Wesley L. Harris has been elected to serve a four-year term as National Academy of Engineering vice president. Harris is the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science 1964 alumnus.
Harris was elected to the academy in 1995 for his contributions to the understanding of helicopter rotor noise, the encouragement of minorities in engineering and service to the aeronautical industry. Election to the academy is among the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer.
The new vice president post is the latest in a succession of remarkable achievements in Harris’ 54-year career. A few highlights include serving as head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, vice president and chief administrative officer for the Tennessee Space Institute, dean of engineering at the University of Connecticut and associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA. He also founded the MIT Hypersonics Research Team.
Harris's research has spanned many areas including unsteady aerodynamics, aeroacoustics and sickle cell disease. He is credited with more than 135 technical papers and presentations and has held numerous endowed professorships and tenured lectureships.
Harris’ academic success has always been accompanied by a dedication to increasing the success of Black engineers. He established MIT's first Office of Minority Education in 1975 to help retain students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM and served as MIT’s associate provost for faculty equity.
Harris remains one of UVA’s most significant alumni because of his scholarly achievements and historic contributions to activism and desegregation.
As a student, Harris was part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and became a member of the local chapter of the Virginia Council on Human Relations. As part of this group, Harris picketed local Charlottesville establishments to promote desegregation.
Harris eventually became chair of the council and was instrumental in bringing Martin Luther King, Jr. to Charlottesville to speak at Cabell Hall in March 1963, five years before King’s death. For Harris, the visit was life-changing.
“To see him up close, to shake his hand, to share a meal with him, just King himself, alone and without an entourage – it was an important event in my life, a cornerstone in my experience,” Harris said.
Harris’ interests and academic success helped usher in change at UVA. He was the first African-American to be on the Jefferson Literary & Debating Society, the first man (Black or white) to finish the engineering honors program and the second African-American to live on the Lawn (1963-1964).
After earning his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at UVA in 1964, he went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in aerospace and mechanical sciences at Princeton University. After graduating from Princeton, Harris returned to teach engineering at UVA, making him the first African American to receive a tenured faculty position and the first to teach the subject.