A Forward-Thinking Career

Summer 2009

Percy_PierrePercy A. Pierre, PhD ’67, played power forward for his high school basketball team. At 6 feet one inch tall, Pierre was somewhat undersized for the position and relied on his athleticism and determination to excel on the court. The team captain often did. Both his sophomore and senior years, Pierre led St. Augustine’s in New Orleans to the city championship.

This combination of natural gifts, persistence, and leadership has served Pierre throughout his life—as White House Fellow, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Army, engineering college dean, and university president. His decades of work in the field of electrical engineering and his efforts with minority advancement were honored last year, when he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. The NAE recognized Pierre for his service to the Army in research and development, his contributions to engineering education, and his leadership in creating a national minority engineering effort.

Pierre, the nation’s first African American to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering, says he has always felt an obligation to promote the engineering profession, in particular to minority students.

Born in Welcome, Louisiana, Pierre and his family later settled in New Orleans. His father worked as a laborer on the riverfront and his mother was a homemaker. Though neither parent had any secondary education, he says, they made sure he and his two sisters set their sights on college.

Pierre embraced engineering his senior year of high school, particularly enjoying the physics of electricity. “It seemed like a challenging area, especially the theoretical side,” he says. After earning his BS and MS in electrical engineering at Notre Dame University, he strongly considered law school but decided to pursue a doctoral degree at the prompting of his faculty advisor.

Pierre applied to many schools, but chose Johns Hopkins. Ferdinand Hamburger, then chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, took a strong interest in Pierre’s application and helped him to find a place to live in then-segregated Baltimore. At Johns Hopkins, Pierre focused on signal processing and began his work on non-Gaussian random representations, specifically in the statistical analysis of communications systems. The Navy funded most of his work, which would have applications in the understanding and use of underwater sonar. He published five papers on this topic and presented at a scientific conference at the University of Michigan. “Everything I did in the field originated from my work at Johns Hopkins,” Pierre says today.

After Hopkins, Pierre went on to hold a number of administrative posts in government and higher education. He first served as a White House Fellow in the Executive Office of the President from 1969 to 1970. Howard University then tapped Pierre to be its dean of the College of Engineering, a position he held until 1977.

During the ensuing four years, as Pierreserved as assistant secretary to the Army for research, development, and acquisition, he had direct responsibility for the development of all Army weapons, including the Abrams tank, the Patriot Air Defense Missile System, and the Apache attack helicopter.

“What was exciting for me was the opportunity to manage all these systems and programs to success,” he says. “We had the best technology in the world, but the work required many major technical adjustments. Sometimes we had to completely change course and find new ways of doing things. That period was perhaps the most exciting experience in my engineering career.”

In 1981, the U.S. Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor presented to a civilian. Twelve years later the Navy bestowed on him a Superior Public Service Award.

Pierre also served as president of Prairie View A&M University (1983–89), vice president of research and graduate studies at Michigan State University (1990–95), and on the Michigan State faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (1995–2005). Pierre is currently a vice president and professor emeritus at Michigan State University and a member of Notre Dame’s board of trustees.

Throughout his career, Pierre has pushed to increase minority involvement in engineering by establishing programs across the country, including Howard University’s first doctoral programs in electrical and mechanical engineering; the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering; and the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science. Notably, he co-chaired the 1973 National Academy of Engineering Symposium, which launched the national minority engineering effort.

In honor of these achievements, Pierre last year received the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Lifetime Mentoring Award.

Pierre says that it was during his time at Howard University that he was first approached by General Electric to help them in their minority engineering recruiting initiative. “I’ve had many opportunities since to kindle a love of science and engineering,” he says, “and I’m very proud to have been able to do that and help African Americans move forward.”

Once a power forward, always one.