Skip to main content

Department Future by Jack Graver

A lecture given in September 1981 by Professor Jack Graver, Department Chair 1979-1982.

MGO officer (introducing Professor Graver): "Last year we had Professor Kibbey here to talk about [the history of the Math Department], so we thought that in the interest of continuity we would have someone here qualified to [discuss the future of the Department]". (He then introduced) Professor Graver.

Jack Graver: Well, Don is certainly well qualified to talk about the history of the Math Department, but without having a crystal ball I don't really know how qualified I am to talk about the future. I am certainly going to restrict it to the near future, and hence the talk is rather short (laughter). I have not been thinking much about a week ahead actually, in some cases 2 or 3 days ahead for the last month. I appreciate being asked. I appreciate the chance to talk with the graduate students so early in the year. I also appreciate being asked at this time because I am so busy everybody will understand why I am so disorganized (laughter). I am not going to be called upon to have a nice smooth lecture.

If you are going to talk about the future of the Mathematics Department, you really have to start back a little bit further away, not in time, but back away from mathematics. And you have to talk of the Math Department, and to talk about mathematics itself and its future, and so something like mathematics in the 80s. We have to also talk about Syracuse University in the 80s, and coming a little closer to home, the College of Arts and Sciences. All of these things have to be discussed before we can talk about or make sense of what is going to happen to the Math Department in the 80s.

Now mathematics in the 80s there are several [?] and predictions, they have been going on for a long time, and I am simply going to comment on and quote from one. This is an article entitled "Freshman plans and implications for mathematics instruction." It was written by Gail Young, and it is in the Newsletter of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences from the May-June issue of 1980.

He has --It is a very short article, and I suggest that those interested take a look at it. The statistics at the beginning can be summarized in the following three statements. "(1) The number of students entering fields requiring mathematics is up significantly over the past 10 years, in the 70s. (2) The number of math and stat majors, on the other hand, is down significantly over the past ten years. (3) And the number of people with high school teaching of mathematics as their career goal is down over the past ten years."

Now Gail Young comments on these as follows. The middle item: "So far as the undergraduate enrollment in mathematics is concerned, I do not find the sharp drop in proposed majors in mathematics or statistics disturbing. When in the mid 60s nearly 5% of entering freshmen proposed to major in mathematics, most of them really didn't. One creates majors in well-taught freshman and sophomore courses. What the low figure does show is a complete unawareness on the part of entering students of career possibilities in mathematics, which I think are excellent," i.e. which Gail Young thinks are, indeed, excellent. And he feels that the major problem, i.e. the problem of majors, will take care of itself, at least in departments that take appropriate care. The article then goes on --- I'll read the last three paragraphs. "The decline in teachers is not surprising, but it is not encouraging to a teacher of education. It occurs at a time when many of the best teachers, particularly in mathematics and science, are leaving the schools for industry. And there is presently a substantial shortage of secondary school mathematics teachers, and no reason to expect it not to worsen. That is one reason for the decline in mathematics preparation of entering freshmen. An effect of that decline is the rise in the amount of remedial mathematics taught in colleges and universities."

"Not only are more students entering fields requiring mathematics, but more need a semester of remedial work before entering the required courses. I believe that the '80s will see crash programs in energy research and development, and, since Afghanistan, expanded programs in military research and development, with a very sharp increase in demands for scientists and mathematicians, and consequently sharp increases in mathematics enrollments. It is considerations like that that have convinced me that mathematics faculty will not decrease during the 80s, despite the predicted overall enrollment drop." So that's what Gail Young has to say about sort of the future of mathematics in general.

Let me tell you what I have been told about the future at S.U., i.e. what the administration thinks about the future here at Syracuse. And this is strictly by word of mouth. I have no document to quote here. I am told that the northeast expects a 22% drop in college age students through the '80s. I think that the big crash is predicted in '84 or '85. The northeast is particularly badly hit with this 22% drop. S.U. plans for an 11% overall drop in enrollment over the 80s. Now in my notes I put that "plans" in quotes.

That means what they are saying is that they hope they can salvage enough that we will only experience an 11% drop. They really haven't planned for that at all. Plans are now just beginning to be put together. It's an expectation and a rather rosy one at that, I think, and they really haven't properly planned for it. It's pretty clear that right now that we are at the end of the seven fat years. Each year the administration expects that enrollments are going to start to fall off, and they try to guard themselves by giving out a few more acceptances and the past two years they've been taking in more than anticipated.

Their strategies are: Pack 'em in while you can. Hold the line on staffing even if the departments are oversubscribed. And the main reason they are doing this is that with tenure a part of college life, it's very hard to adjust later. You don't lay people off, unless things get terribly bad. We don't even reach--we can't even shift within the institution, very well, as there are shifting enrollments.

