Shirley McBay, who created a role model to tackle racial inequality in education, dies at 86

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Dr McBay – who was also the founder and president of the Quality Education for Minorities Network, a national non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, who evolved from her work at MIT – died in her Los Angeles home on Nov. 27 of diabetes and normal pressure hydrocephalus, a form of dementia. She was 86 years old.

When she led the preparation of the “Racial Climate” report, “no other such study has been done at any other university in this country,” said Kenneth R. Manning, Thomas Meloy Professor of Rhetoric and History of Science at MIT. “It was the first one I know of.”

He added that “you could say it went viral in a certain sense at that time and caused a lot of soul-searching on the part of the institute.”

Dr. McBay “was a force of nature,” said Daniel Hastings, associate dean of engineering for diversity, equity, and inclusion at MIT.

“She was very dedicated to making sure that as more and more women and minorities came to MIT, they were successful — so they could thrive,” said Hastings, professor of aeronautics and engineering. Astronautics who heads the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “She, in that sense, had a national impact.”

Part of his impact came from leading by example. She graduated from high school at 15 and completed a bachelor’s degree at 19.

Dr. McBay had already earned a master’s degree in chemistry and mathematics when, at age 21, she became the first black student to earn a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Georgia, and the first lady receive one in that discipline from the school.

“She was unique,” Manning said. “Whoever made this design threw away the pattern.”

Born in Bainbridge, Georgia on May 4, 1935, Shirley Ann Mathis was the daughter of Annie Bell Washington Mathis, who was a cook and sold Avon products. Dr. McBay’s father, James Mathis, spent little time in his life.

“My mother was my role model in terms of it being clear that hard work was always what brought rewards,” Dr. McBay said in an interview for “Technology and the Dream,” a book by oral histories conducted with black students, faculty, and staff at MIT.

“There was never a question in my mind, growing up, about what was needed to be successful,” Dr. McBay told interviewer Clarence G. Williams in 1996. even had a very limited education, she used what she had. to succeed.”

At that time, black children were not allowed in the Bainbridge community pool and instead had to go to a nearby river, where one of his cousins ​​drowned while trying to learn to swim.

Two other cousins ​​had to flee overnight to Florida after being briefly imprisoned when one of them slapped a white boy who spat on her. The family feared being lynched.

With the support of encouraging teachers, Dr. McBay skipped a few grades and went off to college and graduate school early.

In 1954, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, concentrating on that area because there were too few math majors to warrant graduate-level courses.

She earned a master’s degree in chemistry and mathematics from Atlanta University in 1957 and 1958 and earned a doctorate from the University of Georgia in 1966.

While in graduate school at Atlanta University, she took math classes at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where she met Henry McBay, a well-known chemistry professor and researcher. They married in 1954 and had two sons.

Dr. Henry McBay, who in 1991 became the first Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at MIT, has died in 1995.

While Shirley was pursuing graduate school, she began teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta. Except for a break of a few years when her husband was at the University of Chicago, she remained until 1975 at Spelman, where she chaired the mathematics department.

“When I started teaching at Spelman, the students in my classes were older than me,” she said during the oral history interview with MIT professor emeritus Williams. who founded the MIT Black History project. “I accompanied students older than me. They didn’t know it, but they were.

For five years in the late 1970s, before joining the MIT administration in 1980, she worked for the National Science Foundation, where part of her goal was to improve education for students of color.

“What I learned from her was the capacity for unconditional love,” said her son Michael from Los Angeles. “She showed the same love for her students and her work.”

He added that “without overtly mentioning spirituality and God, she was a force for good in academia”.

A Boston service will be announced for Dr. McBay, who in addition to Michael leaves behind his other son, Ronald of Atlanta.

At MIT, while leading the preparation of reports focused on recruiting, admissions, counseling and financial aid for students of color, Dr. McBay advocated for the institution to do more immediately, particularly to address disparities digital.

“What any minority needs is a critical mass to feel some sense of belonging,” she told the Globe in 1986. “I don’t think critical mass is here. There aren’t enough black students in particular. There are only 250; that’s 6% of 4,500.

The next year, she spoke before a congressional panel focused on educating underrepresented groups and communities.

“In the pursuit of knowledge in science and engineering, the worst intellectual crime one can commit is to prejudge one’s outcome, to prejudge how something will turn out,” she said. “However, that is precisely what we do when we fail – from primary school through university – to encourage women and minorities to enter the fields of science and engineering.”

This, she added, ultimately limits the progress of the nation.

“We must realize the talent we are missing when, as in 1985, women received only 6% of American doctorates in engineering, or when, in that same year, only seven black people in this entire nation received a doctorate in mathematics “, Dr. McBay told the panel.

She remained at MIT from 1980 to 1990, when she left to lead the Quality Education for Minorities Network, which works improve the education of underrepresented students nationally.

A long-time educator herself, she stressed the importance of mentors.

“There were just people at every moment that I can tell you, who made a difference in terms of what happened to me,” she said in the oral history. “The teachers really made a difference.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]


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