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Barbara Bryant, first woman to lead Census Bureau, has died

President George H.W. Bush appointed Bryant as Census Bureau director in 1989

Barbara Everitt Bryant
This photo provided by the US Census Bureau shows Barbara Everitt Bryant, the first woman to lead the US Census Bureau.AP

Barbara Everitt Bryant, the first woman to run the US Census Bureau and its leader during the contentious debate over how to compensate for undercounts of minority groups in the 1990 census, has died. She was 96. Bryant’s family said in an email that she died of natural causes Thursday evening, surrounded by family members, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In a blogpost, Robert Santos, the current director of the Census Bureau, described Bryant, who oversaw the 1990 count of US residents, as “a trailblazer and a champion of quality survey methods.”“We mourn the loss of this groundbreaking Census Bureau leader,” Santos said.

President George H.W. Bush appointed Bryant as Census Bureau director in 1989.

The once-a-decade census determines how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of federal funding. During her tenure, which lasted until President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Bryant faced concerns about undercounts of minorities. She came down on the side of a statistical method that tried to compensate for undercounts, but that was rejected by the Commerce Department.

Some statisticians, civil rights advocates and city leaders in the 1980s argued that statistical models could be used to adjust for regular undercounts of minority groups and improve the accuracy of the census, but President Ronald Reagan’s administration opposed that idea.

When Republicans retained the White House with the 1988 election of Bush, there was still uncertainty about whether the adjustment for undercounts would be used for the 1990 census. A bureau steering committee voted in favor of the adjustment, and Bryant supported its recommendation, but Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher decided against using the adjustment method. The commerce department oversees the Census Bureau.

“Barbara Bryant was convinced by the science supporting the recommendation and went forward with it even though it was not politically popular with the administration,” John Thompson, who was a Census Bureau director in the Obama administration, said Monday. “In my opinion, putting science over politics was a large part of her legacy.”

In an oral history with the Census Bureau, Bryant said she took the agency’s helm just months before it started its biggest undertaking: the 1990 census. Becoming the face of what some describe as the nation’s largest nonmilitary mobilization, combined with the controversy over adjustment, gave her unexpected visibility, she said.

“Another thing that probably had some effect on visibility is that after 200 years of census taking and 30 census directors, I was the 31st director and the first woman, so that heightened my visibility a little,” she said.

Only one other woman, Martha Riche, who was appointed by Clinton, has led the agency.

Bryant received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Cornell University and a PhD from Michigan State University. After earning her doctorate while in her mid-40s, she started a 38-year career in survey research. After leaving the Census Bureau, she joined the faculty at the University of Michigan’s business school.

She was married to John Bryant for 49 years until his death in 1997. She is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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