Newsletter #99     On Ray Johnson [AWM]

If your memory is like mine you're going to have a vague feeling as you read the body of this that some of those phrases have a familiar ring. Let me reassure you -- you're not dreaming. I have largely re-cycled a March newsletter to turn it into an AWM column. Not entirely, though, so it seemed worth reprinting, even assuming better memories out there than mine.

I'll start with an extremely brief report on the Brown Bags of the quarter. There were only two, owing to sundry circumstances which, like so many, were slightly beyond my control. The first was a videotape of a lecture by Mike Fellows on outreach to the K-12 world. It had some neat ideas and some intentionally provocative (let's be honest -- rude!) comments about Mathematics Education. To my eye, the major success of the Brown Bag was a conversation between two attenders that was still going on when I came out of a meeting an hour later. The second was conversation all the way. Michael Schick from the Physics Department joined us for an hour and a lot of information went back and forth about the mathematics needed and used at sundry levels of undergraduate physics. Pleasant all round.

Other news on the Teaching/Learning front is either bulky stuff about projects ongoing or being applied for or small scale stuff on the crucial but not necessarily fascinating nuts and bolts level, so I shall proceed directly to the AWM column.

Some people provide inspiration by making resounding speeches, and some by doing spectacular deeds. Some, on the other hand, go quietly about their business, and the inspiration they provide happens only after some circumstance calls them to one's attention. This provides fewer fireworks, but I'm inclined to think the resulting impact may endure longer. I had the good fortune to experience this kind of inspiration last year. In the course of planning for a forum on diversity, I became conscious of Ray Johnson, longtime professor at the University of Maryland. Despite the fact that a quirk of fate prevented his actual visit, I continue to be influenced by what I learned of and from him. This column is an attempt to communicate some of the inspiration he gave me.

The first indications of his character and style are in his autobiography, found on his home page at His page is entitled "You can get there even from Alice, Texas (if you're lucky and you know where there is)". With a title like that, it is not surprising to find that the story makes very good reading. His underlying theme is that "I would describe my life, including my entry into the profession, as being characterized by my coming of age on the right side of several transition points from the totally segregated society in which I grew up to the quasi-open society in which we now live." One such transition point was Brown vs the Board of Education, which happened after he finished elementary school in a two-room school (one that may well have served him better than the classy all-white one he had to walk past every day would have), but before he was bussed out of town for high school. Another transition resulted from the mad scramble to improve mathematics and science education after Sputnik was launched: one of Ray's teachers attended mathematics institutes at the University of Texas. This resulted not only in Ray's getting some really good high school classes, but also in his introduction to a professor who served him as a mentor throughout his undergraduate career at UT.

Under the wing of this professor Ray went on to do his graduate work at Rice, which was in the not-too-smooth process of becoming integrated. Ray was the first African-American to receive a degree from Rice. From there, by a process which from today's vantage point looks stunningly casual, he got a position at the University of Maryland. He went on to be "promoted though the ranks at Maryland, surviving long enough to become the African American faculty member with the longest tenure at College Park. As a reward for this, they made me Chair of the Mathematics Department; frankly, I think I deserved better, but I survived the term with some wits intact." It was while he was chairman that he instituted some programs whose results have caused universities all over the country to sit up and take notice. The most spectacular (and widely reported) result was the granting of Ph.D.'s to three African America women simultaneously. The programs themselves are described in the Chronicle of Higher Education at That article is very interesting, but I was even more taken with an article in "Colloquy Live", also in the Chronicle of Higher Education, at This one is a transcript of a phone-in talk show with Ray as the guest, and it has some comments that deserve attention. His response to the moderator's opening question is a good example. The moderator asked "What are some of the best practices that your department has developed or identified in its efforts to attract more underrepresented minorities and women?"

Ray's reply was: "Attracting students is the easy part. Getting them through to the degree despite the obstacles provided by life is the hardest part. The practices are 1.) recruit where the minority students are (frequently at historically black universities, but know which produce students who can succeed in your program), 2.) get a critical mass of students to whom you have given a good experience (I don't think that necessarily means that they succeeded; that they feel well treated and that the program is fair is often enough), and 3.) stay involved in the students' lives (so that you can tell their undergraduate mentors how they are doing when you see them)."

Later in the show came the question: "Do you think the needs of women and minorities in mathematics overlap? Are they different than those of white or Asian students given that they are not underrepresented in the field?"

Ray replied: "No, their needs do overlap. I believe that the policies that have been practiced by the math community have been detrimental to all students, but they have had a particular impact on minorities and women, as they are such a small part of that community. My experience is that when improvements are made on the practices that detrimentally effect women and minorities, these improvements also have a significant impact on the entire mathematics population." On the issue of blaming the situation on K-12 education Ray said: "I agree that the problem has many roots that must be attacked before it is solved. For example, I think that the education some minority students receive in college can cause them to be underprepared in graduate school. However, I think that each of us has the responsibility to deal with this issue at our level. We can't wait for the other levels to solve the problem. Otherwise, we may get stuck in the "paralysis of analysis." I see two roles for college faculty in dealing with the K-12 educational issues. First, we must recognize the difference between training and ability. Students come to us with different levels of training. Minority students are frequently characterized as not having ABILITY when what they lack is in fact training. Second, I think we should try to prepare future math and science teachers well. The mathematics community had a high level committee prepare a report that attempts to guide mathematics departments as to how they can do a better job of preparing future teachers. So my approach is to try to improve things that are in my province. The people in K-12 should be working on things in their province and the University should help them where possible."

So why do I find Ray an inspiration, and what do I hope he will inspire in you? Part of it, I think, is his perspective. Education today has many problems and it is easy to get overwhelmed by their magnitude to the point of feeling that a single piece of a solution is insignificant. It takes courage to hang onto the conviction that the bit that one can contribute where one is, and with one's own talents and opportunities, is worth contributing. Ray looked at what he could do at his own university for students in his own department, and did it. In fact, what he could do turned out to be lots. I also like his description of the key element of his success: not the large scale organizational structure (though it must exist) but the personal contact with, and interest in, and responsibility for each student who responds to the department's invitation. Clearly he is not someone for whom a student will ever be just a statistic. I also like his refusal either to lay the entire of the blame for the current problems of education at someone else's feet or to have the universities shoulder it all. Each of us has some responsibility and some options for being helpful, and each should act upon them.

Every one of those issues carries a lot of weight with me. Besides, how could I possibly not be inspired by someone who came up with the notion of the "paralysis of analysis"?


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