Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Michael Whitt was the 2023 winner of the annual Cal Poly MLK Legacy Award. Credit: Courtesy of Joe Johnston, University Photographer

In February of 2023, Dr. Michael Whitt received the MLK Legacy Award at the Black Faculty and Staff Association’s Black Legacy event, which he was not anticipating. He was late to the presentation because he was helping one of his students. The award made him feel he was valued at the school, and that he is “in the right place.”  

Whitt has taught at Cal Poly since 2014 as a biomedical engineering assistant professor. Despite working here for almost a decade, he hasn’t “lost his excitement for the job or his passion for working with students.”

Whitt comes from a family of trailblazers. His father, who Whitt credits as one of his inspirations, was a physicist who worked in the development of PLATO systems at the University of Illinois; PLATO was the first computer-assisted educational device. His grandfather was the first African-American Chief of Detectives in a sundown town in Georgia and the only officer in the town to receive a perfect score on his sergeants’ exam. His great-grandfather helped design Carlson speakers, and Whitt considers him an inspiration because “he was a Black engineer in a time where people thought Black people couldn’t be engineers,” he said.

Whitt himself went to Purdue University and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. He then went on to receive a Master in Biomedical Engineering and a philosophy doctorate from Rutgers in New Jersey. He also received a Masters in Business Administration from UCLA Anderson School of Management.  

After getting his degree in business management, he went on to develop several patents, including a cardiovascular diagnostic device which was the basis of a company he co-founded, Cordex Systems. 

Whitt began his teaching career as an assistant professor at Notre Dame in 2004. After leaving Notre Dame in 2008, he became the Chair of Engineering at Miami Dade College. 

He wanted to come to Cal Poly because of its “Learn by Doing” philosophy, he said. Whitt also said he loves Cal Poly’s culture, and loves that the size of the university allows him to build a relationship with his students. 

Whitt is an adviser  for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) at Cal Poly, an organization founded in 1975 at Purdue.

The purpose of the NSBE is to “increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community,” according to their official website. Whitt carries this purpose with him in his teaching at Cal Poly.

After teaching at the university for nine years, he still believes that “it’s hard to have a bad day around Cal Poly students,” he said. 

Amman Asfaw is one of those students. Asfaw graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and then got his master’s in electrical engineering in 2022 with Cal Poly’s four-plus-one program.

Asfaw was the president of Cal Poly’s NSBE chapter, and he said Whitt gave the NSBE at Cal Poly an “original and pure version of what [the program] should look like” since the founders of NSBE at Purdue were his mentors

Partly due to Whitt’s influence, the Cal Poly chapter of the NSBE was able to gain three regional awards for Chapter of the Year three years in a row since 2018, and one national award for Chapter of the Year in 2021. 

Asfaw attended Cal Poly in 2020, at the peak of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement in San Luis Obispo. 

He said he saw Dr. Whitt as a “good example [who] helped him through times of volatility [because] he always had a positive attitude and was very even-keeled.”

Whitt said he hopes his influence at this school makes more people want to pursue higher education at Cal Poly, especially Black students. He also hopes that he leaves a lasting impact on the world that makes people want to “emulate the Mustang Legacy.”