Today, as part of its 150th Commencement exercises, Worcester Polytechnic Institute honored the 981 members of the undergraduate Class of 2018 in a ceremony held on the campus quadrangle under a white tent that shielded guests from the light rain.
Nearly 830 master’s and doctoral degrees were bestowed in a separate ceremony on Thursday evening.
President Laurie Leshin and Board of Trustees Chairman Jack Mollen presided over today's celebration, at which the keynote address was given by Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book, which was made into a major motion picture in 2016, shares the history of the black female mathematicians who were part of NASA’s workforce from the 1940s to the 1960s. Shetterly, who is also the founder of The Human Computer Project, received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
In her remarks, Shetterly told the graduates that the problems they will be asked to solve “will demand your skills as a professional, but they’ll also require you to draw on your deepest well of humanity,” saying that science and the humanities are “both rooted in the same motivation, which is to measure and understand the nature of the world, and to make the human world a better place.”
Shetterly spoke of Albert Einstein, whose “depth of concern for the human condition matched his scientific brilliance,” and recalled his words: “Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.” She told the Class of 2018, “It’s now your turn to decide what the world ‘should be.’ And even quiet or unseen decisions that you make about what should be have the potential to echo through the years of history.”
By way of example, Shetterly talked about Henry J.E. Reid, WPI Class of 1919, who was director of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, where Hidden Figures is set, from 1926 to 1961. The lab was then part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), precursor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Shetterly noted that the lab was also where Richard Whitcomb, WPI Class of 1943, conducted his groundbreaking research that made supersonic flight practical.
Reid oversaw the laboratory at a time when aeronautical research mathematicians—or human “computers,” as they were called—were critical to the mission’s success. It was also a time of desegregation and racial tension, when blacks were still commonly denied equal rights and access to jobs. While not a civil rights activist, Shetterly said, Reid was a practical man focused on the goals of his laboratory and mission.
“His job was to manage aeronautical engineers; he didn’t sign up for social engineering. The first impact of his decision to hire these hidden figures [black women computers] at the laboratory was to supplement the brainpower America needed to win World War II, and best the Russians in the space race.”
Reid’s hiring of the most talented computers, regardless of their skin color, was “a practical solution, and the importance of practical solutions was literally written into the organization’s founding charter,” Shetterly said. “But I like to think that Reid also knew this was the right thing, the fair thing, a decision that nudged the world that was toward what it should be, where equality is not just a mathematical concept, but the ethical equality of the Declaration of Independence, as in, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men—and women—are created equal.”
“People may try to tell you that you have to choose between doing your job and doing the right thing,” Shetterly said, “but it’s a false choice. Doing the right thing is your job.”
She closed by urging the class to “use your mind to understand the world as it is, but always have the courage to fight for the world as it should be.”