Until then, the national labs and universities- couldn't take the results of government-sponsored research and own it, or develop it, or license it for commercial activity. That was forbidden. The Bayh-Dole Act changed that. And the Bayh-Dole Act is what of course helped create a lot of the biotech industry, a lot of Silicon Valley. So it was what allowed the research in universities to be spun off into private industry.
So we created ARCH, the Argonne-Chicago Development Corporation. And the idea for ARCH was to take research at both entities and develop ways to spin them off into companies-- to develop them, hire the CEO get the seed money, private investment money. And I was chairman of the board of ARCH. And Alan was vice chair. The board consisted of people from industry, university trustees, people from Argonne, and the like. And it actually was done very well.
So I asked have a sabbatical to go to Europe to look at what they were doing in technology transfer between universities, industry, and the national research facilities, the labs, in Europe. They have quite a few. And so I spent a sabbatical in Europe. So I told Alan Bromley, "I really want to take this sabbatical." He said, "Well--" this was in July. June or July. He said, "Is it a year?" I said it's a half year. He said, "Well, Walter, I think that's fine. We have an acting deputy director, and we have to go through all this paperwork. You have to be--" God, they investigate you to death. You know, your background, all of this. "And I would suspect that if you can be ready by January, that'll be fine." So I said, "How could I refuse that?" They let me go on my sabbatical and then I came back and just went right to Washington.
Now, the downside of it was that prior to Alan and the president offering me the position, I had a grant from NSF to fund my research in Europe. Because I had applied for that and thought this was fantastic, that I could go around Europe, not just one country, I was going to try to do most of Europe. Meet with people at the labs, meet with people in industry. And write that up for the NSF for their office of international program. So I had a grant, it wasn't a lot, but it was $20,000. But that was a enough, in addition to my sabbatical salary. Well, once I said I'd accepted to be nominated for director, it was a conflict of interest. So they rescinded the grant. (laughs) So... oh boy. So I asked the university to make up for it and they did, which was very generous.
So. That's why I went to the NSF.
Walter, what did you see as your primary objectives when you got there and you got the lay of the land in terms of the biggest challenges facing science policy and funding in the country?
Two. Well, maybe more. But let's start with two. One, the science education program was really going well. They had built up the directorate of science education, which my predecessor Erich Bloch had supported, and the science board and Congress, had also supported science education. And that was fantastic. That was one of the attractions. As a member of PCAST, I had known all about this and worked with people at the NSF. And on the science board. In fact, when I was at Brown, when they first were building up the directorate of the science education, when I was dean, I had been offered the position of associate director for Science Education at NSF. That's what this second level people at the NSF are called, like there's an associate director for math and science. Associate director of engineering, etc. They had also an associate director for science education. And I turned it down. But I knew about it. I had been an advisor on their program. So that was the big thing, I really wanted to keep supporting that. And the head of the directorate was Luther Williams, who was an African American, and Luther was very interested in supporting programs for minorities. So this was perfect. So I could now do something at a national level on these issues of science education for under-represented groups. That was one. The other big issue was it was the end of the Cold War. And the discussions in political science policy areas was, what will be the national argument for funding science? Because the overwhelming argument for investment in science since the end of World War II had been national security.
And that was it. So if the Cold War's over, you're not-- What's going to be the big issue? What's the big policy of controlling-- What's the reason for all this investment? So that was the big debate in the era then. And we were drawn to economics, if it wasn't national security, it was going to be economic development. Because now instead of competing with the Soviet Union, who are we competing with? I don't know how old you are, but maybe you remember, you read about, who were they saying to be our major competitor in the technology of the world and economic development? Japan.
Japan was it. So how are we going to compete with Japan? They were ahead of us in things like semiconductor research in particular., The Bayh–Dole Act was in part in response to that. So that was the other area. And that was of very much of interest to me because of, you know, my interest as I just said in technology development and technology transfer. And if what, in particular, this is where it got dicey, what was the role of the NSF in commercializing research? Well, that's part of the AIP history. And I was on the side that NSF ought to be more engaged in developing programs to have research commercialized. And that we should be involved in funding major programs that cut across disciplines. What were the major big programs there? It was climate studies, it wasn’t “climate change” computer research and education nad engineering Programs that would have broad national interest.