Let me say a word about Arts and Sciences. The move of students to professional schools is probably going to continue, or at worst it's not going to change. And when you think of the overall University losing 11 %, you realize that right now in the College of Arts and Sciences large numbers of students are here only because they couldn't get into Engineering or Management or Newhouse, and, if there is an 11% drop in two or three years from now, what will happen is that these students will then be able to get into Management, Engineering, Newhouse, they'll be able to maintain full enrollment, so that 11% cut is going to really cut Arts and Sciences.

The strategy in Arts and Sciences is the same in the whole College. We take everybody, we pack them in as we can. We'll take people gladly who would really rather be an Engineer, who would really rather be a Management student. This policy of what they call alternate admission has a lot of critics on campus, including myself. Students are enticed into the College of Arts and Sciences with somewhat of a promise that if you can come and do well in Arts and Sciences, then you can after one year transfer into your favorite college. Students are never really told what the statistics are on the numbers that actually make the change, so we are getting students I think under false pretenses in many cases. And that probably won't happen. When the other schools begin to hurt, they'll just take a cut lower and keep their enrollments up. The problems we have to face, of course, in Arts and Sciences are the same elsewhere, distributing faculty among departments. In the matter of tenure regulations we can't just follow the students.

Now in contrast to the whole college the Math. Department has a different story. I thought I would give you a few figures. These are our enrollments -- fall enrollments. I'll start back with the year I came, a good place to start.... [He wrote on the blackboard. He was asked about certain figures and replied that they were "total enrollments in the Math. Department, raw data off our tally sheets."]...

You can see what has happened. We were in the process of drowning through the late 60's and the very early 70's. The whole chart is sort of interesting, because it also has the number of faculty and TAs which drop for a moment and then stabilized, while enrollments have increased back [between?] '67 and '77 and now have outstripped ourselves. You can see--this represents probably close to a 20% increase [through the years in enrollment?].

I asked Kay Morgan, who has been the official keeper of Math. Department statistics for many, many years, whether indeed this is the biggest enrollment ever. And she thought that perhaps it was, although some time back after the war it may have been tougher, but the relative notion of being overwhelmed in the early 50's may have been worse than it is now. This is probably the biggest enrollment ever, and I'm predicting something like this, minus -- if there is a big decrease in the number of freshmen.

Predicting enrollment isn't a very precise business. There are major things which affect it. Of course, overall enrollments in the university--we can say that we get a certain percentage of that. Another thing that does affect it is shifts with interest. People shift toward departments that require mathematics. That certainly affects our enrollment. And not to be forgotten is Math 103. Math 103 affects our enrollment by, in effect, being an additional course. The effect of 103--there are a few of you who don't know, that's our remedial algebra course--the effect of 103 this fall had no effect on this fall's math enrollment. That is, a student who walks in and signs up for Math 103 for freshmen now. If he didn't sign up for Math 103, he would have signed up for another math course. Where he appears as new enrollment for us is the last math course he takes. If he is in Arts and Sciences and going to take a one year math requirement, say 171-172 -- if he didn't need 103, he would take 171 now and 172 in the spring and that would be it.

If he does need 103, he would take 103 now, 171 in the spring and then next fall he appears as an additional enrollment. So the effect of 103 is delayed; also the effect of shifts in enrollment is delayed. If a student chooses not to go to Arts and Sciences, or say enters in Arts and Sciences, but then transfers to an Engineer, he would take a year of mathematics as an Arts and Sciences major probably, as an Engineer he'll take three years, so the only time he appears as new enrollment are the second and third year he is here. So the only one that immediately affects us is the increase or decrease in freshman enrollments. The others actually have their effect a few years later, and we are now riding on the shifts that occurred back in the late 70's in Engineering, the Math 103 courses which were dramatically increased in these two years. That's where this 5400 came from. It's very little affected by the fact that we have a big freshman class.

That's why, even after things drop off, our enrollment is going to stay up for a while. And even then we are never going to drop off like the rest of Arts and Sciences at least. In short, to put it all in one nice simple sentence: we are an over-subscribed department in an under-subscribed college, and that's the way it's going to be for a long time. That's a pretty difficult situation to be in, because the Vice-Chancellor, who divides money up between the various colleges, takes into account overall enrollment. Not only that, but that is one of his important [??]. The Dean then gets an allocation which is unusually large perhaps because of Math enrollments, and he has to satisfy the fact that he has 25 departments all of which have a claim. They have tenured faculty, they also have a claim because no major university should be without a philosophy department, without a strong philosophy department. In fact, you put in the variable, and you'll have the people at least in that department who will make a strong case that we need--that we can't call ourselves a major university unless we have their department well represented.

So, as far as enrollments, really what it boils down to, I think that we are going to have heavy enrollments for a long time--I'm talking 4, 5, 6 - probably all the way through the 80's. And it's never going to get as bad--the math department--bad in the sense of enrollment dropping off as it will be throughout the rest of the College.

