The resulting report, released in 1990, concluded what many people already knew: that the educational pipeline was broken, and that improving Black enrollment required a wholesale rethinking of education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Educational opportunities for most minority youth, and hence their educational attainments, lag behind the chances, choices and performance of the nonminority,” Dr. McBay and her colleagues wrote in the report’s introduction. “The present system of education learning in a mass education for mass production model is inadequate to the demands the 21st century will place on this nation.”
That same year, Dr. McBay stepped down as dean and took a leave of absence to run a spinoff of the M.I.T. project, the Quality Education for Minorities Network. What was supposed to be a two-year project ended up consuming the rest of her career, as she found her calling as a forceful and energetic advocate for students of color.
She not only helped them get into graduate programs; she also fostered them once they arrived. She set up conferences, taught students and junior faculty how to apply for grants, and invited them to sit on review panels.
“If she believed in you and saw you had a strong work ethic, there was nothing she wouldn’t do for you,” Tasha Inniss, a mathematician and the associate provost for research at Spelman, said in an interview. “She pushed you to new heights.”
Shirley Ann Mathis was born on May 4, 1935, in Bainbridge, Ga., a small town in the southwest corner of the state. She was raised by her mother, Annie Bell (Washington) Mathis, a cook and Avon saleswoman; her father, James Mathis, was largely absent from her life.
Showing a gift for numbers from an early age, Shirley reveled in math competitions, besting students much older than she was. She was just 15 when she enrolled at Paine College, in Augusta, Ga., and just 19 when she graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1954.