I (we) argued that NSF would support big programs of national importance. Well, some in the physics community attacked me. They said, "No. The primary purpose of NSF is to respond to individual PIs and to support research developed at the universities that, go through peer review." It's not, the NSF's role is not to have these bureaucrats in Washington deciding what research should be supported. The community should decide that through the individual proposals. By Individual investigators. If you go back and read the editorials in AIP news, APS newsletters you will see where I'm highly. So I put together this Commission on The Future of the NSF so we could have a real debate and policy level discussion about it. And that led to other things. So those were the things involved in the NSF on the policy side. On the research side, I really got interested and wound up, in supporting telescopes. And we started a program to support the first big telescope funded by government other than NASA Space Telescopes. Called the Gemini Telescopes. And the other big program, -- when I tell this story, it's going to sound like I was always attacked, but it wasn't always. (both laugh) It was LIGO.
The development of Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.
Now, had you known people like Kip Thorne or Ray Weiss or Barry Barrish at this time?
Yes By then, yes of course, by then. I didn't know them before I went to Washington. And I got to know Kip probably better then. Because he just seemed to be the one, I don't know why, that came to Washington, I spoke with him. You know, we aren't buddies or anything. So we decided-- program officers in physics to support LIGO. Bill Harris, who was my then director of math and physical sciences, which is the largest division, and the one that deals with most basic sciences, and others convinced me and the science board that this LIGO project could be done. It wasn't so much that people didn't think it would be important, but there was a great scientific debate about whether or not you could actually measure gravitational waves. Whether you could ever build something that sensitive. And then there was debate about the source of the waves. What would be likely sources? You know, Kip first... I think his first theory was looking at neutron starts collisions. I mean, he was so ahead of his time. And I don't remember so much about black holes, but anyway. So we decided we were going to support this, and of course as the director, I had to become the spokesman for the program on the Hill to try to get funding. Well, the astronomers attacked us. (laughs).. Tony Tyson was chairman of the NSF astronomy advisory group, but he testified against LIGO on the Hill. It was so frustrating. Because the astronomers, first of all, you can't prove this, but we know this is true. They thought LIGO would divert money from telescope funding. It was a physics project not an astronomy project.
So it was just diverting money from astronomy to physics. Which they felt, they didn't want to do that. Secondly, I think there was genuine scientific skepticism about the viability of the project. The astronomy community wanted it to be called LIGE, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Experiment. Because they didn't think you'd ever get to a point where you have enough events that you could call it an observatory. So the astronomy community really fought this. Now, there are many articles about all this. You know, you can just go online and look up the debate on LIGO with astronomers. So they fought us on that. So it was an interesting time.
I intended to stay at the NSF maybe three or four. I never-- I was not big on Washington, being in Washington. We liked it, my wife and I, but I really did not go there planning to stay... You know, we didn't-- There's a word for it. You get seduced by Capitol Hill. I didn't get seduced to that extent. But I enjoyed it. And I felt I did quite a bit.
But then I got another phone call out of the blue from Jack Peltason, the same Jack Peltason who had been chancellor at Urbana when I was there going through all of the issues on campus. I got to know Jack well then because I seemed to be always in negotiations with the administration. I really liked Jack. And he was actually very supportive of issues with respect to minorities on campus. But Jack was now president at the University of California system. And he called me and said they were looking for a provost for the system, and my name had come up in so many places, and he thought it would be a great job, he hoped I would be interested in interviewing for it. And he thought I'd be a very strong candidate for it. I wasn't that interested. Because by now, I thought, if I'm going to leave the NSF, I should go try to be a college or university president. You know, not a provost. And we had only been there two years or so, and I didn't want to confront my wife towards the notion of moving again.
(laughs) You don't want to do that.
No. But Jack finally convinced me. He also said, "Look, okay, Walter. The chancellorship at Irvine is open. And why don't you go for that if you'd rather be on a campus." He said, "But, I really think you'd enjoy being the provost because you have the whole system, and you have the three national labs." And that really was a sweetener for me, because I could be back in the national lab system.
