MIT Professor Celebrates 60th Birthday With Scholarship Fund
MIT professor Dr. Wesley L. Harris is a private person who prefers to celebrate birthdays quietly with his family, little fanfare, no fuss.
When his 60th loomed last fall, his wife, Sandra, wanted to surprise him by doing something special. Her dilemma: What do you do for a man who has everything? “I wanted it to be something memorable and lasting,” says Mrs. Harris, who conferred with people close to her husband, including Professor Emeritus Leon Trilling, Wes Harris’s mentor, colleague and longtime friend.
Mrs. Harris and Trilling enlisted others close to Professor Harris and established the Wesley L. Harris Scholarship Fund for MITE2S (Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science), a summer program at MIT for underrepresented minority high school students.
“It provides mentorship for young people in person rather than in spirit,” says Mrs. Harris, noting that most scholarship funds are created as memorials. Trilling said: “Opening a door to a young person is a particularly appropriate way to honor Wes in his lifetime.”
“My family, friends and former students have given me the greatest gift, namely to continue to include me in their lives in a genuine and sincere way,” says Harris, an active participant in MITE2S, which was established in 1974. “I am extremely grateful to each of my students who have shared their intellectual gifts with me and with each other while we solved a series of challenging and important technical problems. Hopefully, this scholarship will provide opportunities for other minority students to share their intellectual gifts.”
The intimate house party Mrs. Harris was planning to celebrate her husband’s birthday grew into a black tie catered affair at the University Park Hotel at MIT last October. The 40 to 45 friends and former students at the party immediately contributed more than $10,000.
Through March, the fund had $156,000 in pledges. The goal is $250,000 to endow two scholarships to MITE2S. “I am deeply touched and so is Wes,” says Mrs. Harris. “We were particularly gratified to see his former students respond so enthusiastically. They call it pay back by paying forward.”
MITE2S provides a six-week introduction to college-level science and engineering at MIT for underrepresented minority high school students each summer. Eighty students from 29 states and Puerto Rico participated in the program last summer.
Harris, who earned a bachelor’s from the University of Virginia and both a master’s and doctorate from Princeton University, was an MIT faculty member from 1972-85, when he left to become dean of engineering at the University of Connecticut from 1985 to 1990. He served as vice president of the University of Tennessee and head of its Space Institute and as NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics before returning to MIT as a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor in 1995. He rejoined the faculty in 1996 and now holds the Charles Stark Draper chair in aeronautics and astronautics. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (see Black Issues, Nov. 9, 2000).
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