That is not necessarily good for us. It means we'll probably be overworked right through the 80's, when there are a lot of people elsewhere on campus twiddling their thumbs. And there isn't a great deal we can do about it. There really isn't. This is not going to happen that they are going to be able to shift major resources toward the math department. Or the other departments that -- we are not alone. English is certainly in this situation. Considering major universities, we have one of the smallest, relatively smallest, English departments for the size of the university.

Let me talk a little bit about the graduate program. I think that there'll be more Ph.D. students in mathematics. That's just my own personal feeling. I think that right now Ph.D. students are getting jobs. In fact, our Ph.D. students have always gotten jobs. It is tough sometimes, but we didn't send any of our Ph.D. students out to a bread line. They all got jobs. Pretty much the kind of thing they wanted. Perhaps not at a university with the prestige they would have liked, but they did get academic jobs if that is what they wanted. Now, last year the market, I think, is better for new Ph.D's than it has been for the last 5 or 6 years or longer perhaps. There are a lot of jobs at small institutions that are not yet filled this year. I think that more Ph.D's are considering jobs in industry, and as that becomes more -- it will be more accepted, more people will think about it seriously, and that will also increase the number of people in Ph.D. programs.

I certainly think that we are going to have more math ed. students, because I agree with Gail Young that there is going to be a real crisis with mathematics education in the elementary school level. I don't know how it's going to be solved--whether the government is going to step in or what--but something is going to be done. I can't see that it will continue to be ignored, and it is almost certain in my mind that we'll get more students in the math ed. program. Because of the way I see enrollments going, I don't see any reduction for TA support for some time, and any reductions that may occur in the long run will be very easily handled by attrition. That is, numbers of TA's supported, and I also think that the TA stipends will continue to be good relative to stipends elsewhere in Arts and Sciences. Again, Engineering, where people have a lot of contracts, they can do even better. Also Physics and Chemistry, where they can get on research contracts.

Academically, well we made a big change this year, i.e. we added six faculty members to our staff. But if you look around at the staff that is here, now in the Mathematics Department, that is pretty well the staff that is going to be here all through the 80's. Most of our staff are tenured and almost everybody else is on the tenure track. The only possible change, likely change, will be that the positions now that are visiting may go to statistics permanently, something that is the process of being negotiated, something the department has wanted to do for a long time, tried over several years to build in statistics, that may happen.

One other possibility, going along with what I said earlier, there may be enough pressure to add someone in math education at some stage. But, except for those two possibilities, I don't see any change in the complex of our department. I don't think it's necessary. I think it's a very nice department and we can offer a well-balanced program. But there will be no new horizons or new directions.

I guess the last thing I want to say is a little bit about what I think about the quality of life of the TA's. The one item I always thought was one of the most devastating was the calendar. I don't see that's going to change at all. I worked my hardest to somehow find a way to lengthen the fall semester. There are too many vested interests on campus--that's not going to be possible. Physically, the situation is: we're going to be overcrowded, we going to continue to be overcrowded for a period of time, but when you consider that in the Maxwell School the full professors are sharing two to an office, it's not likely that we can get help other than what we can do for ourselves as far as getting a better situation for our graduate students in terms of physical setting.

But there are perhaps a few things we can do. I'm hoping that I can do something about the fourth floor. Take advantage of the increased enrollments to do some reconstruction up there. These small seminar rooms, if they work, can get us through the tight years when we're really hitting 5500 or 5600, could then be perhaps converted to graduate student offices when we go back down to 5100 or something comfortable like that.

There are two things that I would like to do. Actually I probably won't have much chance myself, except to get them started: One of them is to try to improve the summer program for graduate students: they have six hours of tuition and it would be nice if they had a bigger selection of courses and nicer things to do in the summer. As a result of our fine record for the summer school of teaching lots of students for very little money, they are willing to consider putting in a few courses that are losers, losers from their point of view. The fact that we would have a faculty member lecturing, that would be a course consisting mostly of students who are on remitted tuition and therefore pay nothing. So I think that we can do a little bit along those lines and if we improve it a little bit each summer, we might actually end up having a nice summer program for you. Summer support was adequate last year; everybody got something who wanted something.

And the one last item, and then I guess we really have to get out of here: It is possible that we may get some work-study money for the graduate students? You may all be asked again to fill out the forms that they ask for. And I have a promise from the Dean -- he's never reneged on a promise -- that every cent that we would get that way would go to the Department. And it would not go as part of any of the allocations that the Department normally gets, because it's something you can't count on from year to year. And he agrees that it would be very reasonable and fine to say that all this money would go to improving the quality of life of the graduate students: more summer stipends, if that's warranted, perhaps new furniture for the graduate student offices, because God knows there is no other way to get funds for things like that. So, if money does come, then I think that the MGO would be involved in some idea of what the graduate students ...[My tape runs out here; it is almost at the end of this talk.].


As one who experienced those times, I found my tape of Jack Graver's talk in September 1981 interesting and prescient. Typed February 2002. Phil Church