And you have the two weapons labs. And now we had always admired the weapons labs at Argonne, because they always seemed to be so well-run, and so well-funded, because you know, it was the Cold War. So they didn't even have to ask for money.) So I could really spend time learning about the weapons program. What did they really do? So there was an intellectual excitement about it. But the thing that clinched it, he said, "Look Walter, I'm 70. And I'm not going to be around here much longer. I will be retiring soon. And if you're in this position, it's the number two position, provost and senior vice president, in the system. a Now, no promises, because the regents will decide it," he says, "but you couldn't be in a better position." So all of that, you know. And then going to California is kind of exciting too. Go to California-- So I took the job.
Walter, one quick question during your time at NSF. Another one of major questions about funding. Were you involved at all about the big questions about funding the SSC, or the International Space Station?
Not the International Space Station, and not the SSC. I was on the site selection committee for the Superconductor Super Collider, is that what you're speaking of?
I was on the site selection committee for the SSC when I was director of Argonne. So I was very much involved in that. And I was also very much involved with an organization we set up in here called the Illinois Coalition to try to get it built in front of that. Yeah, so I was. But when I went to NSF, I was not. I'd been disengaged. But I was there when they killed it. And they killed it my first year there, but it was a DOE program, so it was not-- NSF had little to no engagement with it. Because high energy is mostly funded by DOE.
Right. So Walter, you emphasized how you didn't want to ask your wife to move around too much. In retrospect, are you surprised that you only stayed with the California system for two years?
Okay. So... The president of Morehouse College resigned unexpectedly under... Well, was asked to resign basically. And we began to get phone calls from alumni and faculty at Morehouse. And from some board members. Inquiring as to, well not inquiring, somewhat really saying they really would like for me to come to Morehouse as president. And then as you said, we'd only been in California two years. And I said no, I was just not interested. I hadn't been at a small college since I left Morehouse. You know, all of my experiences had been major research universities, so (Zierler: Right.) it was just not something on my mind. Also, I wasn't that keen on going back south. And Shirley had never lived south, she's from Chicago.
And Walter, you were happy in California, right?
I was happy, but what happened then next made me more willing. Two things made me made me more open to leaving. Two major things made me willing to reconsider Morehouse. One had to do with Morehouse the other had to do with California. As we were going into my second year there, the regents-- under the leadership of one of the regents. Ward Connerly. He was maybe one of the only-- Was he the only black regent? I think so. Ward Connerly started this movement to abolish Affirmative Action in the system. We had a very strong Affirmative Action program which, again, you read about-- It was a famous case, a case that said that universities could discriminate on the basis of race under certain conditions. There's a famous Supreme Court decision that grew out of a [inaudible] at the University of Davis campus. The Davis law school. Justice Powell wrote the decision. It was Powell. So the University of California then had developed a major Affirmative Action program where you could give weight to race. And it was allowed legally under certain conditions, and that we were doing well in recruiting black students and then Latino students, Latinx now, to campus. And then Ward started this movement, and it's a long, long story as to how it grew, but it did. And Ward was a political supporter of the governor, Pete Wilson. Who wanted to have the regents reconsider the affirmative action programs.
So for about six months or so, you know, we had these internal debates, we had to develop arguments as to why these programs worked. And then things got very, very emotionally intense. And the regents finally did vote to terminate affirmative action in hiring and in admissions at a very, very contentious meeting that went on for about eight hours. Well, prior to the actual vote, I had become less enchanted with being the president. That's one.
The second, I wasn't sure my chances were going to be that great now that... Because it was my job as senior vice president for academic affairs and programs, to make the presentations to the regents, along with the president of course. But primarily the provost's, you know, as an academic issue as to why Affirmative Action programs worked. So I was... You know, I was not a pristine candidate, if there were one, to abolish those programs, and I wasn't-- It just became less attractive.
