Written by John W. Petro, professor emeritus, fall 2002 (edited 2014)

The history of the Department of Mathematics at Western Michigan University closely parallels the history of the University as a whole. Mathematics has played a central role in the University, from the University’s humble beginnings on May 27, 1903 as a two-year normal school to train rural elementary school teachers, to a century later when it is a national university with a Carnegie Foundation classification as a Doctoral/Research University-Extensive.

The Department of Mathematics is one of the 12 departments listed in Western’s first bulletin, published in 1904. Many of the 117 students (20 men and 97 women) who enrolled in Western State Normal School’s first quarter term in the summer of 1904 took a math class from D.A. Rothrock. During the following three quarter terms most of these same students took classes taught by Thomas J. Riley. The math courses included Elementary Geometry, Elementary Algebra, College Algebra and the Teaching of Geometry. Thomas J. Riley remained on the faculty the following 1905-06 academic year, during which time enrollments almost doubled. In the fall of 1906 John Fox joined the faculty as a mathematics instructor, but in 1908 he switched to teaching physics classes, which he did for the rest of his career at the institution.

Western State Normal School

Concurrent with the establishment of the Normal School, a training school for grades one to eight was established to provide teaching experiences for college students. The school was established during the year 1911-12 to allow elementary school students in the training school to continue into the ninth grade at the school. In subsequent years the high school expanded to include a full high school curriculum with 128 students. This expansion required a full mathematics curriculum in the high school and the hiring of high school mathematics instructors. In practice, upper-level high school mathematics classes were co-listed as college courses and were available to many college students who came to the college with weak backgrounds in mathematics. In the same manner, stronger high school students took lower-level college mathematics courses. The instructors frequently crossed over and taught mathematics classes in both the high school and college domains. Several mathematics instructors were hired primarily to teach in the high school, but eventually moved permanently to the college faculty.

Western State Normal School began offering Bachelor of Arts degrees through the University of Michigan in 1913 and independently in 1918. This necessitated an expanded mathematics faculty and an expanded mathematics curriculum. John P. Everett (dates of University service: 1914-45), the first Ph.D. on the mathematics faculty, was the head of the department for his entire career on campus. Harold Blair (1915-51) served as a high school mathematics instructor for two years before moving to the Mathematics Department. He served as head of the department from 1945 until his retirement in 1951. The first woman mathematics instructor was Laura Mickey (1916-20).

Enrollments at Western State Normal School increased steadily in the post World War I period. Hugh Ackley (1921-46) and Grover Bartoo (1922-45) were added to the mathematics faculty. William H. Cain (1920-55) served for several years as principal of the high school before transferring to the college faculty in 1937. In 1924 there were roughly 1,900 students on campus. The mathematics faculty that year consisted of Hugh Ackley, Grover Bartoo, Harold Blair, William Cain and John Everett. In the 1924 spring quarter term, high school students had a choice of General Math 1, General Math 2, Algebra 1 and Geometry 2. College students had a choice of Algebra 1, General Math 1, General Math 2, Algebra 2, Solid Geometry 3, Trigonometry 100, Arithmetic 101, College Algebra and Geometry 103, College Algebra and Geometry 104, Calculus 107, Teaching of Secondary Mathematics 109, Surveying 110, Applied Math 112 and Differential Equations 121. All mathematics faculty but Cain had a teaching load of four classes. Because Cain was also the principal of the high school, he taught only two classes. Blair and Everett taught calculus, and Blair also taught differential equations. Everett taught the surveying course. Pearl Ford (1925-56), the first permanent woman mathematics faculty member, joined the high school faculty in 1925 and transferred to the college faculty in 1946. In 1925 the department found its first permanent home in the basement of the newly completed North Hall.

Western State Teachers College

To recognize the reputation that Western State Normal School had achieved for being a premier preparatory school for teachers, the institution was renamed Western State Teachers College on May 12, 1927. The subsequent Depression years were very hard on Western. Enrollments dropped, as did funding from the State. No new permanent mathematics faculty members were hired until 1939, when Charles Butler (1939-65) was hired. He was the second mathematics faculty member with a Ph.D. degree. He served as head of the department from 1951 to 1960.

Western Michigan College of Education

On May 20, 1941 the name of the institution was changed to Western Michigan College of Education. The post-World War II era brought a new surge of students, including many veterans who enrolled in college under the G.I. Bill. New mathematics faculty members were hired to replace older faculty leaving the college due to retirement or death and to meet the increased demand for mathematics courses.

