Former Chancellor John B. Slaughter Led Community Through 1980s Turmoil
Photo from UMD Archives
John Brooks Slaughter, the first Black leader of the University of Maryland, who shepherded the institution through one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, died Wednesday at his home in California. He was 89.
A distinguished educator, researcher and administrator for six decades, Slaughter was a groundbreaking engineer whose career spanned government agencies, nonprofits and academia; he served as the first Black president of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Occidental College and was the third Black inductee into the National Academy of Engineering. Slaughter was a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California (USC).
At UMD, where he served as chancellor (now called president) from 1982-88, Slaughter expanded minority faculty hiring and retention and engineering education; developed academic programs in the STEM fields; and grew the research enterprise. With characteristic integrity and steadiness, he also guided the Terp community through national scrutiny and grief following basketball star Len Bias’ death of a cocaine overdose.
“Out of the utmost respect for Dr. John Brooks Slaughter, I am very quick to correct anyone who mistakes me for the first Black leader of our institution, as that trail was blazed by a passionate and pioneering leader decades ago. He was a man who was deemed the first to achieve greatness— in his career and lifetime—in category after category,” said university President Darryll J. Pines. “The university remembers Dr. Slaughter, and I remain proud to honor his enduring legacy at our flagship, in our state and across higher education.”
Slaughter was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1934. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Kansas State University, his master’s from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego.
He spent the first 15 years of his career at the U.S. Navy Electronics Laboratory, then was named director of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington, and assistant director for Astronomics, Atmospherics, Earth, and Ocean Sciences at the NSF. Slaughter became provost at Washington State University, until President Jimmy Carter called him in 1980 to urge him to accept the nomination to lead the NSF. There, he advocated for science education, founded its Directorate of Engineering and helped provide funding to minority-serving institutions.
Two years later, he was the invited Commencement speaker at UMD, recalled Chancellor Emeritus William “Brit” Kirwan, administrators approached him on the stage after the ceremony to gauge his interest in taking the helm of the university.
“His interest was piqued, and to everybody’s surprise at the NSF and the university, he left to become our chancellor,” said Kirwan, who served as both assistant chancellor under Slaughter and succeeded him as president. “The fact that he would give up that very prestigious title to lead the university gave us a lot of national visibility.”
As a Black chancellor on the campus only 30 years after it was desegregated, Kirwan added, his presence alone helped change its perception. But he was also a powerful voice on equity and inclusion—for women, the LGBTQ community and racial minorities.
His work to boost the recruitment and retention of African American students and faculty helped change the landscape of diversity at UMD. Distinguished University Professor and Regents Professor of Physics Sylvester James Gates recalled Slaughter personally recruiting him to the physics department in 1984.
“He made an amazing impact on me, and it was a clear signal that Maryland was unlike a lot of other places,” said Gates. “It was the first place that I sensed the genuine commitment to diversity.”
Slaughter was known as a listener who worked toward consensus; reversed a decline in retention among undergraduates, and worked closely with the city of College Park to address fractures in the town-gown relationship. He also led the replacement of what Kirwan called a “Balkanized structure” at UMD, in which deans reported to five provosts, with an academic structure very similar to what UMD uses today. It greatly unleashed interdisciplinary collaboration across the campus.
He also helped navigate the campus community through the painful aftermath and media spotlight that was trained on UMD following Bias’ death. Slaughter convened committees to lead reforms on drug policies, enforcement and education, and the academics of student athletes, and increased student-athlete support and a focus on retention.
Slaughter resigned from UMD to become president of Occidental College in California for 11 years, and then became CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, where he boosted the number of partnership institutions and helped bring engineering education to underrepresented communities.
In 1987, he received the inaugural U.S. Black Engineer of the Year award. He was honored at the White House in 2015 with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. He joined the faculty of the USC in 2010, and in September 2023, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering renamed its Center for Engineering Diversity after Slaughter, a distinguished professor of engineering with a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education.
Though Slaughter has long since left UMD, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said his fingerprints are on every corner of the university he helped grow.
"The state of Maryland is a better place because of Dr. Slaughter," Moore said in a statement. "His legacy of excellence lives on in the students he inspired and the educators he mentored. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones, friends and former colleagues.”
Slaughter is survived by his wife, Bernice Slaughter, and two children, Jacqueline and John II.
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