Pierre, Percy 1939–
Percy Pierre 1939–
In 1967 Percy Pierre became the first African American to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering. Within a year he had begun a very successful career that would include stints as a White House fellow, a university president, and an engineering consultant. He could have very easily focused only on his own career and enjoyed the fruits of his hard academic labors, but he was lonely. “I felt good about having made it,” Pierre told MSU Today, “but I felt that there was something wrong being the only one.” In 1973 Pierre helped outline what would become the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). Bringing together corporate, academic, and foundation support, NACME has provided more than $100 million to nearly 18,000 minority engineering graduate students in the days since its founding. Those students have gone on to become highly trained scientists, engineers, and business leaders, making sure that Pierre was never alone in his field again.
Percy Anthony Pierre was born on January 3, 1939, in St. James Parish, Louisiana, not far from New Orleans. His parents were Rosa Villavaso Pierre and Percy John Pierre, whose ancestry stretched back to the Maqua tribe of Mozambique, Africa. After graduating from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, Pierre enrolled in Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. While a student there Pierre helped organize the first and only civil rights march in South Bend and participated in efforts to integrate bars and restaurants in the city. In 1961 he received a bachelor’s of science and in 1963 a master’s of science, both in electrical engineering. He then transferred to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University where in 1967 he earned an electrical engineering PhD, becoming the first African American in the country to do so. He specialized in applied mathematics and signal processing in the field of communications.
After receiving his doctorate, Pierre did post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan before moving to Santa Monica, California, to take on a research position in the communications division of The Rand Corporation in 1968. In 1969 Pierre was appointed a White House Fellow for the Office of the President of the United States. Following the fellowship he returned to Rand for an additional year. During this period Pierre published several important academic papers on signal processing and detection.
In 1971 Pierre moved into the academic side of his field when he accepted the position of dean of the school of engineering at Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges. At Howard he soon became involved in various programs to increase minority participation in engineering. The group Minority Engineering Education Effort asked Pierre to assist with several areas including the Minority Introduction to Engineering program. The following year, after announcing its plans to support a countrywide effort to increase the number of minority engineers, GE recruited Pierre to be a partner in this plan. On behalf of GE, Pierre approached the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and proposed a symposium on the subject. NAE agreed and appointed Pierre chairman of the planning committee and co-chairman of the symposium. The symposium, held in
Born on January 3, 1939, in St James Parish, LA; Mmarried Olga A. Markham, 1965; children: Kristin Clare and Allison Celeste. Education: University of Notre Dame, BS, electrical engineering, 1961; University of Notre Dame, MS, electrical engineering, 1963; John Hopkins University, PhD, electrical engineering, 1967; University of Michigan post doctoral studies, 1968.
Career: Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, systems engineer, 1968-71; White House, Office of the President, fellow, 1969-70; Howard University, School of Engineering, dean, 1971-77; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, New York, NY, program officer, 1973-75; U.S. Department of the Army, assistant secretary, 1977-81; Percy A. Pierre & Associates, Bethesda, MD, president, 1981-83; Prairie View A&M University, president, 1983-89; Michigan State University, vice president, research and graduate studies, 1990-95; Michigan State University, professor, 1995-.
Selected memberships: The University of Notre Dame, trustee, 1973-; CMS Energy, board member, 1990-; The Aerospace Corporation, board member, 1991-; Hampshire College, trustee, 1996-; National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, board member, 1983-89.
Awards: University of Notre Darne, honorary doctorate, 1977; U.S. Army, distinguished civilian service award, 1981; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, honorary doctorate, 1984; National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Reginald Jones Award, 1984; National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Founders Award, 2004.
Addresses: Office —Michigan State University, Electrical and Computer Engineering, 3224 Engineering Bldg, East Lansing, Ml 48824-1226,
the summer of 1973, resulted in the creation of the NAE’s National Advisory Committee on Minorities in Engineering (later changed to National Advisory Council on Minorities in Engineering after breaking off from the NAE). Thirty years later NACME stood as the nation’s largest private source of scholarships for minority engineering students. Pierre credited this success to working with the private sector, particularly companies such as GE, Exxon, and Boeing who would benefit from an increased engineering talent pool. “You can always take money and give it to one student, but if we ran out of money the project would end,” Pierre told MSU Today. “Instead, we created an institute to raise money for scholarships from industry. It’s about leveraging a lot of resources to build something that would last.”