Fred Beeler, a statistician, was the first regular faculty member hired after the conclusion of World War II. From 1960-62, he was the science and mathematics advisor for a U.S. Office of Aid for International Development project to develop a two-year Technical Institute at Ibadan, Nigeria. He returned to Nigeria to serve as the director for the last two years of the project from 1966-68. He and his wife, Isabelle, the first director of the Office of Foreign Students, were major donors to the University, with gifts that established the Fred and Isabelle Beeler Medallion Scholarship and the Fred and Isabelle Beeler Scholarship Fund for undergraduate mathematics and statistics majors.

Other faculty hired in the postwar period included Herb Hannon, hired in January 1947 to replace Ackley, who had died suddenly several months earlier, J. Kimbark Peterson, and Conway Sams. Clarence Hackney was teaching mathematics at Western State High School and was transferred to the Department after the closure of the high school in 1967.

In 1957, Jack R. Meagher (1949-83) taught the first courses in computer programming ever offered at Western. At first, he had to take his students to Benton Harbor to use the computers at the Whirlpool Corporation. During the subsequent 1958-62 academic years he took his students to the Upjohn Company to use its Burroughs 220 computer.

During the 1952-53 academic year the State Board of Education authorized Western to grant its own M.A. degree for students in teacher education. This was a precursor of the many changes in the University that were to come in the ensuing years.

In fall of 1953, at the end of the first 50 years of the University, the Department of Mathematics consisted of the following permanent members: Fred Beeler; Charles Butler, head; William Cain; Pearl Ford; Herbert Hannon; Jack Meagher and Kimbark Peterson. The central focus of the institution and the department was teacher training. Most mathematics students took a program of study leading to certification as a middle school or secondary school mathematics teacher. Only Beeler and Butler had the Ph.D. degree. Hannon completed his Ed.D degree in the summer of 1954. Because of a space crunch on campus, the Mathematics Department was moved in 1955 to a temporary barracks building near the football stadium. Tragically, a fire over the winter break in 1958 burned the barracks to the ground. The University quickly provided temporary quarters by putting up partitions in the second floor ballroom of Walwood Union. The department remained there until it moved into Wood Hall on the West Campus in January 1962.

Western Michigan College

On June 2, 1955 the institution became Western Michigan College and on Feb. 26, 1957 it became Western Michigan University. The first graduate degree in liberal arts and sciences was granted in 1957 as an M.A. degree in biology. The following year, chemistry and psychology were authorized to grant M.A. degrees. The first M.A. in mathematics was awarded in 1962.

Major changes were occurring in the department and the University paralleling the changes that were happening in the larger society. Western was poised to develop into a major institution. Although the first wave of G.I. students were finished with their undergraduate education, there was a population explosion under way with the first generation of post-World War II children clogging the public school system and destined to be on campus by the early 1960s.

A goal was set to add one or two new Ph.D. mathematicians to the faculty every year. Some would be replacements for retirements or resignations, but most would be new faculty positions. Moreover, new faculty members were expected to have a research focus. The first post-war Ph.D.s were added to the faculty during Butler’s tenure as dead. Many changes in the curriculum were made to update the undergraduate program of study in mathematics. For instance, The Theory of Equations course was replaced by Modern Algebra. Advanced Calculus became a real analysis course. Analytic Geometry, Solid Geometry and Surveying were dropped. However, the older faculty members in the department had so much nostalgia for surveying that some of the insurance settlement money from the fire in December 1958 was used to replace lost surveying equipment. The equipment was never used and eventually was discarded.

As a direct response to the Sputnik rocket launched by Russia in the late 1950s, there was an urgency to improve mathematics and science education throughout America that resulted in the National Science Foundation supporting grants to improve the mathematics education in secondary schools. The department was successful in obtaining an NSF grant for a three-year summer institute for secondary mathematics teachers, beginning in 1959. A Master of Science degree in the teaching of mathematics was granted to the students who completed the program. This was the first of several grants received by the department to train secondary school teachers. The department has never abandoned its original mission of training teachers.

Major changes in the department occurred under the leadership of James Powell, who was appointed head beginning fall 1960. New faculty members brought new energy and enthusiasm to the department. The department moved into Wood Hall in January 1962, with offices in the northwestern corner of the third floor. One classroom on the third floor was used by Jack Meagher to set up the new IBM 1640, the first academic computer in the University. Meagher was appointed as the director of the Academic Computing Center and served in that capacity until his retirement. Faculty quickly formed into area groups and offered regular seminars. Graduate teaching assistants were hired to support the graduate program and to teach service courses. A colloquium program was started that brought a series of world-class mathematicians to the department for lectures. A massive effort was launched to improve the library holdings in mathematics.

