UI is a national leader in producing minority mathematics doctorates
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The University of Iowa Department of Mathematics will write another chapter in its renowned history of supporting minority doctoral degrees when it, in coordination with the UI Graduate College’s Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences (AMCS) program, awards seven doctorates to members of underrepresented minority groups during 2012.

The achievement was recognized nationally when the UI/AMCS program was honored at the David Blackwell Conference April 19-20 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The two-day conference brought together leading theoretical and applied mathematicians and other scientists while recognizing the work of David Blackwell (1919-2010). The University of Illinois alumnus was a mathematician—honored for contributions to probability theory, statistics, and game theory—and longtime professor at Howard University and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the first African-American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

Bruce Ayati, associate professor and chair of the UI mathematics department’s committee on inclusion and diversity, says that to his knowledge, prior to the UI’s planning to award seven minority doctoral degrees in 2012, the greatest such number awarded by a single department in any one year was four.

Dan Anderson, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, says that from 2003 to 2012, the department has awarded 25 doctorates to minority students, a total that is about 8 percent of all such degrees awarded nationally during that time period.

Anderson says the reason for the UI achievement in the field can be traced to the hard work of a number of individuals in the department over many years.

“A number of years ago some faculty of the department decided they wanted our department to be a leader in giving students from under-represented groups a chance to get a Ph.D. in mathematics,” he says. “One reason for our success is that the whole department, both faculty and graduate students, bought into this goal. We quickly realized there was a lot more to this than just recruiting the students.

“We have redesigned our curriculum and put in place a mentoring system and other programs to enhance student success. We are proud that our efforts to help minority students have actually helped all our students. For example, all our graduate students have benefited from our summer prep courses for the qualifying exam,” Anderson says.

A history of accolades

This isn’t the first time the Department of Mathematics in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has received national recognition.

In 2008, the department was honored with the 2008 American Mathematical Society (AMS) Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department for being "a national leader in recruiting and developing underrepresented U.S. minority doctoral students in mathematics."

In a 2008 news release announcing that award, the AMS told the story of how the UI is making a difference in mathematics nationally: "Starting in 1995, the department made a concerted effort to recruit minority students. But it didn't just recruit the students and let them sink or swim. The department listened to what the students had to say about their struggles and achievements, what was missing from their mathematical backgrounds, and how they fit in socially. Using this feedback, the department reoriented its graduate program to make student success the top priority. In the process, it created a welcoming, supportive environment that has raised the level of achievement of all students."

Prior to receiving the 2008 AMS award, the department garnered other honors.

In 2006, the UI Department of Mathematicians won a prestigious five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to help train high-quality U.S. mathematicians. Called VIGRE (Vertical Integration of Research and Education), the project is one of only three such grants awarded annually across the country. The project builds upon recognized UI success with the goal of developing a model for research university mathematics programs nationwide.

Also, in 2006, Philip Kutzko, CLAS Collegiate Fellow and professor of mathematics, won the "Faculty Mentor of the Year" Award from the Southern Regional Education Board-Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate (SREB-AGEP) Doctoral Scholars Program.

And in 2005, the UI Department of Mathematics earned nationwide recognition when it received one of 14 2004 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) presented at the White House in Washington, D.C. Supported and administered by the National Science Foundation, the award was the only one of its kind presented to an academic department in 2005 and included a $10,000 grant for continued mentoring work and a presidential commemorative certificate. The Department won the award for its work with U.S. minority graduate students.