UM Gains National Recognition for Number of Minorities Earning Doctorates in Mathematics

Miss. – Earning a doctoral degree is comparable to running a marathon.
Agony and pain are obstacles during the race, but joy and excitement
reign when crossing the finish line.

At the University of
Mississippi, the Department of Mathematics has been on a marathon since
the turn of the century, producing 11 minority doctoral alums. On
average, 12 minorities obtain doctoral degrees in mathematics annually
across the entire country. UM’s record of recruiting and retaining
minority candidates in its mathematics doctoral program was recently
recognized by the American Mathematics Society with its 2009 Programs
that Makes a Difference Award.

“Here at Ole Miss, we lead the
nation in producing minority Ph.D.’s in mathematics,” said Gerard
Buskes, mathematics professor. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, the total
number of African-American Ph.D.s in the United States has not exceeded
17. So for our program to produce 11 of those since 2001, and
specifically six in one year, is truly significant.”

In 2006, UM awarded doctoral degrees to six black students, the largest cohort of black mathematics doctorates ever produced at any university in the United States.

“The American Mathematics Society is the (sole) society for mathematicians in the U.S.,” Buskes said. “This definitely raises the profile of our graduates.”

Buskes added that the AMS recognition, which includes a $5,000 prize, adds value to those holding doctoral degrees in mathematics from UM, saying that employers will now recognize the university’s name when searching for new employees. These UM graduates hold faculty positions at various universities across the country as well as in government, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Security Agency.

In her nomination letter to AMS, UM alumnus Sylvia Bozeman, a professor at Spelman College, wrote that UM’s mathematics department’s work to recruit and retain students from underrepresented groups is a visionary effort.

“This unprecedented success deserves to be set forth as a model for other departments who are more hesitant to attempt change,” Bozeman wrote.

Buskes said that this level of accomplishment would be impossible without the full support of the UM mathematics department. Ten faculty members have served as advisers to the doctoral students, and black faculty member Don Cole, assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs, has been a role model and mentor for many of them.

“Most students, particularly minorities, fail to complete their degree for reasons other than academic,” Cole said.

With a doctoral degree in mathematics from UM, Cole recalls the number of black students who started the program alongside him, and the few who actually completed the degree. He said many of his peers who didn’t finish their degree requirements were much more talented than himself.

“There are so many vulnerable places along the Ph.D. trail,” Cole said. “Our entire institution has worked diligently to identify those places and to mentor students safely beyond them. It has truly been a collective effort.”

UM’s doctoral program in mathematics was established in the early 1960s and awarded only three doctorates to African-Americans in its first 40 years. Buskes admits that friends and colleagues said it was either a “high-risk proposition” or “impossible” to alter those numbers, given the university’s racial history.

“We are a small mathematics department, especially for a flagship university,” Buskes said. “This success is truly remarkable, and people across the nation become really emotional when they hear of our success.”

The turnaround started at the turn of the century, when Buskes first obtained a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need grant from the Department of Education. GAANN aims to increase the number of doctoral degrees in areas of national need.

With support from GAANN, UM’s mathematics department has successfully expanded its outreach to under-represented groups, with particular emphasis on recruitment and retention of female and African-American students. A need-based Title IV program, GAANN has provided $1 million toward the initiative, doubling the department’s budget and enlarging its graduate student population.

UM has had 11 GAANN fellows, six of whom were minorities, to obtain their doctoral degrees since funding started in 2001.

For more information visit the Department of Mathematics .