Rewind: Opening the Door

Winter 2019

Percy Pierre

When Percy Pierre received his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1967, he became the first African-American in the United States to earn a doctoral degree in electrical engineering. Then, he opened the door wide and held out a welcoming hand to those who came after him.

Pierre, today vice president emeritus and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State University, was a key architect of the nation’s minority engineering effort, which was officially launched in 1973 by a committee of the National Academy of Engineering that he co-chaired.

In the decades since then, 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 for Minorities in Engineering, the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, and the Sloan Engineering Program at Michigan State, which recruits, helps fund, and mentors domestic engineering doctoral students, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups.

Such efforts have made a tremendous impact. Since 1973, the number of Bachelor of Science degrees in engineering earned by minorities has jumped more than sixfold, from 1,414 to 9,246 in 2007. Over that same period, the nation saw a 10-fold increase in the number of minorities earning advanced degrees in engineering.

A native of Louisiana, Pierre is highly regarded for his work in signal processing, which has applications in the understanding and use of underwater sonar. “Everything I did in the field originated from my work at Johns Hopkins,” Pierre says today. After Johns Hopkins, he spent a year as a White House Fellow before being appointed dean of the School of Engineering at Howard University in 1971, a post he held until 1977. It was during this time that he was approached by General Electric to help in its minority engineering recruiting initiative.

Since 1998, Pierre has personally mentored 45 engineering doctoral graduates, including 36 underrepresented minority doctoral graduates, through the Sloan Program at Michigan State.

“I’ve had many opportunities to kindle a love of science and engineering. I’m very proud to have been able to do that and help African- Americans move forward,” says Pierre.