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Gary Harris ’75 given alumni honor for diversity, inclusion efforts

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Lindsey Hadlock

Sara Xayarath Hernández, left, associate dean for inclusion and student engagement at the Graduate School, presents Gary L. Harris with the Turner Kittrell award Aug. 16.

Gary L. Harris ’75, M.S. ’76, Ph.D. ’80, has been honored by the Cornell Graduate School with the inaugural Turner Kittrell Medal of Honor. The award was established to recognize alumni who have made significant national or international contributions to the advancement of diversity, inclusion and equity in the academy, industry or the public sector. Recipients are chosen by the Graduate School Diversity Advisory Council.

Harris studied electrical engineering throughout his Cornell career. He is a professor of electrical engineering and materials science and associate provost for research and graduate studies at Howard University, and director of the Howard Nanoscale Science and Engineering Facility and the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.

Sara Xayarath Hernández, associate dean for inclusion and student engagement at the Graduate School, presented Harris with the award Aug. 16 at the end of the Summer Success Symposium for underrepresented M.S./Ph.D. and Ph.D. students from all graduate fields. Harris was the event’s keynote speaker.

“In a 1986 article for U.S. Black Engineer,” Hernández said, “Dr. Harris explained that it was his interest in the black community that empowered him to make his career at Howard. He stated, ‘I felt I could multiply myself here.’

“At the time he graduated from Cornell, Dr. Harris was among a small number of African-Americans with a doctorate in electrical engineering. Though he could have gone into industry, he made an intentional decision to pursue a career in the academy, where he has helped to broaden the participation of those historically underrepresented in higher education, and where he has achieved great success as a researcher, scholar and leader within graduate education.”

Harris played a pivotal role in establishing the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in 2005, which “now has 15 chapters including our own chapter at Cornell,” Hernández said, and fosters a network of preeminent scholars from underrepresented backgrounds.

“He is also responsible for helping Howard maintain its leadership role as the number one producer of on-campus African-American Ph.D.s in the nation,” Hernández said.

Harris’ other honors include the National Society of Black Engineers’ Scientist of the Year Award. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, edited five books, presented more than 200 papers at conferences, and mentored and advised the research theses and dissertations of more than 150 master’s and Ph.D. graduates.

“Let me just say in honor of all the students that I’ve had an opportunity to interact with, I am just floored by this honor,” Harris said. “I can’t wait to get back to Howard and share this with my colleagues. … I’m only accepting it in honor of all the students that I’ve worked with – because, you know, awards are given to individuals but the work that I do is a team effort.”

The award is named for educators and activists Thomas Wyatt Turner, Ph.D. ’21, and Flemmie Pansy Kittrell, M.A. ’30, Ph.D. ’36, the first African-American man and woman to earn doctoral degrees from Cornell. Like Harris, Howard University also figured in their post-Cornell careers.

“These two individuals are legends on Howard’s campus,” Harris said. “They defined the whole essence of facts and science and engineering and technology, and were the inspirations for literally thousands of people.”

Turner studied botany at Cornell and taught at Howard between 1914 and 1924, and at Hampton from 1924 to 1945. A founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, he fought for justice for blacks throughout his life, particularly within the Catholic Church – and for the admission of black students to Catholic University, where he began his graduate studies. He retired in 1945 due to glaucoma, and died in 1978 at age 101.

In 1924 Turner encouraged Kittrell, who had a home economics degree from Hampton, to consider graduate studies at Cornell. The first African-American woman in the country to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition, she was an example for minorities pursuing a university education and an international pioneer in nutrition and child development. Kittrell was instrumental in creating the federal Head Start Program, and as a Fulbright scholar she established a home economics college and a nutrition research program at Baroda University in India.

Kittrell taught at Howard for almost 30 years. After her retirement in 1973, she was a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell in the College of Human Ecology. She died in 1980.

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