The University of Mississippi Department of Mathematics’ record of recruiting and retaining minority candidates in its doctoral program was recognized by the American Mathematics Society with its 2009 Programs that Make 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 group of doctorates who are African Americans ever produced at any university in the United States.
In her nomination letter to AMS, UM alumna Sylvia Bozeman, a professor of mathematics 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.
With a doctoral degree in mathematics from UM, Cole recalled 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. The turnaround started in 2001, when Buskes obtained a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) grant from the Department of Education. GAANN aims to increase the number of doctoral degrees in areas of national need. A need-based Title IV program, GAANN has provided $1 million toward recruitment and retention of female and African-American students, doubling the department’s budget and enlarging its graduate student population.
“The American Mathematical Society is the [sole] society for mathematicians in the U.S.,” Buskes said. “This definitely raises the profile of our graduates.”
These 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.