So what really tipped it though was Shirley began to feel that it could be more important for me to go to Morehouse. And she invited our sons out to surprise me. One night I came home from traveling to Chicago, my sons were there. And she had invited them out for us to talk about it as a family. So we did, and my older son, Keith thought being the first black president there would be very important, and my younger son, Eric, thought I really should go to Morehouse. That I could do more for the black community by being there and helping to develop Morehouse and graduate black students. Then John Hopps, the John Hopps I mentioned who was my freshman roommate who went to MIT, John Hopps is now the -- deputy director of the Draper Lab at MIT. And John thought, said he wanted to fly out to California to talk to me. I said, "Well is it about Morehouse, John?" He said, "Well, I'll come out and have dinner." So John came out and we had dinner, and he made the argument that I really needed to go to Morehouse. That the college really was, not so much floundering, but really needed strong leadership and we all owed so much in Morehouse, and Morehouse is such an important educational institution for African Americans. And that if I went back as president, he would quit his job at Draper and go back with me. You know, any position that I needed him in. I said, "Wow." So I mean, so it was a combination of all of those things that made us decide that we should go to Morehouse. So that was how that happened. Turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
Walter, in what ways did it feel like you were coming home, and in what ways did it feel like a new place because you had been gone for so long?
It felt like a new place because it was so different. It was a small institution with an endowment maybe $150 million. You know, just didn't compare with Brown or Chicago. It still had dedicated, good faculty, and students, but the neighborhood had deteriorated since I left. When I was there, the neighborhood was middle-class black. Now it was deteriorating public housing all around. It was not a pretty place, the neighborhood community. And they had some issues with faculty governance. The faculty felt that their voice was not heard and hadn't been for a long time. And they needed things done in that area.
When you say it was, Walter, when you say it was one of the best decisions you ever made, why specifically? What was so satisfying about this work that laid before you?
I was going to come to that. The coming home part was, to get all the alumni back engaged, many who had been in my class or overlapped with me at Morehouse, I went around the country. I literally went on-- I hate to use the word, but it's the equivalent of a listening tour. And John Hopps did come back. I asked John to come down as my provost. So he did. So it was like a homecoming in that sense, and John's wife, June, who's a very distinguished scholar-- She was the dean of the school of social work in Boston College. And she quit and came to the University of Georgia as a professor. So they moved down south. But June said one day, we were doing something-- Oh, doing the first commencement. Said, "Look at you two, what would your mothers say? You two are running this college." (both laugh), and the faculty really welcomed me. And it was good to be on campus. They didn't have a president's house then. The last president house had-- last couple of presidents had lived off campus, and one of the conditions for my going back, was they had to build a residence on campus because I said there's no point in me going back if we can’t live on campus-- I'd been in Oakland for two years, but not on a UC campus, and I love campuses. You maybe heard me say I love colleges. So it was a-- Oh, being able to be on campus with the students, be engaged, show that you are engaged. And very much it was-- And we got engaged on a much deeper way with the black community nationally than we had ever been. Because all of our, my career and our married life-- we got married in '69 when I went to Brown.-- had been at majority white institutions.
All right? So now, we, oh we got to know famous people like Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey, our biggest supporter, and famous alumni like Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson. Got to know black parents. Denzel Washington's son was a student there. We got to be friends with Denzel and his wife. But not just famous people, just parents. Got to be a family. These students now, we graduated about 5,000 students during our 12 years, and we have Morehouse alumni all- over the world - We can't go anywhere in the world, literally. South Africa, Amsterdam, in the middle of Kenya, we're going to run into some Morehouse alumni (laughs)-- And they all know us. And they all think, Shirley thinks of them as her sons - If I stayed in California and become president, I'm sure I would have done, hopefully tried to have done a lot for the black community, but never would we have gotten as intertwined and engaged as we are now because of those 12 years at Morehouse. And I think I did some good things as president. I did, I know I did. And people tell me so. We built several facilities, two of which are named after, or one's named after me, one's named after Shirley. The first building in Morehouse history to be named after a woman.
We also emphasized science programs, John Hopps died. Very sad. And when he died, he had left as provost and gone to work for the Department of Defense as the senior science director... I forgot the title. But he oversaw all of DOD research. The Navy research, Army, DARPA, plus DOD labs. He was the equivalent of a general in DOD. And John died, and we got Congress--, John Lewis to sponsor a bill to appropriate money to the DOD fund the John Hopps scholars program at Morehouse. And that program was to recruit people into science using the same principles that coaches use to recruit athletes. Send faculty out into schools, meet with parents and generous scholarships. Intensive summer programs. All of that for the Hopps Scholars and it worked. Hopps scholar were (are) very successful. And I just got an email last night, in fact, from, two Hopps scholars just graduated in 2013, one a PhD, and they have just formed a company to transport vaccines for the coronavirus.
