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A History of the Mathematics Department at
Virginia Tech: 1872 - 1995

Chapter 5
The Hahn Years and Beyond:
Part 2 - After Hahn

In 1975 William E. Lavery replaced Hahn as president of the University. During much of the early part of Lavery's tenure, there was not a great deal of change in the Mathematics Department. After the mid 1970s, the 1983 year was the big year for hiring new faculty. There were five new members that year: Christopher Beattie, William Floyd, Jong Kim, Margaret Murray, and John Rossi. All would become active in teaching, research, and service to the Department and the University.

By this time, the Mathematics Department at Tech had achieved considerable respect for its research faculty. In particular, in 1983 the Department was high in the national rankings for quality of graduate programs designated by the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils. In addition, this Board ranked the Tech Mathematics Department as 6th in the nation in improvment of quality. Several of the faculty participated in national and international service committees and were on editorial boards of respected mathematical journals. Also starting about 1980, some major mathematical conferences were held on the Tech campus.

Two members of the Department, Frank Quinn and Michael Renardy, received the Alumni Award for Research Excellence. Quinn's award came in 1985, and it was also during that year that he was promoted to University Distuingished Professor. Although, as a UDP, Quinn was not required to teach any classes, he continued to periodically teach a class, primarily at an upper or graduate level.

Besides teaching and doing research, Mathematics faculty contributed service to the University. Three members of the Department, Monte Boisen, Ray Dickman and Daniel Farkas, were awarded Academy of Faculty Service. The award to Dickman was soon after he retired in 1985. Dickman had come to Tech in 1971, and in 1974-75 became Acting Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs. He did not continue working in the Provost's Office because of a health problem, diagnosed as multiple sclerosis.

In 1979, Patty appointed Dickman as Director of the Mathematics Graduate Program. After two years, Dickman was forced to give up this job because of his poor health. Thereafter the job of director of the Mathematics Graduate Program was held by a succession of people for one, two or three years each. In order, these people were: Robert McCoy, James Holub, Edward Green, McCoy again, Robert Olin, Janet Peterson, and Martin Day.

All but two of the new faculty hired in the Mathematics Department during the years 1984 and 1991 were in applied mathematics. These included Max Gunzburger and David Russell who were hired as professors, and Michael Renardy and Janet Peterson who were hired as associate professors. Gunzburger and Peterson were husband and wife who did some of their research together. Also Michael Renardy and Yuriko Renardy were husband and wife faculty members who did some joint research. Both of the Renardy's came to Tech having just received prestigious national awards: his the Presidential Young Investigator Award and hers the National Science Foundation's Research Opportunities for Women Award.

Another person hired about this time in applied mathematics (numerical analysis) was James Turner. He joined Carl Prather, who had come nine years earlier, as African American faculty members. Turner worked with Gunzburger to help recruit minority students. For several years the Department had a summer program in which minority students came to get special instruction, enabling some to continue on for graduate work in mathematics.

Wright House

During this period that the Department was buiding strength in applied mathematics, Tech was awarded in 1987 a one and a half million dollar grant for an Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Mathematics (ICAM). This grant came from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, with Burns, Herdman and Cliff as principal investigators on the grant. The center was eventually located in a house near the Duck Pond, known as the Wright House. Later an extension was built on the back of Wright House to house Russell's Modeling, Information Processing and Control Facility that was used by a number of students to study the effects of vibration. Later in 1993, ICAM was awarded a grant from the Air Force for close to three million dollars for a Center for Optimal Design and Control.

By the end of the 1980s decade, the Mathematics Department had become an established research department and was hosting a number of mathematical conferences. For example, major conferences on the Tech campus included ones on "Function Theory on the Unit Circle," "Topology," "Volterra Equations and Functional Differential Equations," "Group Actions on Manifolds," "Numerical Solutions of Partial Differential Equations," and "Mathematics of Random Media." The research publication from the function theory conference published by the Mathematics Department had over 2500 copies purchased by libraries and faculty from other schools.

Two new scholarship endowments were established in the Mathematics Department in the late 1980s. One scholarship was named in honor of David P. Roselle, and was awarded to senior mathematics majors. The other was in honor of Aneurin V. Morris, established by his daughter Mrs. Laura Burrows.

