Friend of the University of Rochester
Zurich, December 19, 1995
Dr. Robert B. Goergen
Chairman, Board of Trustees
University of Rochester
Two Greenwich Plaza
Greenwich, CT 06830-6353
Re: Reduction of Faculty in the Mathematics Department
Dear Dr. Goergen,
I have heard of the plans to reduce the faculty in the mathematics department of the University of Rochester from 21 to 10 and to terminate the graduate program in mathematics. I have studied the Report of the Rochester Fact Finding ad hoc Committee of December 11, 1995, and the related documentary papers.
With this letter, I would like to tell you frankly my opinion as a physical chemist who would not have won a Nobel Prize without a very thorough training in basic mathematics, in addition to my principal studies in chemistry. Fortunately, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich had since many decades and still has the foresight to know that mathematics is the basis for all natural sciences and mathematics is becoming more and more important as science becomes more advanced and more quantitative. Advances in chemistry are no longer possible without the most sophisticated mathematical tools and with the best training possible by experts in pure and applied mathematics.
Reducing mathematics to a mere service operation for other scientists will remove the firm basis from the University of Rochester and start its decline towards a provincial school that sooner or later has to be closed due to its irrelevance. I cannot imagine that this is your intent. If you would like to maintain a school with an international recognition, you have to try to find other ways to reduce expenditures. I am convinced it would be much better to close entire departments of specialization and to concentrate the limited means of the university to a subset of selected disciplines. However, I do not know of any discipline that would not need a strong foundation in mathematics.
I am convinced that the only possibility to teach mathematics for non-mathematicians is by very first class mathematicians. Only they are capable of fertilizing applied fields of science by novel mathematical concepts. The natural scientists and engineers at ETH would very violently reject a proposal that the courses in mathematics should be given by members of their own applied departments or by mathematics teachers who are not at the same time active at the research front.
When the American society can no longer maintain the present level of science support, that was essential for its present standard of living, I am convinced it is far better to reduce the number of Universities and to concentrate the means on the remaining ones, keeping them internationally competitive. I expect that the Universities with a weak or non-existing mathematics department will be the first ones to disappear. I am sure you do not want the University of Rochester to belong to those institutions.
Richard R. Ernst
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1991