By Will Kane
UC Berkeley’s newest residence hall will be named after David Blackwell, the first Black professor to ever receive tenure at UC Berkeley and a preeminent statistician, Chancellor Carol Christ announced last week.
Blackwell, who died in 2010, is an “exemplar of what Berkeley stands for: scholarly excellence of the highest caliber tied to a mission of social justice and inclusion,” Christ wrote in a letter nominating Blackwell.
The new dorm at Bancroft Way and Dana Street will house some 750 undergraduates and is slated to open in time for the fall semester, helping to ease UC Berkeley’s undergraduate housing crunch. The building will have commercial space on its first floor and also house Stiles Hall, a community center for students.
In choosing Blackwell, Christ honored a dedicated teacher and statistician who made UC Berkeley his home for almost 50 years. He once said he loved to teach mathematics because “in transmitting it, you appreciate its beauty all over again.”
“He never introduced himself as a professor, he always called himself a teacher,” his son, Hugo Blackwell, told Berkeley News upon his father’s death.
Scores of suggestions for naming the new residential unit were submitted by students, staff, faculty and alumni groups, which were then reviewed by a committee of students, faculty and staff. Four “exceptional individuals” were submitted to Christ, who chose Blackwell.
Not only was Blackwell a gifted instructor who made the dizzying theorems of statistics accessible to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, he was a distinguished researcher who invented dynamic programming, a statistical method still used today in finance and areas like genome analysis.
That invention, and his development of a fundamental theorem still underpinning modern statistics, helped propel Blackwell, in 1965, to be the first Black man inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
“He went from one area to another, and he’d write a fundamental paper in each,” Thomas Ferguson, an UCLA emeritus professor of statistics, told Berkeley News when Blackwell died. “He would come into a field that had been well-studied and find something really new that was remarkable—that was his forte.”
But the world of mathematics was not always welcoming to Blackwell, who was born in small-town Illinois in 1919. His father, a railway worker, and mother, who raised Blackwell and his three siblings, sent Blackwell to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at age 16. By 22, he had graduated with a Ph.D. in math and set his sights on finding a home in academia.
Blackwell applied to 104 historically Black colleges and universities, telling an ethnographer recording his oral history in 2002 that he assumed doors were closed to Blacks at non-Black institutions.
While a professor at Howard University, in 1941, Blackwell was approached by the chair of Berkeley’s math department and interviewed to join the faculty.
Blackwell didn’t get the job, assuming his inexperience and the military draft had made a female competitor for the job a better candidate. Only when he finally joined Berkeley’s faculty in the 1950’s did he learn that his race had been the reason he didn’t get the job, Blackwell said in a 2002 interview.
But times changed, and within 10 years Blackwell was offered a full-time position at Berkeley. He made tenure and eventually served as chair of the newly formed statistics department between 1957 and 1961.
Blackwell also served as assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science, where his job was to review requests from students about their classes, school policy or grades.
“I enjoyed that a lot, helping students,” he said in the 2002 interview. “The student was asking to be excused from some regulation or be given some exemption or something of that sort. And I almost always said yes. We would have lively debates in the council of deans, and sometimes I’d win and sometimes I wouldn’t.”
“I enjoyed that,” Blackwell added. “And I think I was helpful to the students.”
Berkeley News reporter Robert Sanders contributed to this report.