Wesley L. Harris
C.S. Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT
40th MLK Jr. Celebration Lifetime Achievement award
Visiting Professor 1995-1996
Hosted by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
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.
Wes Harris on his experience meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, his time as one of very few black students at UVA, and his advice to college students.
William and Wesley Harris, twin brothers, were born in 1941 into a poor, African American household and community in Richmond, Virginia. They were nine years old when a heart attack claimed their father’s life, leaving their mother—a domestic worker and seamstress—to rear the boys and their three older siblings. They had few economic resources and spent their childhoods in the shadow of Jim Crow repression.
These boys—my father William and his brother Wesley—became extraordinary men. After graduating from Richmond’s segregated Armstrong High School in 1960, they became the first in the family to attend college.
Dr. Harris: Promoting creative thinking and innovation
CommentaryMIT's Associate Provost for Faculty Equity in his own words
As the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity, my challenge, which I accept as an opportunity, is to make sure that faculty of color that we invite here is given every opportunity to show their gifts, to engage in this enterprise, to make sure that we are pulling the rest of the world to higher levels of scholarship.
There are, there are many pebbles in the road at MIT, occasionally there are boulders in the road at MIT. And you will need to have a, a network, a adviser, mentor, friend, colleague, who will help you to find the size of the pebble or the boulder, and maybe even put his or her shoulder to the road, to help move the pebble or boulder aside. It will not necessarily be a smooth ride. But then again, I think that's true of any leading academic institution.
As a senior faculty member, or a senior staff person at MIT, you don't have to look very far to find an opportunity to help someone. It may be a student, or another colleague, another faculty member. But there's always a way to, let's say move those pebbles, or push those boulders aside, to be clear about the requirements, the expectations of MIT, and at the same time to offer a path forward to achieve those expectations, those goals.
You don't have to look far. There are so many people here who will gladly accept your advice and council, and your friendship, and your ability to serve as a serious creative mentor. So faculty of color, there is support. You're going to find a very challenging environment, sometimes on edge, but you also will find a very, very rich, dynamic environment.