The new research oriented faculty set a whole new bevy of goals for the department. A M.A. in mathematics was introduced in 1962. An Educational Specialist in mathematics was introduced in 1966 and was discontinued 10 years later. The development of graduate programs was greatly enhanced by inviting T. H. Hildebrand, professor emeritus from the University of Michigan, to spend the winter 1962 semester as a visitor. Eric Rothe, also professor emeritus from the University of Michigan, spent the full 1967-68 academic year in the department as a visitor. This latter visit was particularly timely for the development of the department’s Ph.D. program.

When Powell was appointed in 1966 as the associate dean for the physical sciences and mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences, it was decided to search outside the University for a new chair. Powell retained the oversight responsibility for the Department of Mathematics during the time of the search. A. Bruce Clarke, University of Michigan, accepted the position of head, effective July 1, 1967. From Jan. 1, 1967 to June 30, 1967, Clarke made many trips from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo to assist Powell with the department. The department made big strides during Clarke’s 10-year tenure at the helm of the department. Increasingly, the department was being modeled after the Department of Mathematics at the University of Michigan. Faculty with active research programs had reduced teaching loads. The Ph.D. in mathematics was approved in 1967 and the first Ph.D. in mathematics was awarded to Kenneth Pothoven at the December 1969 convocation. The following summer the department moved into offices on floors three through six of the newly completed Everett Tower. Appropriately, the building was named in honor of John P. Everett, the first head of the Department of Mathematics.

In developing a doctoral-level department, the original plan was to have a faculty with research areas fairly well balanced between algebra, analysis, applied mathematics, graph theory, mathematics education, statistics and topology. The success of the graph theory group made it the dominant group in the department for several years. Thirty of the first 50 Ph.D. graduates had dissertations in graph theory and related areas.  Through the years the balance among the research areas of the faculty members has evened out considerably. For the most part, research groups in the department involve at least three or four faculty members. Some faculty members overlap with more than one research group.

A PDP-10 computer was installed in Rood Hall shortly after the building was completed in 1970, allowing for a major expansion of academic computer services to the University. By this time the department was offering courses in computer programming. The introductory course in BASIC eventually evolved into a computer literacy course for all undergraduate students in the University.

Many faculty members in the Department began teaching computer programming and scientific computing courses. However, it soon became clear that the University would quickly need to hire faculty trained as computer scientists with the goal of establishing a Department of Computer Science. The Department of Mathematics became the temporary home of the University’s first computer scientist faculty members: Kenneth L. Williams (hired in 1973), Mark C. Kerstetter (hired in 1977), Dionysios I. Kountanis (hired in 1978), and Dalia Motzkin (hired in 1979). As early as 1972 the M.S. in mathematics with a computer science option had been introduced. This program subsequently became the M.S. in computer science. The new Department of Computer Science was formed in 1979 with Williams as the head. At the beginning, several math faculty regularly taught courses for the Department of Computer Science. Don Nelson and Alden Wright held joint appointments in both mathematics and computer science during the 1982-83 academic year and were scheduled to move full time to computer science in fall 1983. Nelson made the move and served as chair of the new department from 1984-98. Wright resigned in 1983 to accept a faculty position in computer science at the University of Montana. The first Ph.D. in computer science was offered in 1983 through the Department of Mathematics. This had been made possible by adding a concentration in graph theory and computer science to the Ph.D. in mathematics. Eventually, a Ph.D. in computer science was approved, and the concentration in graph theory and computer science was discontinued in 1996.

To meet the increasing demand for courses in mathematics competency, the Modular Mathematics Program was established in the mid-1970s. Anthony Gioia, Eric Schreiner and Paul Eenigenburg served in succession as director. The director was Radu Teorodescu, as of 2002. The modular mathematics courses were taught by graduate teaching assistants and by part-time faculty. Since 1995 all undergraduates in the University must either demonstrate quantitative literacy or complete certain modular mathematics courses with a passing grade.

In 1978 Clarke was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The leadership of the department continued with Jim Powell, Joseph Buckley, Yousef Alavi, Ruth Ann Meyer and John Petro serving in succession as chair up to 2000. Powell also served as director of Program EXCITE (EXpanding Computers In TEchnology). To assist with administrative duties, Marjorie McCall was hired as assistant to the chair in 1978. In 1986, Barbara Treadwell McKinney held this position.

