James R. Killian, or how Sputnik paid for college educations

When Sputnik, the Earth’s first artificial satellite, was launched on 4 October 1957, James Killian was the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sputnik’s launch triggered immense soul-searching in the U.S. scientific, technical, and political community. On 7 November 1957, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Killian to be the first Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (or, as the title was often shortened, Presidential Science Advisor) in order to coordinate the U.S.’s technical research. Killian was an excellent choice. Widely known and profoundly respected for his technical and educational accomplishments, Killian was also a humanist and a seeker after truth. He was strong enough to resist the post-Sputnik panic and to ensure that the U.S. pursued reasoned paths of research which served its own interest, rather than weaken its technology by frantically imitating whatever the Soviets were doing. “The aim of the United States should be to surpass itself, not some other nation,” he said in his first public speech. Killian was an advocate of science and technology, hoping to make people enthusiastic about it and to “discover its inner power to make men and women a little more creative, a little more objective, and a little more humane.” The main part of Killian’s job was advising on research programs being considered by the U.S. government, and he attempted to make sure more research resources were spent on “those undertakings which bear more directly on human well-being,” technologies which increased industrial productivity, generated high-technology industry, strengthened the economy, and improved the quality of the environment. Part of strengthening the nation’s technical base was in strengthening its educational resources. He did much to shape the legislation which would ultimately become the National Defense Education Act of 2 September 1958. Perhaps Killian’s most enduring and widely felt legacy is that he helped Marion Folsom -- then Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare -- convince Eisenhower to accept the Judd amendment establishing a federal student loan program as part of the Act. Eisenhower had initially doubted that a student loan program would prove very popular. It was Killian’s experience at MIT, which had made such a fund available to its students since 1930, which convinced Eisenhower it would work. It has grown to become the largest form of federal financial aid; currently 54% of U.S. college and university students borrow for their educations. Without it, generations of talented U.S. students would either have been unable to attend university, or would have had their choices severely constrained. It is no exaggeration to say that generations of U.S. students (this author is one of them) owe their college educations to Killian, and by extension, to Sputnik. Killian’s contributions to society do not rest there. After returning to his duties as president of MIT, Killian accepted the Chairmanship of the Carnegie Commission on Education Television, which had much to do with shaping the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. Killian later wrote in his autobiography that helping to design and launch public television and public radio was one of the most rewarding undertakings of his career. At the same time that Killian’s contributions to the student loan program opened educational opportunities to millions of Americans, his vision of a publicly-owned, non-commercial network enhanced the intellectual and cultural landscape of virtually every U.S. citizen. He later received two George Foster Peabody Awards for his achievements on behalf of public broadcasting.

Beginning in 1969, Killian served a five-year term as a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and was credited with major contributions to disarmament as the committee developed verification proposals and showed that underground nuclear tests could be detected using seismic equipment.

In 1975, the Marconi Foundation named James Killian its first Marconi Fellow in honor of “a lifetime of public service in science and engineering.” James Killian died on 29 January 1988, a technologist and humanist who shaped the world he lived in.