They have developed a technology to transport refrigerated foods, technology, I haven't read all the details, they sent me the description. But the vaccines have to be transported at very low temperatures. But I just got that last night. So there are so many ways I feel proud of my time in Morehouse.
Walter, in what ways, looking back on your own experience, were the challenges and opportunities of the historically black college and university education different, and in what ways were they the same, during your tenure as president?
Well, the difference, in that Morehouse College is much larger. When I was there, maybe 800? No, not that big was it? Maybe 600 or 700. So you know, we had the really close connections. I know most of us lived right on campus. President Benjamin Mays lived right there. I mean, it was that small a community. So it is much larger. The competition then was, well, other historically black colleges. When I went back as president, our competition was-- there were all the colleges. You know, trying to get the best students. Right? Competing with Chicago, Brown. So our competition had more money. They could offer more scholarships. Their facilities were better-funded. So just competing, that was the big difference. The things that were similar was the dedication of the faculty and the staff at the school. I'd mentioned, you know, how supportive they were of me. Now, I still found that same dedication. They're supportive of these young men working with them and turning out students that really can go on to graduate school and really compete. Not just the Hopps scholars. But others in other fields. So that hadn't changed. And there's this great sense of pride (laughs) at Morehouse. In the African American community, there's a saying, the Morehouse men have such confidence in themselves, and they carry themselves with confidence and pride, the saying is that “you can always tell a Morehouse man. But not much”. (both laugh) So it's a fine line between competence and arrogance. And that hadn't changed.
Walter, I'm curious about your decision to assume a leadership role at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It would seem that this is an interesting turn in the overall trajectory of your career.
Well, it’s another one of those serendipitous things. I just finished writing the section in my memoirs about that. But I say my memoirs could be called a life of serendipity because that's what it has been. I'd retired from Morehouse and moved back to Chicago, and I had been on the board of the Bank of America for years. And in 2009 I was elected chairman of the board of Bank of America. And that was right in the midst of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. In fact, my description of my year as chairman is what takes up most of this book I just finished. And then I'd retired from the Bank chairmanship in 2010.
And we were just settling in in Chicago. I was volunteering to do things, I was still on a couple of boards, the Mellon Foundation and McDonald's board. And one of my fellow McDonald's directors said he wanted to talk to me about something I might be interested in here in Chicago. I thought he'd ask me to chair some study group or commission or something. I said, okay, let's talk about it. And he said he was chairman of the board of governors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What did I know about? I said I don't know a lot. We were members of the Art Institute; I had heard about the school and know some people who had gone there. He said, "Well--" He said, "Well we just had to ask the president to leave. He couldn't get along with the faculty. He'd only been there two years. We have a new provost coming to and a new dean of the faculty. We do not want to spend time doing a search for a president. And you know, we thought, we and some of my colleagues on the board have been thinking about what to do."
Because of my involvement in Chicago, I'd served on so many organizational boards, corporate and non-for-profit when I was director of Argonne and over the years. I know a lot of people, we're known in Chicago. And a lot of these people are trustees of the Art Institute or governors of the school.. He said, "We would like for someone to come down on an interim basis while we figure out what we want to do long term. And you know, we think you would be the person." I said, "I don't know anything about arts and design." He said, "You don't need to. You know universities, colleges, and you know people in Chicago. And you're respected. I think, you know, maybe six months, maybe a year. And you don't have to move." We lived maybe two miles from the Art school. I said, well, I need time to think about it. I was interested. I said, "But why would they put the faculty at-- If the faculty didn't get along with the previous guy, why would they have a physicist come in?" He said, "I think they would. And he said, "Well, okay. Give this a try." And I went down and met with some senior staff, and the faculty leadership and others. And they just loved the idea that I would come and do this. (laughs) That would be great.
