By Eric Addison
He didn’t fully realize it at the time, but as a high school student, Karl Reid had a few advantages that helped him achieve success against a backdrop of challenges. His work today, as a leading advocate for increasing college access, opportunity and success, seeks to spread those types of advantages more equitably across the educational landscape for students of all races, ethnicities, genders and economic circumstances.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Roosevelt, a predominantly African-American, working-class community on Long Island, Reid had parents who placed a high value on education and applied high standards to their children’s academic work. When he was admitted to a well-resourced, magnet high school near Roosevelt, a school with a majority white student body, it put him on a track to follow his older brother to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he fully expected to continue being an outstanding student, so his first-semester struggles came as a shock.
“Suddenly, I was a college student who barely understood what was going on in lecture. I hadn’t learned yet to read ahead of class,” Reid says. “I could barely keep up with new information being presented to me, never mind ask a question. My score of 38 on my first physical chemistry exam was the final wake-up call.”
Reid came through the crisis by finding his internal drive (his “grit”), by applying it to a demanding regimen of independent study and by building beneficial relationships on campus. In his freshman year, he joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), a college-student-led organization with a mission to, “increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” Reid credits NSBE with building his leadership skills during his tenure as vice president of MIT’s NSBE chapter in his junior year, and subsequently as the Society’s national chair. He left MIT in 1985 as a Tau Beta Pi scholar with two academic degrees: A Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in materials science and engineering.
Later, in 1991, years into a successful career in the burgeoning computer industry, Reid had a crucial experience that clarified his purpose and changed his life’s work. Reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a seminal volume about educational disparities in the United States, he saw how his own experience as a K–12 student fit into a broad pattern of discrimination. He finished the book determined to do something about the problem.
Reid left the computer field to return to MIT, where he worked in positions of progressive responsibility to increase diversity at his alma mater—eventually becoming associate dean of undergraduate education and director of the Office of Minority Education—and took the opportunity to earn a Doctor of Education at Harvard University. His next employer was the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), where he oversaw new program development, research and capacity building for the organization’s 37 historically black colleges and universities and held the title of senior vice president for research, innovation and member college engagement.
In June 2014, Dr. Reid made another auspicious return, this time to NSBE as executive director. Based at the Society’s World Headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia, he supports NSBE’s National Executive Board, and NSBE’s 25,000 in reaching the main goal of the Society’s 10-year strategic plan: To partner with educational institutions to end the underrepresentation of blacks in engineering in the U.S. by producing 10,000 black engineers annually in the country, by 2025. He has also helped nurture NSBE’s impressive growth abroad: A large percentage of the Society’s members now reside in Africa.
Dr. Reid’s diversity and inclusion work outside of NSBE—most notably his foundational and leadership role with the 50K Coalition and his membership on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women of Color in Tech—also supports the Society’s mission. And he has authored a book, Working Smarter, Not Just Harder: Three Sensible Strategies for Succeeding in College…and Life, which was published in 2017.
Dr. Reid admits the societal problems he has chosen to solve are large and intractable, but after 22 years of rising daily to the challenge, he believes the statistics are moving in the right direction.
“Seeing young people grow in intellect and character and go on to achievements in STEM that benefit their families, their communities, their nation and themselves is a priceless experience,” Dr. Reid says. “Our work is difficult, but the rewards are great.”