It was during the 1980s that the University administration made the decision to change from a quarter sytem to a semester system. This required all departments, including the Mathematics Department, to make extensive changes and consolidations in course offerings. Many people in the Department worked on this restructuring starting in the middle of the decade. The semester system officially began in the fall semester of 1988. For several years thereafter the schedule of freshman-sophomore mathematics classes was complicated because of the many special sections that accommodated students who began mathematics sequences on the quarter system and finished the sequences on the semester system.

The 1988 year was also a year for change in the administration of the University when Lavery was replaced by James D. McComas as president. The following year marked the beginning of a change that was to affect the University even more profoundly than the change of administration and the change to the semester system. Spring of 1990 was the first of four years of budget cuts for the University precipitated by an economic downturn for the state of Virginia. This was caused to a great extent by the cut in defense spending by the federal government after the end of the cold war. At first, across the board budget cuts were made at all levels of the University. Later selective cuts and consolidations were made, and all units of the University were compelled to do restructuring. To partially offset these budget cuts, the University was allowed to increase tuition. Between the years 1989 and 1994, in-state student fees increased 65% and out-of-state student fees more than doubled.

In the Mathematics department, the affects were felt in its ability to get approval to hire new faculty. Six people retired in 1992 after the state of Virginia offered a special retirement package to its state workers. The Department was permitted to use about half of those vacated positions to hire new faculty at the assistant professor level. One of the people to retire at this time was Charles Aull, who had been a colorful figure in the Department for nearly 30 years. His office was notorious for its untidy state, and there was some good natured joking as to how it might get cleaned out for its next occupant.

With the decrease in faculty positions, class sizes in the Mathematics Department were becoming larger than ever. Most of the calculus classes had at least 80 students in them at this time, and a number had more than 100 students. The teachers of these classes, who were mainly instructors, had help from graduate teaching assistants with the grading of the tests. To help students in the large calculus sections, tapes of calculus lectures made by James Shockley in the Mathematics Department were run on a regular basis on the University cable TV system. However, it was difficult for students to get individual attention in such large classes. Perhaps because of concerns of some of the parents of students in these large sections, the Department had a surprise announcement given to it in the spring of 1993 from the upper level of administration that it was to hire 17 new instructors so that class enrollments would be no more than 35 students. Salaries were to come from part of the increase in student tuitions.

In the fall of 1993 President McComas retired from the presidency because of his fight with cancer. Not long after that, Paul Torgersen, who had been Dean of the Engineering College, was named President of the University.

One of the consequences of the annual increase in tuition during these years of budget cuts in the 1990s was the decrease in the number of out-of-state students, who were by now paying more than 100% of the cost of their education at Tech. Along with this decrease in selectivity of the students there seemed to be an attitude change, for whatever reason, resulting in a higher number of students not attending class. This had the affect of causing many low grades, and some courses being known as "killer courses." For the first time in many years, teachers of the freshman-sophomore courses in the Mathematics Department were asked to take attendance in their classes, and were allowed by a new University policy to make use of attendance in determining their grades.

As part of the restructuring process, the University started during the summer of 1993 a Faculty Development Institute in which, on an annual basis, one fourth of Tech's faculty would participate in a week long workshop to learn about and develop applications for new technology both for research and for the classroom. In particular, the Mathematics Department used these workshops to start teaching sections of calculus having a one day a week computer lab in which the highly graphical sofware Mathematica was used. In addition to the use of the computer in the classroom, the Department taught a number of sections of calculus using a reformed method of teaching initiated by a consortium of schools that was developed by a team from Harvard. This integrated into the courses numerical calculation on the computer as well as visualization using computer graphics.

With all the computer equipment the Department was using at that time, there was a need for support personnel to install, repair and uprade this equipment, which was on a network containing various UNIX systems, and also personal computers in faculty offices. By that time the Department had three computer specialists, headed by Kenneth Hinson. In addition, Kenneth Hannsgen was the faculty member who coordinated the scheduling of the classes that needed a computer in the classroom. At first there was one such classroom; the next year new computer bunkers were added into more classrooms. In addition a large classroom was outfitted with about 35 computers for use during the day by sections of mathematics classes that had a computer lab scheduled with them.