So I agreed to do it. And I really liked it. It was like going back to graduate school. I was learning so much about the arts and design. It was just fascinating. And then I started speaking with some of the faculty. I found out we had a science program, we had an astrophysicist leading our liberal arts program, and it required science. I started speaking with them about maybe doing something with art and science. And we did. And we developed some programs now we probably have one of the strongest arts-science programs of any arts school in the country. So I got engaged in that. And then, about seven or eight months into this, one of the faculty leaders came to me at a cocktail party at our apartment for faculty leadership. And he said, "So Walter, why are you leaving?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Why are you going to leave after a year?" I said, "That's what they asked me to do." He said, "Yeah, but what are you going to do?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "Why don't you stay?" (laughs) I said, "Well, I don't think I could just do that, and I'm not sure that makes any sense." And he said, "Well, a lot of us on the faculty have been talking about this, and we'd like you to stay." I said, "What?" So I said, "Well, you go back and talk to people," I said, "Because I don't want this to be seen, you know, that I'm looking for this job, or I'm trying to create a situation where I can keep the job." I said, "If you can verify for me that you have a large group of faculty who want me to do this, I'll seriously consider it." And he went and said, "Okay, I'm sure, but I'll double check. And we had lunch a few days later and he said, “I have spoken with a lot of people we would like you to stay on, Walter." I said, "Well, let me go talk to the chairman of the board, to Carey, and (Tom Pritzker, who was chairman of the trustees which oversees the board.) And I said, "Guys, they've asked would I stay." And they said, "That would be fantastic, Walter." (both laugh) So I said, "Okay, here's the deal. Why don't we do this?" I said we were going to celebrate, this is like... I'd been there a year. I said, "We're going to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the school 2018, that's four years from now." Yeah, four or five. I said, "If I stay, the only contribution I see I can make is I can help you guys develop a capital campaign. Because we need to increase the endowment. We need more endowed scholarships, because we then had developed programs to try to attract students from the city of Chicago public schools. So I'm still back in the same game Inner City education. But it is in art instead of science.
And I said, "Why don't we do this, if this makes sense, I stay, we groom the provost, Elissa," who was my number two, "to be president." Because they wanted me to help her, groom her to be president anyway, you know, if I left. And we'd start the capital campaign and at the 150th anniversary, we announce the campaign. You know, we go to the quiet phase, where you usually try to raise over half the money before you go public, so you know you're going to be successful. "Let's go through the quiet phase of the cabinet campaign and then at150th, I retire, we announce Elissa as president, and we announce the campaign, so that she can end it, you know, on her watch, and she 'gets the credit' for the end of the campaign." And lo and behold, it worked. That's what we did. It actually worked. And then they asked me to stay on two years as chancellor, and Elissa wanted me to stay to help her behind the scenes to finish the campaign. And we did that, and now I'm president emeritus. Which proves if you stay in one place, and answer the phone, something good can happen.
That's right. (laughs) Well Walter, for my last question, I want to ask you a broadly retrospective question, and one that will get us right up to the present day. Looking back over all of your accomplishments in science and your leadership position in civil rights and combining the two, particularly your founding role in the National Association of Black Physicists, what are your reactions to where we are now, in light of the #ShutDownSTEM Day, which indicates sadly that so many of the problems that you've been involved with, there's still fundamental work that remains to be done. What do you see as the most positive and productive way forward from where we are now? Looking back over the course of your career.
Well, in one way I feel like I didn't do enough. That I, maybe should have spent more time on those issues, even though I tried a lot. The second is I feel very good, not about where we are as an enterprise, but the fact that scientists, African American scientists, Latino, and white scientists, are really starting to be public about these issues and-- I shouldn't say, "take them seriously," but to take them more seriously-- to devote more energy and be more aggressive than maybe those of my generation were. We just haven't changed enough. And I have been reflecting on this. I used to try to think of arguments to make to science faculty, physicists, scientists, as to why it was in their interests to really be aggressive about recruiting more minorities, under-represented groups, into science. And some of the first arguments were about social justice, social equity. It is the right thing to do. We ought to have an enterprise that's representative of the citizenship. And that's good. And then I would make the argument that it's in our interests if we want to get the public support, and now that we're getting more African Americans elected to Congress, we need to show that we are serious about this so that when we go to ask for money for funding of science, you know, we have a supportive community.
