‘Walking at the frontier’: professor William Massey ’77, trailblazing Black mathematician and mentor| June 28, 2020
William A. Massey ’77 has been chased by the words “first” and “only” for all of his life. Now, he’s made a career of ensuring that stops with him.
Nineteen years ago, when Massey stood in front of a committee of white Princeton professors, waiting as they pondered his academic fate, no Black mathematician had ever been awarded tenure at an Ivy League university. When the committee was through, he had become the first.
“He was one of our top hires,” Erhan Cinlar, the professor emeritus who founded the University’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) department, told The Daily Princetonian. “[He] in turn helped attract fantastic students by developing courses in queuing theory and simulations.”
In 2001, the resume Cinlar and his committee were charged with evaluating was a far cry from a traditional professorial path: when applying for the job, Massey had not worked as an assistant professor for a day in his life.
What his accolades did include: magna cum laude with an A.B. in mathematics from the University, a Ph.D. from Stanford, 20 years at Bell Laboratories — in its heyday, a gold standard of American innovation — and more than 50 papers published at the cutting edge of operations research.
Then and now, in Cinlar’s words, “Bill Massey is one of the greatest operations researchers in the world.”
In his final days at Bell Labs before moving to Princeton, Massey “slowly let the news leak” to his colleagues. “I had a little fun, just sitting there, waiting to see who else would find out” about the new job, he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
But the historic news never gained much traction — “definitely not on mainstream media.” Outside a small circle of family and friends, the sole media coverage consisted of a brief article on Massey’s friend’s blog, “Mathematicians of the African Diaspora.”
Massey wasn’t surprised. After all, “this wasn’t unusual,” he said. He’d long grown accustomed to the solitude of being Black in the historically and predominantly white field of mathematics, where to this day fewer than 1 percent of doctorates are afforded to African Americans. In his very first foray into collegiate-level math — his honors-level calculus class at the University — he had been the only African American student in the room.
Now, Massey works to build a community for Black scientists and engineers, determined to lift up the talented young people in whose shoes he once stood. Over the past two decades, he’s organized hundreds of informal mentorship events, 25 conferences for minority mathematicians, and weekly “Wesley Harris sessions,” a study group designed to connect Black engineers. Massey established the sessions in 2006 and named them for Wesley Harris GS ’68, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
In the experience of Sultaan Shabazz ’21, a regular attendee of the study group, Massey’s mentorship is one of “loving affection” and going “out of his way to reach out to you.”
“Me and some of my friends who are Black, we don’t always feel like we belong at Princeton,” said Shabazz, an ORFE concentrator, to the ‘Prince.’ “Professor Massey gave me affirmation that I deserve to be here because of my intellectual talent.”
Another attendee of the study group, Nicholas Johnson ’20, boasts his own fair share of “firsts” and “only’s.” This year, he became the first ORFE concentrator, first Canadian, and, most notably, the first Black valedictorian in the University’s 274-year history.
“There are already very few Black students at Princeton, and among them only a small fraction are in STEM. It was very important for us to have that space to meet weekly and be in community,” Johnson told the ‘Prince’ in reference to the Wesley Harris sessions. “Professor Massey inspired me through his love for operations research and advocacy for African American students.”
Each year but this one, the University’s fabled Reunions offer a chance for Massey to reconnect with his former students, many of whom are now themselves professors — some even tenured Black mathematicians.
Per Reunions tradition, Massey and his now-colleagues don orange and black, gather with their class years, and march in the P-Rade, from FitzRandolph Gate all the way to Poe Field. The procession is led by the Old Guard — some of the University’s oldest alumni — smiling in bright orange suits and riding in two-seater golf carts. Most undergraduates join in the festivities, matching the contagious school spirit and cheering vigorously to the roars of trumpets in the University band. The P-Rade is one of the most-touted aspects of Reunions, perennially shining a light on the enduring sense of accomplishment and pride held by alumni and undergraduates.
Another thing the parade never fails to illuminate? The historic lack of Black students at the University. Massey says he always notices some of his current Black students standing off to the side.
“They play a game,” Massey explained. “‘How-Long-Do-I-Have-To-Wait-Until-We-Spot-Our-First-Black-Alumni.’ In the 1940s there are hardly any. Maybe a trickle of two or three in the 1950s. By the 1960s, the floodgates are open. Then the 1970s, we’re finally here.”
