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The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

The Oldest College Newspaper in Pennsylvania

The Lafayette

Mathematics department to become ‘mathematical sciences’

Photo by Jen Parsons for The Lafayette
The Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the change in May.

The math department expects to be renamed next semester from the Department of Mathematics to the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

The name change was narrowly endorsed on Tuesday by the faculty by a 56-to-42 margin, with 25 abstentions. The measure is expected to come before the Board of Trustees in May for approval.

Rob Root, the acting head of the math department, felt that the change, if approved, would be coming at an appropriate time in the evolution of the department.

“We feel like the enterprise of quantitative reasoning is getting bigger,” Root said. “Our department is getting bigger and so we want to acknowledge that we have a lot of folks doing statistics.”

Root explained that within the field of mathematics, there is a general sense that the field of statistics, as well as adjacent fields of data science and modeling, do not fit neatly under the term “mathematics.”

“We want to acknowledge the liberal arts side of things, which is ‘pure’ mathematics, proof-based mathematics, the mathematics where numbers are hard and certain,” he said. “At the same time, we want to acknowledge that as math becomes used in the world, it becomes different. It tends to become more statistical and there’s more need to think inductively and not just purely deductively.”

According to Trent Gaugler, a professor in the math department and statistician, the department’s evolution over the past 10 years necessitated the change – seven out of the department’s 21 tenure-tracked positions are filled by professors involved in either statistics or applied mathematics, he said.

“For some people, the research activity does not look like what is traditionally called ‘mathematics,'” Gaugler said.

Louis Zulli, a math professor, first heard whispers of a proposed name change last semester. After much discussion and several faculty meetings, the change was endorsed by the math department in a formal vote.

“I voted for the name change,” Zulli said. “But my reasoning was mostly that, to me, names of things are not that important. I’ll still have the same fine colleagues that I’ve had and we’ll still be doing what we’ve been doing.”

“It wasn’t unanimous,” Root said of the vote among the math faculty. “But a clear majority felt that the name change was appropriate.”

Both Root and Zulli theorized that the narrow vote margin of the faculty might have been influenced by a speech from Justin Corvino, professor of mathematics, before the vote.

“I assume that my remarks at the Faculty Meeting were persuasive to some of my Faculty colleagues, though I cannot say whether they were already not convinced by the rationale that was presented in the motion to the Faculty, which I believe was lacking in substance and clarity,” Corvino wrote in an email.

He explained that there was “no evidence was presented to support the claim that the name ‘mathematical sciences’ better informs students and faculty about the activities in the department.”

“[The speech] moved some folks to support his position, despite the fact that the rest of the department clearly prefers the new name,” Root wrote in an email. “The vote in the department … was more than 5 to 1 in favor of the name change.”

Another name the department considered, but ultimately rejected, was the “Department of Mathematics and Statistics.”

“We felt like limiting to a binary doesn’t capture the full range of the courses that we offer and it doesn’t capture the full range of scholarship that’s happening in the department,” Root said.

Root explained that certain subjects like mathematical finance, operations research and data analysis would have stuck out from this proposed binary option.

To Provost John Meier, who will be leaving the college in the summer to become the executive director of the American Mathematical Society, the math department’s new name reflects a broader trend in the field of mathematics itself and illustrates just how fluid the distinctions between subjects can be.

“I think there is a natural ebb and flow on these things,” Meier said.

This observation is echoed by the math department’s own history.

According to Elaine Stomber ‘89, the college archivist, Lafayette’s earliest math faculty members carried the title of “Professor of Math, Natural Philosophy, and Astronomy.” “Natural Philosophy” was dropped from the name around 1874, though “Math and Astronomy” would remain linked for another 40 years.

“Our curriculum is changing and evolving as it always would be, but that’s not because we’re changing our name,” Zulli said. “If anything, it’s the other way around. Our curriculum is changing, our faculty is broadening, and I think the name reflects that.”

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