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Remembering Paul Gray

MIT’s 14th president transformed the Institute through his commitment to enhance undergraduate education and his efforts to increase diversity.
October 24, 2017

Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60, who helped guide MIT through an era of unprecedented social and technological change in a career that included turns as student, professor, president, and MIT Corporation chair, died in September after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85.

Gray’s commitment to MIT, particularly to its students, was absolute. Even after retiring as Corporation chair in 1997, he returned to teaching and advising. His work at the Institute was carried out in partnership with his wife, Priscilla King Gray, a champion of public service who led efforts to create a sense of community at MIT and cofounded what is now called the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“Paul Gray led MIT with the clear-eyed pragmatism and uncommon steadiness of a born engineer, and the humility, warmth, and wisdom of an exceptional human being,” says MIT president L. Rafael Reif. “He was an indispensable advisor to two MIT presidents who preceded him and all three who have followed him. His affection for and trust in our students allowed him to serve as an anchor at MIT during the turbulence of the Vietnam War; inspired him to greatly increase the presence and profile of underrepresented minority and women students in our community; and led him to pioneer the creation of the then-revolutionary Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, now an inseparable part of the MIT experience. Paul loved the MIT community like family—and we feel his loss like family, too.”

When Gray arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, less than 2 percent of students were women, and the percentage of underrepresented minorities was similarly low. In 1968, in response to recommendations from the newly created Black Students Union, Gray, then associate provost, convened the Task Force on Educational Opportunity, which led to active recruitment and support of minority students. In a 2008 MIT Infinite History interview, Gray recalled that until then, “MIT had never recruited [any students]. We waited for applications to come.” As chancellor, he wrote the first formal plan to increase the number of female and minority faculty members and students.

By the end of his presidency in 1990, women made up more than 30 percent of incoming undergraduate classes, and underrepresented minorities constituted 14 percent. His efforts to increase diversity and inclusion “may be the most important thing I did around here,” Gray said in the Infinite History interview.

After earning three electrical engineering degrees from MIT, Gray joined the faculty in 1960 and helped overhaul the way the subject was taught, moving the focus from vacuum tubes to semiconductor electronics. After stints as associate dean for student affairs, associate provost, dean of the School of Engineering, and chancellor, he served as MIT’s 14th president from 1980 to 1990 and then as chairman of the MIT Corporation until 1997.

Gray is remembered for championing UROP, the brainchild of Margaret MacVicar ’64, ScD ’67, and for launching a formal review of the undergraduate curriculum that led to the addition of biology as a core requirement and strengthened offerings in the humanities and social sciences. He also helped establish the Leaders for Manufacturing Program (now Leaders for Global Operations), oversaw the establishment of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, and launched MIT’s Campaign for the Future, which raised $710 million. As Corporation chair, he played a lead role in the Campaign for MIT, which raised $2.05 billion.

“There may be no single person in modern history who has had such an impact on MIT as Paul Gray,” says MIT Corporation life member emeritus Jim Champy ’63, SM ’65. “So much of what we experience at MIT today was begun by Paul.”

An MIT memorial service is planned for 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 30, in Kresge Auditorium.

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