Friend of the University of Rochester
15 March, 1996
Mr. Thomas H. Jackson, President
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York 14627
I know you have been inundated with all sorts of information, arguments, and opinions, and have been the subject of many newspaper and journal articles, and my mathematics friends have made sure I saw all of them. They have also asked me to let you know how I feel about the developments at Rochester. I won't do that, but I will share with you some thoughts.
Observation (1). Most departments in Arts and Sciences in the colleges and universities are in a discipline that transcends the boundaries of the institutions. The role the university departments play in the discipline varies from discipline to discipline. In some disciplines, a large part of the creative activity is within the department; in others, the departments are primarily concerned with interpretation. At one end I would put the science and mathematics department; on the other, the literature departments. The social sciences fall somewhere in the middle. At the two extremes are mathematics and English. Very little of the creative activity in literature takes place in English departments, most do have writers but very few of the distinguished writers and authors are faculty members. At the other extreme are the mathematics departments where the preponderance of creative activity in the field takes place in the university departments. Since mathematics is the language of science, and is continually developing, universities have a special responsibility to nurture the environment for creative activity in mathematics.
Observation (2). Some of the departments, particularly in the sciences and mathematics, have been international in characer for many years. In general, universities can only afford a minimum of specialists in any field, that is why professional meetings and conferences are so important in all disciplines. Although the advent of computer networks has alleviated this somewhat and the comunication among mathematicians has been greatly enhanced, this is no substitute for the interaction of practicing mathematicians with young colleagues and graduate students. Seminars are very important in mathematics. Without graduate students and young mathematicians, a department would jeopardize its active participation in the mathematics community and take a step towards unplugging itself and the university from the international network.
Observation (3). There are about 100 research universities in the United States, and their continued strength is absolutely essential to the economic well being of this country. I have been amazed at how little this has been appreciated by the Congress, the legislatures, and the public in general. They turn to these institutions for help in special areas or for special projects but don't seem to recognize that these institutions' general financial strength is in the best interests of the country. The institutions themselves have not been able to get together to make this case for the research universities, and as a result many of them are trying to strengthen their undergraduate programs. There are at least 2500 other institutions offering undergraduate programs and there is no dearth of opportunities for a good undergraduate degree. What we need to do is insure the continued strength of the research universities and this means the core disciplines have to be effective, in some cases this requires encouragement and nurturing, in others it means restructuring. But the importance of the research university is such that the research in core activities cannot be dispensed with.
Observation (4). Mathematicians are mathematicians and they want to teach other mathematicians. I berated a group of mathematicians for this one time, and a very distinguished mathematician told me with a twinkle in his eye that that was a lot more fun. The fact is that mathematics education for the non-mathematically oriented is not done very well in general. The mathematicians don't seem to recognize that the language they have developed is very useful but is very difficult for people with a non-mathematical bent to assimilate. At almost every level there seems to be a strong prejudice against mathematics, a failure by the public to appreciate what an important language it is while at the same time bemoaning the fact that they cannot get technologically oriented jobs. Mathematics education needs attention, but I don't think that turning it over to the second team is going to alleviate the situation. I might add that I think there is a parallel situation with English. In this case too there seems to be a growing unconcern with grammar and the importance of conveying our thoughts and information effectively and accurately.
I must say that after reading all the reports and documents, I was taken back by the perilous financial position you find yourself in. It certainly impressed on me the importance of good investment policy and advice, and I can appreciate your concerns considering the situation you inherited. I do hope that the University of Rochester will survive, and that the approach you have taken to mathematics will in the long run not be detrimental to the institution.
W. Dexter Whitehead, Jr.
Alumni Professor of Physics Emeritus
University of Virginia