Along with the introduction of technology into the curriculum, two new undergraduate degree options were offered by the Mathematics Department. These were the Applied Computational Option and the Applied Discrete Option. The first students to receive degrees in these options graduated during the spring semester of 1995. A number of faculty members spent some time developing the curriculum and adding the needed courses for these options. Two of these people were Robert Rogers for the computational option and Edward Green for the discrete option.

The computer was not only being used more by the applied members of the Department in their research, but was also used more by the people doing research in pure mathematics. This resulted in the formation of the Center for Mathematical Computation, which included faculty working on algebra, topology and mathematical physics.

During the annual math faculty meeting at the beginning of the fall semester in 1992, Wayne Patty surprised everyone with the announcement that he would be stepping down as Department Head at the end of the 1993-94 academic year, after nearly 25 years as Head. He then planned to spend time on the Interdisciplinary Science and Mathematics Education Project that he and Harold Mick had initiated as a grant from Virginia Quality Education in Sciences and Technology (V-QUEST). This project, with initial funding in the neighborhood of half a million dollars, was for the restructuring of existing mathematics and science courses and labs in grades 9-14, and would involve a consortium consisting of universities, community colleges and secondary schools, and would include faculty in biology, chemistry, education, geology, mathematics, and physics.

At the last faculty meeting held while Patty was Head (March 31, 1994), he announced the establishment of an endowed professorship in mathematics. This "T. W. Hatcher Professorship in Mathematics" was made possible through the generosity of Mrs. Elizabeth Hatcher, the widow of Dr. T. Watkins (Inky) Hatcher. The following year, John Burns was named as the first T. W. Hatcher Professor.

Robert F. Olin
Robert F. Olin

During the year that followed Patty's announcement that he was stepping down as Head, the Department debated whether it should hire the new head from outside of Tech. It was eventually decided to have the head appointed from within the Department. Three candidates for this position, Boisen, Olin and Russell, presented their views during a faculty meeting. A departmental vote was taken later in the year and the results sent to the Dean. The Dean then appointed the new Head, Robert (Bob) Olin, who began his term in the fall semester of 1994.

One of the things that Olin had to contend with right away was the Department's response to the University's Phase II plan calling for restructuring throughout the University. Under Olin's guidance, the Department developed a comprehensive restructuring document that was sent to Robert (Bob) Bates, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. One of the features was the identification of four focus areas in which the Department would concentrate its research efforts. This and other initiatives in the restructuring document have only just begun in the 1995-96 academic year, the centennial year of the Mathematic Department's existence after its formation as a separate department under the McBryde administration.

These last few years in the life of the Virginia Tech Mathematics Department have been characterized by change, particularly in the use of technology in the classroom and in the professional lives of the faculty. Electronic communication and record keeping has, for the most part, replaced communication and record keeping done on paper. This electronic revolution is still in its early stages, so only time will tell to what extent these changes will affect the Department in the future. But by looking back at the growth and changes in the Department over the last 100 years, one can gain some perspective on how much the Department may change in the future.


This history was inspired by an earlier history of the Mathematics Department written by B. C. Horne, Jr. and John W Layman, titled A History of the Mathematics Department at Virginia Tech 1872-1981. Extensive use was made of this earlier history. Additional sources include: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Historical Data Book, 1872 - 1972 by Jenkins M. Robertson, The First 100 Years; a History of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University by Duncan L. Kinnear, college catalogs, yearbooks, and the annual reports of the Mathematics Department compiled since 1970. Pictures of early faculty and buildings were collected and scanned by Kenneth Shaw. Assistance in editing earlier versions and checking content was given by Hugh Campbell and Robert Spencer. Also thanks go to the many other Mathematics faculty members who had a hand in the collection of data for this project. This Mathematics Department history is still a preliminary version. Additions and corrections will continue to be made, and the printed version will be appended with tables of historical data.

Maintained by: Robert A. McCoy

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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:03 EDT