Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • PAUL E. GRAY (1932-2017)



    PAUL EDWARD GRAY, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) 14th president, who revolutionized scientific and engineering education in the United States, died Sept. 18, 2017, at age 85.

    Paul was born on Feb. 7, 1932, in Newark, New Jersey. His father, a technician at a public utility who never finished high school, spurred Paul’s intense interest in electronic devices. Paul grew up disassembling clocks and other small appliances in his house to explore their construction. In his basement, he built electromagnets powerful enough to levitate cake pans to the ceiling. He became a ham radio operator, using equipment that he made. By high school, he was certain he wanted to be an engineer.

    Paul earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at MIT, all in electrical engineering. After earning his master’s degree in 1955 and marrying Priscilla King, he served for two years in the U.S. Army as an electronics instructor at Fort Devens, where he discovered a love for teaching. In 1957, he returned to MIT for his doctoral studies. His research focused on the use of compound semiconductors as thermoelectric materials.

    He joined the MIT faculty in 1960 and helped to transform the way that electrical engineering was taught around the country, setting aside vacuum tubes to prepare students for the nascent era of semiconductor electronics. He worked with faculty at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as MIT on this project — and with industry leaders including IBM and Raytheon. He authored or co-authored foundational textbooks for the semiconductor revolution, including Electronic Principles: Physics, Models and Circuits (Wiley, 1969).

    At MIT, Paul’s gifts as a leader were recognized very quickly. He was named associate dean for student affairs in 1965, associate provost in 1969, and dean of the School of Engineering in 1970. He became chancellor in 1971 and president in 1980.

    In 1968, when he was associate provost, the newly created Black Students’ Union sent a list of requests to the MIT administration, hoping to make MIT a more welcoming place for underrepresented minorities. Paul convened the Task Force on Educational Opportunity to respond to the students’ concerns. The Task Force led MIT to begin actively recruiting talented minority students for the first time. As chancellor, Paul wrote and implemented MIT’s first formal plan to increase the numbers of women and minority faculty members as well.

    Paul’s leadership set in motion transformative changes. When he arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, women comprised less than 2% of each class, and the proportion of underrepresented minorities was similarly low. By the time he completed his presidency in 1990, women were 35% of incoming undergraduates and underrepresented minorities were 17%. Paul said that diversifying MIT “may be the most important thing I did around here.”

    It was merely the first among many important things. Paul championed the creation of the then-revolutionary Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to give undergraduates an experience that he believed to be key to their education: to “come to terms with an unsolved, real problem, something where they could make a genuine contribution.” Under this program, many MIT faculty welcomed undergraduates into their laboratories for the first time. The program became a national model.

    As president, he prepared MIT for the life sciences era by adding biology to the core requirements in the undergraduate curriculum. Under his tenure, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research was established at MIT, and the groundwork was laid for MIT’s surrounding neighborhood of Kendall Square to become the world’s capital of biotech. Paul also strengthened MIT’s offerings in the social sciences and humanities, believing that MIT needed to help its students understand that “engineering and science are, by their very nature, humanistic enterprises.”

    In 1986, he created MIT’s Commission on Industrial Productivity to address declining U.S. manufacturing amid fierce competition from Japan. The commission, composed of 17 MIT faculty members, produced a highly influential report titled Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge, which was published as a book with the same name (Michael L. Dertouzos (NAE 1990), Robert M. Solow (NAS 1972), Richard K. Lester; The MIT Press, 1989). In 1987, this effort inspired a new program at MIT named Leaders for Manufacturing, which brought together the School of Engineering, the Sloan School of Management, and industry leaders to build a new curriculum that taught the technical, analytical, and business skills needed in manufacturing.

    After stepping down as president, Paul served as chair of the MIT Corporation, the Institute’s board of trustees, from 1990 to 1997. Then, in 1997, he returned to full-time teaching and advising, helping MIT undergraduates find their paths for another 10 years.

    His ethic of service extended beyond MIT. In 1982, he became a member of the White House Science Council, where he served for four years. He was a member of the Council’s Panel on the Health of Universities. He was vice chairman of the Council on Competitiveness.

    Paul was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975, where he was named treasurer in 1994. He was a life fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

    Among his many awards, one of the most notable was bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, who honored him in 1992 with the Imperial Decoration, Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, for promoting mutual understanding between the United States and Japan. In 2010, IEEE awarded Paul its Founders Medal for his “exemplary career of leadership in education, research, and public policy.”

    Paul’s warmth, honesty, and lack of pretension were legendary. He led MIT with the endearing combination of soaring ambitions for the Institute and great personal humility. His readiness to learn from those around him expressed itself most movingly in the tremendous affection and respect he showed the students of MIT. As president, he and his wife Priscilla held weekly dinners for MIT seniors at the president’s residence, now named Gray House in their honor.

    Paul once wrote, “It is the students, who provide us with the capacity — and the imperative — for continuous self-renewal.” He added to MIT’s capacity for self-renewal by so readily embracing the possibility of change and of moral improvement, as MIT opened up opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities who had previously been excluded from scientific and engineering education. He made MIT, and the entire country, better.

    His wife Priscilla King Gray, who co-founded the MIT Public Service Center — since renamed in her honor as the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center — died on Feb. 8, 2023. Paul and Priscilla are survived by four children and their spouses — Virginia and Thomas Army, Amy and David Sluyter, Andrew and Yukiko Gray, and Louise and Timothy Huyck — and by 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.