“When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t realize you are a pioneer,” Massey said. “But looking back, you discover we really were walking at the frontier.”
“A product of the Sputnik era”: Massey’s early years
Massey was born in Jefferson City, Mo., and moved to St. Louis when he was four-years-old. He attended a predominantly Black public school, where he was placed into a gifted program and had access to advanced teaching that was, he said, a “product of the Sputnik era.” In 1957, the successfully launched Russian satellite helped ignite Cold War hysteria, which Massey said fueled scientific innovation and the revamping of STEM programs in public schools.
The mathematician in him grew up alongside the nation. By fourth grade, he had mastered his multiplication tables. By fifth grade, he was learning the basics of geometry — “angles, lines, radians.” By eighth grade, Neil Armstrong had stepped foot on the moon.
Slightly embarrassed, Massey admitted that he never had any childhood dreams of launching astronauts into space, never fantasized about the Apollo 11 flight trajectory during recess. And he never held any emotional connections to historic African American scientists such as Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan — the “hidden figures” at NASA — either. Instead, he was fixated on a different kind of hero.
“In grade school, I loved to read comic books and draw superheroes,” Massey said.
According to Massey, his early encounters with graphic design nurtured his interest in mathematics by “teaching properties of proportion.”
“Like drawing a regular hexagon, then realizing with a compass and a ruler, you could draw it more precisely,” he explained. “Once I got the hang of that, I could draw superheroes.”
The power of comics aside, Massey said that he credits his parents for spurring his career. His mother, a home economics teacher, playfully encouraged his love of numbers by cutting out calendars for him to use in mathematical games. During the summer before Massey’s senior year of high school, his father, a high school counselor, drove him to the East Coast to tour colleges.
His first year at Princeton in 1973 marked Massey’s first encounter with another Black mathematician: a senior in the math department. “But once that senior left, there was hardly anyone else,” he said.
“Everyone had their own challenges,” Massey noted, “but the first year was a shock for me.” In addition to a staggering increase in academic rigor, “I was on double duty,” he explained. “In effect, I was the one Black guy in most of the math courses, but also the one Black guy in the physics courses.”
Still, with every day Massey grew ever more enamored with the scientific worldview the University taught. As he put it, he was starting to realize that “there is a strong narrative running through mathematics.”
For the first time, he understood the difference between high school “cookbook calculus” and the “rigorous axiom-definition-theorem-proof presentation of calculus” — calculus could be an “introduction to the whole world of math.”
“I had never seen anything like it before,” Massey said.
The “Black Scientific Renaissance” at Bell Laboratories
The University may have transformed Massey’s vision of who or what a mathematician could be, but “everything I know about mentoring, I learned at Bell Laboratories,” he said.
Thirty-five miles north of Princeton, in Murray Hill, N.J., Massey bore witness to history in the making as a critical mass of minority researchers at Bell Labs helped establish trailblazing programs, including the fellowship that paid for his own Ph.D. and for those of over 200 other minority scientists.
Massey referred to this period as the “Black Scientific Renaissance.”
“One way to inspire minority students to excel in the sciences is to make them familiar with the history that can be viewed as a ‘Black Scientific Renaissance’ at Bell Labs for African-American scientists, just as Harlem of the 1920s is referred to as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ for African-American artists and poets,” Massey once wrote in a mentorship proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“A critical component of minority retention is to have them feel they are part of some greater minority scientific community,” he added.
In 1942, Walter Lincoln Hawkins became the first Black engineer at Bell Laboratories. The University, in contrast, wouldn’t hire its first Black engineering professor for another 57 years, when Winston Soboyejo joined the faculty in 1999.
“Sometimes I am frustrated with the academic world, because they are still trying to develop diversity programs that Bell Labs had already developed 50 years ago,” Massey said.
In the 1990s, Massey took matters into his own hands, giving rise to one of his most important inventions: the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS). He was inspired by similar conferences held by and for African American chemists and secured sponsorship with AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Department of Energy.
One weekend in June 1995, 41 researchers gathered at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and participated in a variety of discussions, from differential geometry and numerical analysis, to overcoming barriers for minority mathematicians. Massey has continued organizing the conference every year since.
Last year, when CAARMS held its 25th iteration at Princeton, one of the original 41 attendees brought 25 brightly colored T-shirts — one from each year of the conference — and laid them out side by side.
