EECS Notable Women: Sheila Humphreys
Sheila Morrin Humphreys
The first EECS Director of Diversity, 1982-2015
In the late 1970s, EECS graduate students Paula Hawthorn (Ph.D. 1979) and Barbara Simons (Ph.D. 1981) approached African American Studies Professor Margaret Wilkerson, the director of the UC Berkeley Center for the Continuing Education of Women (CCEW), to propose a set of workshops to expose women students to engineering and computer science. Up to this time, the Women’s Center had been focused primarily on helping women in the community who wished to return to college, but under Wilkerson’s management, it pivoted to become an information clearinghouse for women’s research as well as a place where current women students could come for counseling and support. Wilkerson agreed and asked the associate director of the Women’s Center, Sheila Humphreys, to work with STEM students to promote opportunities for women in computer science, math, physics, and engineering.
Thus began a 40 year odyssey in which Humphreys applied her boundless energy and passion to the problems facing minority groups who wished to purse what were once considered untraditional careers. She nurtured and advised generations of pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate students to not just pursue their dreams of higher education, but successfully achieve their educational goals, particularly in STEM fields. She was instrumental in the creation and development of many successful intervention and mentoring programs to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the Berkeley campus.
Humphreys graduated from Smith College in 1963 and earned a Ph.D. in Francophone African literature from Tufts University in 1974. She arrived on the west coast the following year and took a job as the assistant dean of admissions at Mills College. After she learned from Lenore Blum* that mathematics was the critical filter precluding women from entering STEM fields, she helped to recruit math and science-oriented female high school students to Mills and encouraged them to enroll in Blum’s fast-track pre-calculus program. She was recruited to Berkeley in 1977 to work for CCEW.
Humphreys joined the EECS department in 1982. She was hired by Dean Karl Pister as the first academic director of graduate outreach in Berkeley Engineering , and served as the Director of the EECS Center for Undergraduate Matters and Student Diversity for many years. Her collaboration with Hawthorn and Simons resulted in the creation of the Computer Science Reentry Program, which aimed to address the scarcity of women earning computer science doctorates. This innovative program, which lasted from 1982 until it was disbanded by Proposition 209 in 1996, provided an alternative path to graduate school for talented, postbaccalaureate re-entry women and other underrepresented minorities, with high potential but lacking an undergraduate degree in the burgeoning field of computer science. Of the students who participated, ten earned Ph.D. degrees and 39 earned M.S. degrees. Two of its most famous alumnae are Diane Greene, founder and CEO of VMware as well as CEO of Google Cloud from 2015 to 2019, and Nina Amenta, professor of computational geometry, computer graphics, and visualization at UC Davis and the Chair of Computer Science at Davis from 2013 to 2017.
Another of Humphreys’ legacies to the EECS department was the creation of the Excellence and Diversity Student Programs in 1986 with Chair Eugene Wong and Vice-Chair Michael Lieberman. This included a new program focused on recruiting minority graduate students which tripled the number of those enrolled. She combined forces with Black graduate students to create the Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley (SUPERB), which prepares undergraduate students to successfully pursue graduate degrees in STEM. A full 76% of the first cohort of SUPERB students reported that the had felt uncertain about their chances of going to graduate school, but had changed their minds after participating in the program, and were certain that they would go on to pursue advanced degrees. The admission rate of the first cohort of SUPERB students to the Berkeley EECS graduate program was three times that of non-SUPERB students. The SUPERB program has remained active for 30 years.
Humphreys tackled systemic inequity in a multitude of ways. She was a member of the national leadership team for the NSF Empowering Leadership Alliance; an invited member of the Computing Research Association (CRA) working group that produced the report “Recruitment and Retention of Underrepresented Minority Graduate Students in Computer Science” in 2000; a participant in the Berkeley Edge Program which was funded by the NSF with the goal of tripling the number of minority doctorates in science and engineering; the Berkeley representative to the National Coalition for Women in Computing (now the Coalition to Diversify Computing in the National Center for Women in Information Technology—NCWIT); and a member of the Berkeley Coalition for Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering.
Since her retirement in 2015, Humphreys has continued to be an active and vital member of the campus community. In 2018, she began working with the new alumni group Berkeley Engineering and Science Alumni Club (BESAC) to strengthen ties between African American STEM alumni and enrolled students. She currently spends much of her time working on a monograph about the history of diversity in Berkeley Engineering, ensuring that the underpinnings, obstacles, and evolution of these social changes, and the story of its participants, will be preserved for future generations. She still serves as a graduate school mentor for the New Experience for Research & Diversity in Science at Berkeley (Cal NERDS) program, which supports first generation and underrepresented Berkeley undergraduates. She is also on the Friends Advisory Council of the Bancroft Library and Upward Bound. In 2019, she agreed to co-chair the 150W History Project, part of the year-long campus celebration of 150 Years of Women at Berkeley in 2020. She contributed two preview chapters of her manuscript to the EECS department: A Salute to Early Women in STEM at UC Berkeley and Women in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering: A Network of Our Own.
Humphreys’ incredible impact on both the Berkeley campus and the entire nation has been acknowledged with several awards including (chronologically): the UC Berkeley Distinguished Service Team Award in 1999 “for recruitment and retention of undergraduate women;” the Computing Research Association (CRA) A. Nico Habermann Award in 1999 “in recognition of outstanding contributions to the advancement of underrepresented groups in computing research;” the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) Women in Engineering Program (WIEP) Award for her team in 2002, which recognizes an outstanding WIE program–in this case, the EECS Excellence and Diversity Program–that serves as a model for other institutions; the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Outstanding Staff Award (COSA) in 2011, which recognizes people who, in addition to performing their normal job duties with excellence, also demonstrate exceptional initiative in contributing to the UC Berkeley campus community; the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) in 2012, which was bestowed by President Barack Obama to recognize “outstanding efforts of mentors in encouraging the next generation of innovators and developing a science and engineering workforce that reflects the diverse talent of America;” the Berkeley Citation in 2013, which is conferred on individuals “whose achievements exceed the standards of excellence in their fields;” and Outstanding Advisor in the Cal NERDS program in 2015.
*Prof. Lenore Blum was an adjunct professor of computer science at Berkeley from 1990-1994, and is the spouse of EECS Prof. Emeritus Manuel Blum.