Shirley McBay, Pioneering Mathematician, Is Dead at 86

Shirley McBay, a pioneering mathematician and former dean of student affairs at MIT, co-founded the MIT Public Service Center (now the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, or PKG Center) in 1988 with First Lady Priscilla King Gray and Professor Robert Mann ’50.

Shirley McBay, Pioneering Mathematician, Is Dead at 86

She was a visionary at MIT who saw that there was a need for a centralised resource to support and grow the Institute’s public service activities despite their prevalence across the Institute.

In keeping with its tradition of pioneering research and education, MIT created one of the earliest such facilities in the United States. Dean McBay was a brilliant champion and change-maker, and the PKG Center is genuinely grateful for his leadership. An article about Shirley’s legacy appeared in the MIT Bulletin not too long ago.

On November 27, Shirley McBay, the first Black dean of student affairs at MIT, passed away at her home in Los Angeles. There was an age limit of 86 for her.

From 1980 to 1990, McBay served as the Institute’s dean of student affairs, and during that time she spearheaded efforts to identify and address racial environment barriers that were preventing students from underrepresented or underserved communities from achieving their academic goals at the Institute.

The Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) project was launched as a direct result of the suggestions made in a report she oversaw in 1986 titled “The Racial Climate on the MIT Campus.”

Chancellor Melissa Nobles praises Dr. McBay for her many accomplishments to the MIT community, including her dedication to “removing barriers to achievement,” offering a good education to all students, and encouraging students to see their stake in the world and to pay it forward. We owe her a great deal and find her to be an illuminating figure.

McBay’s Campaign For Racial Justice and Women’s Rights

McBay’s campaign for racial justice and women’s rights at MIT is “legendary,” according to Kenneth Manning, the Thomas Meloy Professor of Rhetoric and of the History of Science.

Manning argues that MIT and other universities should make the Racial Climate Report, which she authored in the mid-1980s but has since been virtually ignored, mandatory reading for anybody who is serious about promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. The work was groundbreaking on a national scale and revolutionary in many respects.

For McBay, the “greatest intellectual crime one can commit is to prejudice one’s results, to prejudge how something will turn out,” as he said to a Congressional subcommittee while at MIT.

But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we don’t actively promote girls and people of colour to study STEM subjects from kindergarten through grad school.

McBay also played a role in establishing what is now known as the PKG Center at MIT in honour of Priscilla King Gray, the late wife of MIT’s former president, Paul Gray. The centre, which Priscilla Gray claims was McBay’s concept, has become a hub for student participation in local volunteer projects.

The MIT Public Service Center “was basically founded by her,” as Gray puts it. “She initiated the project, and when she prepared to leave MIT, she asked whether I would participate and take over maintenance. “It was a good working relationship.”

Gray believes that McBay’s “passion in the students and getting things done that will benefit them” was the thing that struck her the most. She was a doer, not a dreamer; she followed through on her plans.

McBay, who was born in Bainbridge, Georgia, attended a segregated school system where she excelled academically, particularly in mathematics.


According to Williams, who was McBay’s colleague in the 1980s, she “frequently compelled individuals and groups to confront their own attitudes, behavior, and personal history” on racial issues in academia.

She “was relentless” in her examination of these topics, he says.