APS News

Massey Adopts “Old Style” Approach to Morehouse Presidency

masseyUpgrading campus computers,creating interdisciplinary courses, and serving burgers and fries in the cafeteria to better interact with the student body are just some of a typical day's activities for physicist Walter Massey. A former APS vice president, Massey left a prestigious position at the University of California System nearly three years ago to become president of Morehouse College, the nation's only historically black, liberal arts college for men, claiming his desire to return to his alma mater and a presidency that fosters relationships with students.

Massey's interest in science dates back to his childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The young Massey was quite keen on mathematics in high school, and at the age of 16, he enrolled in a Ford Foundation program for early admission of qualified young black men to Morehouse. There, he was introduced to the world of science by one of his early professors and mentors, Henry McBay, a nationally recognized figure within the black scientific community who taught a required introductory chemistry course. But it was his first physics instructor, S.H. Christensen, who influenced his decision to make physics his career. "It was cleaner, with no messy labs or chemicals, and there was a stronger mathematics component," says Massey of his choice of profession.

Massey earned a bachelor's degree in both physics and mathematics in 1958. That same year, his mother, Essie, an elementary school teacher whom he credits with teaching him the value of education, also earned a bachelor's degree in education, from Jackson State University. Massey says he was intrigued by physics because it combined mathematical problem-solving with understanding the physical world. He pursued graduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, completing his Ph.D. in physics in 1966, specializing in analyzing the properties of quantum solids and liquids at very low temperatures.

Eventually he landed at Brown University as professor of physics and dean of the undergraduate college, a period he describes as one of the happiest of his career, largely because of the substantial contact he had with both students and faculty. Prestigious positions as director of Argonne National Laboratory, vice president of research at the University of Chicago, director of the National Science Foundation, and vice president of the University of California followed, and while Massey continued to excel, he missed the close interactions with students and faculty. This was a major factor in his decision to leave the University of California and assume the presidency of Morehouse, his alma mater, in 1995. "Part of returning was to make a statement that Morehouse and schools like this are able to attract people from major universities," he says. "It was not an easy decision, but it was the right one. Now that I'm back, I know that."

Massey takes his commitments to the student body and faculty seriously. He set up an elected Faculty Council to allow faculty members to take part in policy decisions. He holds regular meetings with the Student Government Association officers and has begun a series of "Presidential Chats," in which community and business leaders take part in informal talks with students. He also teaches from time to time, drawing on his national administrative experience to lead a seminar last year on science and technology policy. To encourage more interaction between students and faculty, he tore down the cafeteria wall separating the two dining areas. Nor is Massey above serving burgers, fries and pasta in the cafeteria himself.

In keeping with the Morehouse tradition of cultivating future world leaders, Massey is raising money to establish a Leadership Center, which will offer seminars and classes on leadership, and will be accessible to students attending the five other members of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of historically black colleges. And, in addition to bulking up programs in African-American and international studies, he and the provost, John Hopps, a physicist and his college roommate, have established interdisciplinary programs in neuroscience and materials science through partnerships with other colleges and universities, among them Georgia Tech, Princeton, and Brown University.

Massey has also been instrumental in preparing the institution for the 21st century. The college is completing a $4.5 million investment in technology, installing fiber optic cable networks campus-wide so that even the dorms are now wired for computers. A standardized computer base has been created, with major hardware and software upgrades for the institution's administrative computer systems for such functions as registration and financial aid. A new Office of Information Technology was established to manage the computer operations and to set up training courses for students, faculty and staff. And the new Office of Educational Technology works with faculty on ways to incorporate computer technology into their courses for instructional purposes.

Massey's broad background has certainly given him some advantages in meeting the challenges of his new position. "I've had the opportunity to learn a great deal, not just about administration, but about many of the issues affecting higher education, and I've seen them from a number of perspectives, which certainly helps me deal with those issues here," he says. An issue of particular concern to Massey these days is the possible diminishment or dis- mantling of affirmative action policies at many state schools.

For example, California recently passed Proposition 209, which eliminated all affirmative action in the state, and the U.C. System's Board of Regents voted to discontinue all forms of preferential treatment - two measures that Massey believes will make it difficult to maintain diversity in the U.C. system. His suspicions have been borne out by the fact that minority enrollments at the University of California have significantly decreased following the passage of Proposition 209.

"I think this starts from a wrong assumption that being admitted to college is a reward for achieving high grades and high test scores," says Massey of the decision, which he vigorously opposed. "But we used all kinds of different criteria for admitting students to U.C. And when we looked at the evidence, there was no great disparity between what the minority students did in terms of careers and graduate school when they left the U.C. system and what the white students did." In fact, he points out that under the new rules many black and Hispanic students with excellent GPAs and high test scores were nevertheless denied admission, despite their achievements. In the short term, of course, colleges like Morehouse are benefiting as students denied admission to public-college campuses in California and Texas seek more appealing alternatives. In fact, California is Morehouse's second-largest feeder state, following its home state of Georgia.