Following the symposium, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, an educational foundation started by former General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan, pledged 20% of its budget over a five-year period to increasing the number of minorities in engineering. They tapped Pierre to head up the program. Though still a full-time dean with Howard, he was able to work part-time with Sloan and helped institute several enduring programs. They included the National Scholarship Fund for Minority Engineering Students, developed with Sloan and NACME, and the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science. He also funded mathematics and engineering programs at several high schools across the country. During this time Pierre published several papers on the topic of minorities in engineering. Meanwhile he maintained his academic career in engineering, earning grants and publishing academic papers on communications and systems research.
Pierre left the world of academia and joined that of defense in 1977, becoming an assistant secretary for research, development, and acquisition in the US Department of the Army. He managed nearly $10 billion annually for the research, development, and production of weapons systems including smart weapons, radar systems, and secure communications. During the first Gulf war, Pierre was credited with the success of the Patriot Missile’s capabilities. In 1979 he authored “Equipping the Army,” a congressional report that was cited for an Award of Merit by Senator Proxmire, who called the report one of the most readable and honest presentations that he had seen in his many years in government.
Pierre left the military sector in 1981 to open a private engineering consultancy firm. Upon his resignation he received the distinguished civilian service award from the army. Percy A. Pierre Associates of Bethesda, Maryland, assisted Morgan State University, Florida A&M, and Xavier University with their respective engineering programs. Pierre also consulted with the Washington, DC, and the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, public school systems on the creation of engineering high schools.
In 1983 Pierre returned once again to academia, accepting the post of president at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university located in Prairie View, Texas. Overseeing a budget of $65 million, 950 employees, and nearly 6,000 students, Pierre led the school in major reforms including the construction of nine new buildings and the renovation of seven more. He established the College of Engineering Technology as well as an honors program. By the time he left the post in 1989, enrollment had increased by 25 percent and the school’s endowment had swelled from $300,000 to over $3 million.
Pierre moved to Michigan State University in 1990 and took over the position of vice president for research and graduate studies. He oversaw 6,000-plus graduate students and research projects valued in excess of $140 million per year. In 1995 he returned to teaching as a professor of electrical engineering for the university. In 1998 he also became director of MSU’s Sloan Scholars Program in Signal Processing, Communications, Computers and Controls (SPC3). The program recruits and mentors minority graduate engineering students.
In May of 2004 Pierre received the Founders Award from NACME at lavish gala held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The gala, celebrating the group’s 30th anniversary, was attended by a who’s who of academia, industry, and philanthropy. Bill Cosby was even on hand to lend his support. Upon accepting his award Business Wire quoted Pierre as saying, “NACME, over its 30 year history, has provided direct support to thousands of minority engineering students and been the focal point for collaboration and leadership for many organizations and individuals working in this important field. I am proud to accept this award from an organization that continues to be a part of America’s efforts to develop and utilize its human talent.” Had Pierre not turned his own talent to developing opportunities for others, NACME might not exist at all, and though it is not likely he’d still be lonely in his field, there would be a lot fewer minority engineers working alongside him.
Business Wire, May 5, 2004.
People Weekly, September 25, 2000.
“Black Alumni of Notre Dame,” Notre Dame University, http://alumni.nd.edu/groups/bio.htm (May 28, 2004).
“Founders Award,” National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, www.nacme.org/gala/honorees.html#pierre (May 28, 2004).
“History,” Prairie View Texas A&M University, www.pvamu.edu/index.php?page=history (May 28, 2004).
“Percy A. Pierre, PhD,” Michigan State University, www.egr.msu.edu/ece/fac_staff/pierre/ (May 28, 2004).
“The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences: Percy Anthony Pierre: Electrical Engineer, Mathematician,” Princeton, www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/pierre.html (May 28, 2004).
“Professor to be Honored for Creating Opportunities,” MSU Today, www.msutoday.msu.edu/news/index.php3?article=30Apr2004-10 (May 28, 2004).
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