Occidental College President Emeritus John B. Slaughter Dies at 89

Dick Anderson Photo by Marc Campos

John Brooks Slaughter, Occidental College’s 11th president, died on December 6 at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, surrounded by family and friends.

From the first days of his presidency, Slaughter embraced Occidental’s tradition of outstanding academic achievement while recognizing the mutuality of excellence and equity. At his inauguration in April 1989, he declared, “Quality and equality are inseparable and diversity is synonymous with what is best in America.” Demonstrating his talent as a consensus-builder, the Chaucer-reciting engineer led the College through the formulation of a widely accepted strategic plan and mission statement that positioned Occidental to become one of the country’s best and most distinctive liberal arts colleges.

Once in place, the plan quickly yielded results. During the Slaughter years, Occidental students won three Rhodes scholarships—ending a 27-year drought—as well as three Trumans, three Marshalls, 18 Goldwaters, 17 NSF fellowships, 15 Watsons, and a host of other national awards. Despite difficult circumstances, including a major earthquake and civil unrest, student applications eventually rose to record levels as the College’s interdisciplinary and multicultural academic programs drew national recognition.

Praised by students and faculty for his friendly, positive leadership, his warm, gracious personality and strong sense of personal integrity, Slaughter’s community-building initiatives included a real belief in shared governance, as evidenced by the creation of the campus-wide Planning and Priorities Council and Budget Committee. He oversaw Compass for a New Century: The Campaign for Occidental, which raised a record $72 million over five years for a variety of academic programs, student scholarships, and construction projects. He spearheaded the renovation and expansion of Johnson Student Center and the creation of Samuelson Pavilion, the opening of the Child Development Center, and the rededication of Herrick Chapel and Interfaith Center.

Born in Topeka, Kan., on March 16, 1934, Slaughter began his collegiate training at Washburn University in Topeka and completed his B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University in 1956. He received his M.S. in engineering from UCLA in 1961 and his Ph.D. in engineering science from UC San Diego in 1971. He also has received honorary degrees from 25 institutions (including Occidental in 1999).

In 1956, Slaughter joined General Dynamics Astronautics in San Diego. Four years later, he began a 15-year association with the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center. In 1975, he joined the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington as its director and as professor of electrical engineering. From 1977 to 1979, he served as an assistant director at the National Science Foundation, becoming academic vice president and provost at Washington State University in 1979. He returned to the NSF in 1980 to serve as its director—the first African American in that role. In 1982, he was named chancellor of the University of Maryland, College Park. In August 1988, he became the 11th president of Occidental College.

While at Occidental, Slaughter served as co-chair of the California Citizens Commission on Higher Education, a member of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, and the Christopher Commission. He was named president emeritus in 1999.

Following Slaughter’s retirement from Occidental, he taught courses in diversity and leadership for one year as Irving R. Melbo Professor of Leadership Education at USC before accepting the position of president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), whose mission is to increase the number of engineers of color, in 2000. In January 2010, Slaughter returned to USC as professor of education and engineering. He retired in 2022. On September 20, 2023, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering dedicated the new John Brooks Slaughter Center for Engineering Diversity.

In his final Founders Day address in April 1999, Slaughter said: “I have always believed that Occidental’s commitment to a mission that embraced the ideal of the mutuality that exists between excellence and equity began on that April day in 1887. To be sure, the world was different then, the words that were used may have been different then, and the founding fathers of this fledgling college may have envisioned this future through a mirror darkly then, but it is clear that they saw the need for an institution in the still raw City of Angels that someday would emerge as an ‘Oasis of Hope’ for future generations. Occidental College is such a place today, and all who are here can be proud of the roles they have played in making it so.”

Slaughter is survived by his wife, Dr. Bernice Slaughter; son, John II; and daughter, Jacqueline. The Occidental College flag will be flown at half-staff in his memory from December 11-15.