So whether you care about the social justice part of it or social equity, and racial equity, even if you don't care about that, it's just, it's in our own self-interest to do recruit more minorities. In my initial speech as president of AAAS, in the late 80s, I said if we could get every department in the country to just to commit to "double plus one" each year the number of minorities they had. You know, in 10 to 15 years, you can do the numbers for it, we would have made a breakthrough. And I said, the "double plus one" because we're starting from zero, right? (laughs) And almost, in fact, in all instances, so we don't want to just double zero. So it's double plus one. Well, people did things but not enough., because as you know in the physics and science community, the overwhelming motivation for the community to do anything is to do good science. To do the best science.
They'll put that ahead of anything. Put that ahead of social justice, racial equity, public engagement. It comes down to that, they're going to make the argument, and I'm saying I believe that's not true, but that's the argument. So later on, in the last speech I gave to AAAS, it was in Atlanta in 1995. We had a meeting there just a few months before I decided to go to Morehouse. I said to myself, "I'm not making another speech about the need to get minorities into science, because I'm just tired of speaking to scientists about it." I said, "But maybe there's another angle. Maybe one can make the case that it's good for science itself. Not only for the supporters, but for science. That maybe one can make the argument that you can advance the creativity and the broader scope of creative ideas coming out of science by having different lens through which people see phenomena. That there are ways of looking at the universe that'd be shaped by one's cultural experiences. And the more subtle different lens you focus on the problems, there will probably be the greater opportunity that you'll solve these problems. So it's good for science. Forget social equity and forget everything. It's just, if we're serious about doing what we think is best for the advancement of science, then more diversity is better." That's the argument I was going to make. I wasn't sure if I could prove it. So I wrote Gearld Holton -- You know who Gerald Holton is?
Of course. And I had met him, I can't remember where first, but we had corresponded and I really admired his writings on, science history and science philosophy. And I sent him a little draft of my speech I said, "What do you think?" He said, "I think you're absolutely right, Walter." And he had written about this topic, and he gave me some of his writings. And there was a group up at Wisconsin who has actually done research on this topic, and I got in touch with them. And so, I made the speech. I don’t think it had much impact at all. Then I come back to the University of Chicago in 2005 as a trustee – and we don't have an African American in the physical sciences.
No. And then you'd go around the country, and you see that one, two., here and there... Brown, amazingly, has two of the best theoretical physicists in the world (laughs) that are African American.
On the faculty. Jim Gates and Stephon Alexander? I was the first black there 1969. And so it hasn't progressed as much as I would have hoped for. You know, I would have thought starting from when I was at Brown, I was the first African American professor. They have two now. I was the first black physics professor at Chicago, they have none. So I feel very disappointed in that sense, after all this time we still haven't made as much progress as we should have. On the other hand, we have made some progress. Not every black PhD in physics knows each other now.
Right? There are enough (laughs) that I don't know them all., I don't know-- I keep thinking when I meet someone, "I should know you!" Yeah, yeah. So I'm glad to see the younger scientists really becoming aggressive and pushy and I think the physics community in particular, I'd say "science" but physics is my main concern. I think the physics community is really going to be confronted with some major decisions, and it starts, as you know, at research universities like Chicago, Brown, MIT, it starts at the department.
Because there's not one, I don't know, maybe some, but most first-rate research universities are not places where the provost or the dean or the president tells the department who to hire. You know, it just doesn't happen.
So. That's where we are. Now it just so happens, I'm just opening an email, it just popped up, this is amazing. "More than diversity: A call to action from the University of Chicago campus." Wow. So now there's a petition, evidently. I have to read it. Going around from the black faculty at Chicago.
There you go.
Much work remains to be done, but a lot of work has already been done as well.
Yes, it has been..
Walter, I want to thank you so much. I'm greatly honored to have been able to spend this time with you and to hear your story in your own voice is a tremendous honor and a wonderful resource for the historical record. So I really and to thank you for our time together.
Okay, take care now.