Carnegie Mellon University
Coming Full Circle

photo of Marion Oliver advising students in Qatar

Coming Full Circle

Marion Oliver provides the same opportunities for CMU-Q students as he did for black students in the '70s

by Jocelyn Duffy

In 1967, when Marion Oliver came to Carnegie Mellon as a graduate student in mathematics, he probably had no idea that more than 40 years later, he’d find himself working for Carnegie Mellon again, and at a campus some 7,000 miles away from Pittsburgh. Now, as the first-year student advisor at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus, Oliver can reflect on dramatic changes he’s witnessed in the university, and the world.

Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and raised by a single mother in Chattanooga, Tenn., Oliver was a skinny child. Since he wasn’t built for sports, he figured that he didn’t have many options in life. In the classroom, he excelled at math but thought he wouldn’t be able to get into college, let alone pay for an advanced education. Luckily for Oliver, his ninth and tenth grade teachers believed in him.

When Oliver was in the tenth grade his teacher, Lydia McKeldin, paid for him to take an early admissions test for Nashville’s Fisk University. Oliver passed, and worked evenings in a clothing store for the next two years to raise enough money for his first year at Fisk. Newly formed federal loan programs allowed Oliver to complete his undergraduate work, and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics.

In a move that he would never recommend to his current students, Oliver applied to only one graduate school, the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He was drawn to the school because of their program that combined applied and pure mathematics.

During his graduate school years, the university went through a dramatic transformation. CIT became Carnegie Mellon University—Oliver’s master’s degree in mathematics is from CIT, but his doctoral degree in mathematics is from Carnegie Mellon’s Mellon College of Science.

“Between 1969 and 1979, the university changed, in every aspect of its existence,” Oliver said.

The country was changing, too. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had led to more, but still not many, black students pursuing higher education. And race relations in America were still tense.

“I met my thesis advisor, and friend, Mort Gurtin in 1968 at a shelter on the Hill [Pittsburgh’s Hill District] when we were preparing care packages for the folks who were having problems getting food after the riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination,” Oliver said.

The uncertainty caused by a changing society trickled into the classroom. Many black students worried that they were ill-prepared to adjust to the rigors of academia, and many white students were skeptical about sharing a classroom with black students. Oliver was the role model that both black and white students needed. He was proof that black students could succeed in Carnegie Mellon’s rigorous programs and could be academic equals.

At the end of his doctoral program, Oliver was asked to stay at Carnegie Mellon as an assistant professor of mathematics. He also became deeply involved in the Carnegie Mellon Action Program (CMAP), which provided academic, personal and career development programs and services to minority students. He was named the program’s director in 1974.

“CMAP was a life changing opportunity for all involved in it: students, staff and faculty. For the students it gave them an opportunity to acquire the kind of education that could make them major players in business and other areas of our society,” Oliver said. “For all those who took advantage of it, it made a difference in their lives.”

As the director of CMAP, Oliver and others working in the center established programming and services to help minority students develop and succeed in their academic, personal and professional lives, with the main goal of increasing the graduation rate of minority students attending Carnegie Mellon. To those students, Oliver was an advisor, role model and friend.

Oliver remained at CMU until 1979, leaving to become the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Millersville University. He would later be named a Vice Dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In both jobs he continued to be a strong example for students.

After 22 years in higher education, Oliver joined the Mobil Oil Corporation in 1990, starting as a recruitment manager and later becoming an international training manager. During this time, he developed a comprehensive training and development strategy in Qatar, and he visited the Middle East a few times each year.

“Doha, Qatar was a very small, one-camel town. There was a Sheraton Hotel, the sand dunes and water,” Oliver said.

After his decade-long “sabbatical” with Mobil, Oliver returned to the classroom, teaching quantitative methods at Florida A&M University’s business school.

In 2004, Oliver read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Carnegie Mellon’s plan to open a campus in Qatar. Oliver sent an email to former Carnegie Mellon Vice President Bill Elliot to see if there was anything he could do to help.

“Some things in life are decided in heaven. Think about it: I had a Ph.D. from CMU in a key subject area for the new campus. I spent five years as a Vice Dean and Director of the Wharton School’s undergraduate program and knew a little bit about business education. Finally, I knew the Middle East and what Qatar was like. At Mobil I had evaluated the educational quality of the American School in Doha—I knew what secondary education was like in Qatar, and I was prepared for the challenges that the new campus would face,” Oliver said. “How could I not come?”

Elliot recommended Oliver to the founding dean of CMU-Q, Chuck Thorpe. Oliver landed in Qatar in 2004. This time it wasn’t just for a visit.

He started by screening applicants for the first incoming class and teaching first-year calculus. He now advises each of the approximately 100 incoming first-year students, and he is having the same dramatic impact on the CMU-Q students that he did on students at the Pittsburgh campus in the ’70s.

“CMU-Q is a very special place to work,” Oliver said. “We’re providing students with the same life-changing opportunities that we did with black students through CMAP in Pittsburgh. If the students really take advantage of what CMU-Q has to offer, they will become very different people who will hopefully change Qatar in significant ways.”

This year, Oliver received Carnegie Mellon’s Advising Award, becoming the first CMU-Q faculty member to win the university prize. His nomination was supported by students who were part of the CMAP program in the 70s and CMU-Q students of today. Their letters were remarkably similar, stating that Oliver was one of the most important role models they have had in their lives, and they credit their own academic, professional and career success to his advice and teaching.

“Marion’s ability to inspire students is as evident today in the Middle East as it was with minority students in Pittsburgh in the ’70s. His skill as an advisor and his commitment to our students has spanned more than forty years and two widely different cultures,” said Russ Walker, a professor of mathematical sciences who has known Oliver since the two were graduate students at Carnegie Mellon. “He has caused students to achieve more academically than even they believed was possible, and he has inspired them to continue to seek to excel after graduation.”