The computer revolution impacted the department in many ways. A fresh look was given to courses and programs in computational and numerical mathematics. The M.S. in applied mathematics was introduced in 1982, and subsequently several faculty members with research specializations in applied and computational mathematics have been hired. The M.S. in computational mathematics was approved in 1994.

The department had the first academic computer network on campus, linking computers and printers in selected offices. By 1990 microcomputers linked via Ethernet to Academic Computer Services and the Internet were in the offices of all faculty and staff members in the department. Graphing calculators were introduced into many courses and were even required in some. The first computer lab in the department was opened in the late 1980s and a few years later it was doubled in size. In 2000, a state-of-the-art College of Arts and Sciences computing lab was installed on the third floor of Rood Hall in space vacated by the Physical Sciences Library a decade earlier.

The role of statistics in the department increased greatly through the years. The option in applied statistics for the M.A. in mathematics was approved in 1968. A second option in theoretical statistics for the M.A. in mathematics was approved in 1972. The M.S. in biostatistics was approved in 1976. Two undergraduate majors in statistics were also developed. On April 25, 1986 the department formally became the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. This change provided visibility, both inside and outside the University, for the statistics programs and acknowledged the role the department was playing in preparing students for careers in statistics. At the same time a concentration in statistics option was added to the Ph.D. in mathematics and the first Ph.D. (essentially in statistics) was granted in 1986. Finally, in 1998, the M.S. in statistics and the Ph.D. in statistics were approved. The statistics faculty members cultivated successful relationships with various pharmaceutical companies and Federal agencies resulting in the development of a strong graduate and research program in non-parametric and computational statistics. On July 1, 2001 the Department of Statistics was formed and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics again became the Department of Mathematics. The chair of the new Department of Statistics was Daniel Mihalko. Others transferring to the Department of Statistics were Joseph McKean, Joshua Naranjo, Gerald Sievers, Michael Stoline and Jung-Chao Wang.

The original teacher-training mission of the department has always been a major part of the department’s mission. The mathematics education programs at all levels have greatly expanded, and the demand for mathematics education courses continues to exceed capacity. With the encouragement and support of the University, the mathematics education faculty members have received a series of major grants over the past 20 years. The department has become the center of operations for a major high school curriculum project sponsored by the National Science Foundation and for many curriculum development and professional development projects sponsored by the NSF and the Michigan Department of Education. Technical support personnel have been hired with grant funds to assist with these projects. The Ph.D. in mathematics education was approved in 1989 with the first Ph.D. in mathematics education being awarded the same year. The concentration in collegiate mathematics education in the Ph.D. in mathematics was approved in 1998. Several of the Ph.D. dissertations before this time were already in collegiate mathematics education.

The department has had many outstanding students through the years. The best and brightest undergraduate students have worked with faculty on research projects, written honors theses and given papers at professional meetings. An annual awards day was established in the early 1970s to recognize students for their accomplishments. A Mathematics and Statistics Club was formed in 1985. In the fall of 1988 the club was replaced with the Epsilon of Michigan chapter of Pi Mu Epsilon, the national mathematics honorary society. Pi Mu Epsilon has done much to encourage and recognize student achievement in the mathematical sciences.

From almost the beginning, faculty members in the department have been heavily involved with their professional organizations. Everett and Blair assisted in 1924 with the establishment of the Michigan Section of the Mathematical Association of America. The first Annual Meeting of the Michigan Section at a campus other than the University of Michigan, Michigan State University or Wayne State University was at Western Michigan University in 1963. The Annual Meeting of the Michigan Section was brought back to Western in 1971, 1985 and 1998. The Joint Summer Meetings of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America were held at Western Michigan University in August 1975. The department hosted nine Quadrennial International Graph Theory and Combinatorics Conferences every four years from 1968 to 2000. In addition, numerous other conferences and symposia have been hosted by the department through the years in various areas of mathematics, mathematics education and statistics. Many faculty members in the department have held regional and national offices in their professional organizations.

In 2000 Jay Wood became the second chair of the department to be hired from outside the University. The Department is to be commended for its many outstanding accomplishments. It has played a major role in the over-all success of the University. In addition to holding true to its original teacher-training mission, the department has developed strong programs in pure, applied and computational mathematics. It has nurtured fledgling programs in computer science and statistics and brought them to the point of establishing themselves as mature departments in their own right. It has cultivated and supported a strong research-oriented faculty that has distinguished itself in many ways. Teaching has always been important and thousands of students have been the benefactors through the years of dedicated instructors. The department has met the challenges of the first century of the University and is ready to take on the challenges of the second century.