Wesley L. Harris is a Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. He was among the four inaugural MLK Visiting Professors at MIT and has served many roles at the Institute since he began as a professor in 1972. Dr. Harris is former Head of Aero Astro, became the very first Director of MIT's Office of Minority Education, and most recently served as the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity.
His research interests are: fluid dynamics (unsteady aerodynamics, aeroacoustics); rotorcraft technology; economic incentives (defense systems acquisition, lean financial management methods); sustainment of capital assets; and sickle cell pathology (onset dynamics of crisis).
Dr. ‘Wes’ Harris was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1941. Airplanes intrigued him in childhood, and he made models of balsawood or plastic powered with rubber bands. As early as fourth grade, he dreamed of becoming a test pilot. In 1964, Dr. Harris earned an SB with honors in Aeronautical Engineering from The University of Virginia. He went on to receive an MA (1966) and a PhD (1968), both in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences, from Princeton University.
His research focused on demonstrating the effects of an object traveling at or above the speed of sound, studying how the shape of an object influences its high-speed movement through space and the noise generated by high-speed travel, as well as the problems of air flow in supersonic conditions.
Prior to his many appointments at MIT, Dr. Harris taught at Southern University and at The University of Virginia, where he met professor Leon Trillling. Trilling later became his mentor and eventually persuaded him to teach at MIT. He has also served as vice president and chief administrative officer at the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) and as dean of the School of Engineering and professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Connecticut.
Dr. Harris has published more than one hundred reports and is known for putting the name of his students ahead of his own in research works co-authored with students. He 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, as well as the first to teach engineering there.
His work on helicopter rotor noise, air flows above and below the speed of sound, and the advancement of engineering education earned him a fellowship with The American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Dr. Harris has served on various boards and committees, including: 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.
In 1972, Dr. Harris came to MIT as a Visiting Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In addition to numerous teaching and administrative duties since, he has been a champion of to diversity efforts at the Institute. His contributions include creating methods for measuring and improving student achievement and initiating programs that meet the needs of black students.
In 1995, four years after the appointment of the first MLK Visiting Scholar, Henry McBay, Dr. Harris was appointed as a MLK Visiting Professor. He was one of four inaugural MLK Visiting Professors, along with Richard Joseph (political science), Steven Lee (mathematics), and Oliver McGee (civil and environmental engineering). The following year, Dr. Harris rejoined the faculty as a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2003, he was named head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
In 2014, Dr. Harris received a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award. This special award is given only during decennial Annual MLK Celebrations at the Institute to acknowledge a community member who has given in dedicated service to the MIT Community. Dr. Harris is honored for his ongoing commitment to ensuring that all students achieve academically at MIT and for his work on increasing diversity efforts for faculty. See the "At MIT" section for more information on Dr. Harris' illustrious career at the Institute.