Harris, Wesley L.
Wesley L. Harris
Wesley L. Harris is the head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to this position, he served as associate administrator for aeronautics at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), vice president and chief administrative officer of the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI), and dean of the School of Engineering and professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Connecticut. Harris's life work paved the way for NASA to acquire more powerful supercomputers and advanced minority student concerns as well as programs. He is an exceptional role model for his students. His many honors and achievements indicate the high quality of his work.
Harris was born in Richmond, Virginia on October 29, 1941 to William and Rosa Harris, who worked in Richmond's tobacco factories. As a child, Harris was intrigued by airplanes and learned to build different models. Some of his airplanes were made of balsawood or plastic and were powered with rubber bands. In the fourth grade, Harris won an essay contest about career goals with a paper on how he wanted to become a test pilot. Harris's parents were convinced that education would give their three children entry into a better life, and Harris proved it. Harris received his B.S. with honors in aeronautical engineering in 1964 from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. He received his M.A. in 1966 and his Ph.D. in 1968, both in aerospace and mechanical sciences from Princeton University.
Harris initially wanted to study physics in college after he graduated high school; unfortunately, at that time the University of Virginia did not allow African Americans to major in it. He settled for a major in aeronautical engineering. In addition to his studies Harris had married in 1960 and had family responsibilities. He was often lonely on campus because there were only five or six other African Americans at the university. Moreover, most facilities in Charlottesville were segregated, and there were only a few places black students could go.
After completing his Ph.D. at Princeton, Harris was hired by the University of Virginia, as assistant professor of aerospace engineering. Harris believed that black educators should encourage promising African American students. He took a one-year leave of absence to teach physics at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a university that has a predominately black student body. He returned to Virginia as associate professor and met Leon Trilling of MIT who eventually became his mentor. In the mid-1960s, Trilling started a program to take some students from Boston's inner city areas and place them in suburban schools. In 1972, Trilling persuaded Harris to take another temporary leave from the University of Virginia and work with him. In 1973 MIT offered Harris the position of associate professor of aeronautics, astronautics, and ocean engineering. Harris accepted this position and remained with MIT until 1979.
At MIT Harris developed many programs to assist African American students and other minorities. He established MIT's first Office of Minority Education in 1975 in order to help retain minority students and improve their performance. Harris created methods for measuring the students' achievements and developed ways for the school to help them improve. He also started other programs to acquaint faculty members with the special needs of African American students.
In 1979, Harris joined NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., pioneering the use of computers to solve problems concerning high-speed air movement. His success in complex ventures paved the way for NASA to acquire more powerful supercomputers. In 1985, Harris accepted the position of dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. During his five years at the University of Connecticut, Harris developed a partnership between the university and local companies, namely, Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine maker, and United Technologies, an aerospace giant. When he first arrived at the University of Connecticut, the School of Engineering recruited only five or six African American or Hispanic students each year. When Harris left in 1990, the number of new minority students accepted each year had risen to about forty. Harris also established the first University of Connecticut research center for grinding metals and an institute for environmental research.
Harris joined the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) in Tullahoma as the vice president and chief administrative officer. In 1992, Harris was encouraged by NASA administrator Dan Goldin to assist in the revival of aviation studies in the United States. Harris accepted Goldin's invitation to return to NASA as associate administrator for aeronautics. In this capacity Harris directed the NASA research and development efforts to support of the domestic aeronautics industry. He was also in charge of several projects, including research on technology for a new supersonic transport plane. In addition, he directed the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) program, which works to develop aircrafts that can reach orbital altitudes by themselves.
- Born in Richmond, Virginia on October 29
- Receives B.A. from the University of Virginia
- Receives M.A. from Princeton University
- Receives Ph.D. from Princeton University; accepts teaching position at the University of Virginia
- Takes leave from the University of Virginia to work with Leon Trilling of MIT
- Accepts associate professor appointment in Aeronautics, Astronautics, and Ocean Engineering position at MIT
- Establishes MIT's first office of Minority Education
- Joins the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.
- Accepts the position of the dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Connecticut in Storrs
- Becomes vice president and chief administrative officer of the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) in Tullahoma
- Returns to NASA as associate administrator for aeronautics
- Returns to MIT as a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor
- Rejoins the faculty at MIT
- Receives Leadership Award at MIT's annual MLK Celebratory Breakfast
- Named head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT
Harris's research interests focused on demonstrating what happens when an object travels at or above the speed of sound. For example, Harris studied how the shape of an object influences its high-speed movement through space. He investigated other effects as well, such as noise generated by high-speed travel. Harris also studied the problems of air flow in supersonic conditions.
Harris returned to MIT as a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor in 1995 and rejoined the faculty the next year. He received a Leadership Award at MIT's annual MLK Celebratory Breakfast in 2001. He was named head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2003.
Harris has published more than one hundred reports on his research and has been recognized by professional organizations and engineering institutions. In research works co-authored with his students, Harris always put the name of his students ahead of his own.
Harris was the first African American to become a member of the Jefferson Society, the University of Virginia's famous debating group. He was also the first African American to receive a tenured faculty position at the University of Virginia and was the first to teach engineering at that school.
Harris has received numerous awards. For example, the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) named Harris a fellow for his work on helicopter rotor noise, air flows above and below the speed of sound, and the advancement of engineering education. Harris has served as chair and member of various boards and committees: the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Science Board, and several state governments. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the Cosmos Club, and the Confrerie Des Chevaliers Du Tastevin.
Kessler, James H. et al. Distinguished African American Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Arizona: Oryx, 1996.
Thompson, Garland L. "19 Engineers Told to Broaden Their Reach. A NASA View: People, Economics as Important as Technical Mastery." Black Issues in Higher Education 11 (11 August 1994): 25.
"Face to face with Wesley Harris." Aerospace America 31 (September 1993). http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/results/results_single.jhtml?nn=20 (Accessed 13 January 2005).
"MIT professor celebrates 60th birthday with scholarship fund." http://web2.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/informark/954/778/60339620w2/purl=rcI_GRG (Accessed 13 January 2005).
Nkechi G. Amadife