Dr. Augustine Esogbue: Meeting the Mission, in Retirement

By NSBE


Augustine O. Esogbue, Ph.D. (standing, left), NSBE national advisor emeritus and professor emeritus of Georgia Tech, being honored by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria for his many achievements and exemplary contributions to Nigerian development (September 2013)

Trying to sum up the career of NSBE’s first national advisor emeritus is more than a daunting task: it’s more like a fool’s errand. For one thing, Augustine O. Esogbue, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Georgia Tech’s H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, has a 66-page resume packed with major accomplishments and little to no “fluff.” For another, “Dr. E.,” as he is fondly known by many in the NSBE family, is still making news in his retirement faster than NSBE can publish it on the ’Net. In 2013 alone, he received seven awards, including recognition in September by the president of his homeland, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as one of the “Top Ten Most Accomplished Nigerian Professionals in the U.S.”

Dr. Esogbue admits feeling honored by such high-level attention, but his decades of service to NSBE on the national and chapter levels “means quite a lot to me,” he says, “even more than the awards…. NSBE has been very central to my activities in life.”

Becoming World-Class

And a remarkable life that has been. After a stellar high school career, Dr. Esogbue landed in New York City in 1961, at the end of a long trip from Lagos by air, rail then boat. After a brief orientation to the U.S. at the home of an American-Canadian family in Denver, he continued on to UCLA, where he finished a five-year Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering program in less than three years. Maulana Karenga — the creator of Kwanzaa — and NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among the students he talked with during that time.

With his sights then set on research in large-scale systems and optimization, and on a permanent return to Nigeria in the not-distant future, he went to Columbia University, where he earned his master’s in industrial engineering and operations research in less than a year.

He then decided to get a Ph.D., motivated by his friends’ decisions to earn doctorates and despite discouragement from some members of Columbia’s faculty. This he did at the University of Southern California, under the mentorship of Richard Bellman, Ph.D., known as “the father of dynamic programming.” With this degree, Dr. Esogbue became the world’s first black Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering and operations research, in June 1968. By then, he had experience in solving large-scale problems in healthcare and water resources, and was well on his way to his current status as a world expert in operations research; industrial and systems engineering technology; and intelligent systems and control methodologies. Along the way, he has authored five books, 35 book chapters and more than 400 technical publications and presentations.

Driving Diversity

A faculty position at Case Western University followed his stay at USC, then a courtship by Georgia Tech, where he became associate professor of industrial and systems engineering in June 1972 — the university’s first black professor. He became a full professor five years later.

“I could easily have just stayed comfortably at Georgia Tech, done my research, done my teachings and left,” Dr. Esogbue says. But fortuitously, Maynard Jackson, then mayor of Atlanta, took an interest in him and became his informal mentor. Jackson was the first African American to head the city. “…It was Maynard Jackson who welcomed me, sort of introducing me to issues confronting blacks in America, particularly in education. So I vowed not to limit my work to intellectual, academic pursuits on campus but also to cement it with mentoring and involvement in challenging problems in societal systems, but particularly the black community.”

Dr. Esogbue made himself a main driver of affirmative action at Georgia Tech, as a member of the Institute Affirmative Action Committee and subsequently as chair of the Affirmative Action (Faculty) Task Force.

“Georgia Tech was really about to lose its accreditation for federal funds because of the paucity of blacks in various segments of its community,” he says. “I told them, ‘If you say you are going to (increase diversity), then you must invest in it, in the sense of putting resources into it. You must grow your own and not simply wait for others to produce faculty-eligible candidates.’ And, of course, these views were not necessarily popular then; but I had the support of the president.”

Today, Georgia Tech is the nation’s top producer of African-American engineers, and an African-American and longtime NSBE member, Gary S. May, Ph.D., is dean of its College of Engineering. Dr. Esogbue was a mentor of Dr. May. They both recently returned from Nigeria, where they participated in the inauguration of the African Engineering Deans Council.

‘Tradition of Excellence’

NSBE became a vehicle for Dr. Esogbue’s social activism early in the life of the Society. He became founding advisor of the Georgia Tech chapter in 1976 and a NSBE national advisor in 1989. When he retired from those positions in 2010 and 2012, respectively, he was the longest-serving advisor to any Georgia Tech campus organization and NSBE’s longest-serving national advisor – distinctions he still proudly holds.

Dr. Esogbue says the upward course of his life has been in part by design and in part by destiny. For instance, he credits his ability to work and make breakthroughs in multiple areas of research to the teachings of his mentor Dr. Richard Bellman. His ability to work with and bring together people from greatly different backgrounds he attributes partly to his own upbringing. He was born and raised with 18 siblings and a large extended family in Kaduna, a mainly Christian city in predominately Muslim northern Nigeria. And he went to a Christian boarding high school in Kaduna and post-secondary in Lagos with students from across the country — a rare experience for a Nigerian student.

Engineering, he says, “is basically a disciplined and integrity-imbedded approach to creative problem-solving.”

Dr. Esogbue has mastered that approach in many areas, and he’s still teaching it to others.

“(NSBE Georgia Tech) won several National and Distinguished Chapter of the Year awards under my watch, but the Distinguished Chapter of the Year Award the year I was retiring (2010) was perhaps the icing on the cake,” he says.

“Their first meeting is this Thursday, so I’m going there to let them know they have traditions, (that) they are not just ‘Johnnie come lately.’ And they have a reputation to uphold, a tradition of excellence.

“NSBE has produced many successful black engineers in my lifetime who are excellent academically and are positively impacting their communities globally,” he continues. “I am happy to have played some role in engineering this transformation.”

Dr. E’s Impact

Dr. Augustine Esogbue has benefited NSBE in countless ways. A few of his major contributions follow.

Longest-serving NSBE Chapter Founder and Continuous Chapter Faculty Advisor (1976–2012) Longest-serving Continuous Member of NSBE's National Advisory Board (1987–present) Only Recipient of NSBE’s Golden Torch Award for Lifetime Achievement in Education (1999) Founder and Chair of NSBE's Technical Paper Competition/Symposium (1990–2012) Founder and Chair of the Engineering Deans Forum at the NSBE Annual Convention (2000–2011) Creator of an annual scholarship award at Georgia Tech, the AESO Systems Minority Graduate Engineering Award, named for his compan Mentor of numerous NSBE members who have gone on to stellar careers in academia and government