A Brief History of the LSU Department of Mathematics (from the 2004 Program Review Self-Study)

In 1948 Luther Wade, who received his mathematical training at Duke University under the well-known combinatorialist L. Carlitz, was hired by LSU as head of the Mathematics Department, with the understanding that he was to build a mathematics department with a strong research component. Drawing on his experiences and acquaintances from stays at Brown and the Institute for Advanced Study, in only five years Professor Wade was able to hire two Ph.D.’s from Princeton, one from Harvard, one from Yale, one from the California Institute of Technology, one from the University of Wisconsin and one from Washington University in St. Louis, all with strong research credentials! In the next few years, the Department continued to add new faculty including Richard Anderson and Pasquale Porcelli, both of whom became Boyd Professors, LSU’s highest professorial rank, Hubert Butts, who became Alumni Professor, and many others who helped lead the Department into prominence in the 60’s and beyond. Professor Anderson, still active in mathematics education in Louisiana and across the United States, won the international Bolzano Prize for his work in topology and is a former President of the Mathematical Association of America and a former Vice-President of the American Mathematical Society. Professor Porcelli was especially known for his work with graduate students, producing two Sloan Fellows and a Pierce Scholar (Harvard). His death in 1972 was a significant loss to the Department.

In 1964-65, the National Science Foundation started a program to identify “centers of excellence” in mathematics and science and made large research grants to these selected universities. In 1965, LSU received “centers-of-excellence” grants for Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Geology. In the short span of sixteen years, the Mathematics Department was transformed from a department with no research at all into a “center of excellence” - a remarkable achievement. The center-of-excellence grant provided funding for raises, additional hires, visitors, and international conferences. One of these international conferences firmly established LSU as the world’s leader in the area of mathematics known then as Infinite-Dimensional Topology. In the wake of the center-of-excellence program, the University created the Nicholson Professorship of Mathematics, held by Pierre Conner until his retirement in 1998.

Professor Wade began the practice, still followed in the Department, of hiring to our strengths and opportunistically adding important specialties. During his long tenure as head (until 1978), the Department experienced remarkable growth, not only in numbers and strength of research faculty, but also in the strength of its graduate program and quality of students and its national and international prestige. It placed graduates into successful academic research careers at such institutions as Cornell, SUNY Stonybrook, Utah, USC, UCLA, UNC, Penn State, the University of Illinois, and Florida State, among others. The Department is also deservedly proud of its work at the graduate level over the years with minority students, especially African-American students. It has been one of the largest producers of African-Americans with the Ph.D. in mathematics.

The Mathematics Department received particular praise for its research and Ph.D. program from reviewers during the external review of the Department in 1977-78. The Department’s growth continued into the 1980’s. In the 1982 National Research Council survey, the LSU Mathematics Department scored 2.69 and ranked 50th out of 112 schools considered. From 1981 until 1994, Bela Bollobas maintained a joint appointment between LSU and Cambridge University, bringing some of his graduate students from Cambridge during periods at LSU. Among these was Timothy Gowers, who was one of the four winners of the 1998 Fields Medal, the nearest mathematical equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Over the period from 1980 to 2000 five departmental faculty have been awarded Humboldt fellowships, another was a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and several have participated in extended visits to the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at Berkeley.

If the 1960’s brought us “center-of-excellence” status, the early nineties brought tougher times as severe budget cuts crippled the University. The Mathematics Department lost several tenure-track lines and faculty salaries fell well below national norms. Despite these discouragements and setbacks, the Department’s national and international reputation for research and scholarship remained reasonably good: in the 1995 National Research Council survey, the LSU Mathematics Department scored 2.74 and tied for 69th place out of the 139 schools considered.

In the past six years there has been a noticeable turnaround in departmental fortunes. LSU, with the support of its Board of Regents and Louisiana state government, has adopted an aggressive program called the Flagship Agenda to build LSU into a regionally and nationally top-ranked university. The Mathematics Department is a major player in this undertaking, having been selected as one of twelve pillar departments to receive enhanced support. Major consequences of this additional support include the planning, recruiting and establishment of a strong, cohesive applied mathematics group of four professors and three post-docs in the area of materials sciences, the major upgrading of our graduate student population, both in quality and quantity, and a significant raising of faculty salaries. In addition, the Department has engaged in the 2003-04 academic year in a major search to fill four new lines with two new assistant professors and two nationally prominent senior mathematicians who will significantly increase departmental strength and stature (the latter search is still ongoing). The Department’s achievements and distinction have been recognized in other ways by the university in the recent past by such means as the awarding of an Alumni Professorship and the university-wide Distinguished Research Master Award to James Oxley, a Boyd Professorship to Jimmie Lawson, the Nicholson Professorship to Hui Kuo, the Hubert Butts Professorship to Robert Perlis, and the Barton Professorship to Jürgen Hurrelbrink.