“It was such a beautiful display,” said Jamol Pender GS ’13, an assistant professor of operations research at Cornell and a former student of Massey’s. “Bill was truly touched by the outpouring of support.”
At one point “people stood up and gave toasts on how much the conference had meant to them,” Pender recalled. “It was very clear that the conference had impacted so many people’s lives. I think it was an important moment for Bill too, to see how much good he was doing for people.”
“Creating peers, not acolytes”: Massey’s approach to mentorship
Massey sees himself as only one domino in a cascade of mentorship. Over the years, many of Massey’s mentees have gone on to uplift other young Black scientists.
“I learned to be a mentor from Bill,” Pender explained. “When I came to Cornell, I also started as a faculty interactor and connected with students in similar ways.”
“The key to mentorship is in the plural,” Massey said. “It’s not about helping a single minority mathematician, but building a community for minority mathematicians.”
Pender said he believes that Massey’s approach to mentorship is rooted in treating young people like future colleagues. “A common theme of Bill was that he mentored people so he could work with them,” he added.
Recently, Pender and one of his graduate students co-authored a paper with Massey entitled “Flattening the Curve: Insights from Queueing Theory.” Its authorship was the product of multi-generational collaboration and applied queueing theory — a mathematical technique Massey had specialized in since his days at Bell Labs analyzing telephone networks.
“Massey is in the business of creating peers, not acolytes,” noted Otis Jennings ’94, a former mentee of Massey’s and now an assistant professor at Duke.
When an assistant professorship opened up in the ORFE department in 2018, Massey had a hand in selecting one of his own colleagues, which resulted in the hiring of Ludovic Tangpi, a young Cameroonian mathematician.
“Even before I arrived at Princeton, Massey made me feel welcome,” said Tangpi, remembering how Massey took him to brunch on Nassau Street and on a tour of campus and the Institute of Advanced Studies. Today, Tangpi continues to see Massey as both a colleague and a mentor.
Soon after, Massey invited Tangpi to the NSF’s renowned Blackwell-Tapia conference, which “recognizes and showcases mathematical excellence by minority researchers,” held at Brown University, along with his then-undergraduate mentee Johnson and one of his graduate students, Emmanuel Ekwedike. At the conference, the three met Massey’s former graduate students Pender and Robert Hampshire GS ’07.
After listening to Massey deliver the opening lecture of the conference, Johnson snuck away to complete a problem set for his ORFE class with Tangpi — “ever the busy Princeton student,” Massey laughed. Over the course of the conference, Tangpi and Johnson also bonded over their shared French native tongue, having grown up in Cameroon and Quebec, respectively. The three generations of Princeton mathematicians then reunited for lunch, and the day finished with Hampshire delivering the conference’s closing lecture.
For Massey, the conference was one of the proudest moments of his career — a physical manifestation of countless hours, weeks, and years devoted to uplifting, one by one, minority mathematicians.
“Just having the six of us together, that was already quite a statement at the conference,” he said.
“The people who will come after me”: A tale of two trailblazers
The 2018 conference was monumental for Massey but perhaps even more so for Johnson. The future valedictorian was the only undergraduate poster presenter there, and his esteemed mentor was eager to introduce him to a network of mathematicians.
“Nick clearly fit right in,” Massey said. “In fact, he was so good that many of my colleagues were saddened he was a junior because they had to wait an extra year before recruiting him to their graduate programs.”
Now, a year later and after graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, Johnson is set to start a doctorate in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shortly after Johnson’s virtual valedictorian address in late May, his father told CBC News, “Nicholas is the first one through that door. We want a parade.”
Months earlier, Massey had written a fateful recommendation letter to the valedictorian selection committee.
“Nicholas is very humble,” Massy said, “so you have to do a bit of the bragging for him.” Brag he did — but not in conventional soliloquy form. In his letter, Massey included a YouTube video he had found of Johnson volunteering with Engineering Without Borders, tagged to the one-minute mark.
“We are all so proud of him, he has made an entire department so happy,” Massey said.
“There is a continuum in mentorship,” he added. “I always try to point to people who came before me, and the people who will come after me, like Nicholas.”
In the not-so-distant future, perhaps Johnson will join Massey in the annual march down Elm. Behind the Old Guard, behind the golf carts, behind seemingly endless rows of predominantly white alumni, can now march two trailblazers — teacher and student — each proudly clad in orange and black: the teacher reflecting on those who come after him, the student grateful for those who came before.