A Brief History of Mathematics at WMU

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 its 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 was one of the twelve departments listed in Western State Normal School’s first bulletin, published in 1904. The math courses listed were Elementary Geometry, Elementary Algebra, College Algebra, and the Teaching of Geometry. A Training School for grades one to eight was established to provide teaching experiences for college students, and the Normal High School was established in 1911–12. 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 frequently took lower-level college mathematics courses. The instructors frequently crossed over and taught mathematics classes in both the high school and college domains.

Bachelor of Arts degrees were offered through the University of Michigan beginning in 1913 and independently in 1918. John P. Everett joined the faculty in 1914 as the first Ph.D. on the mathematics faculty and served as the Head of the Department until his retirement in 1945. Enrollments at Western increased steadily in the post World War I period. In the 1924 spring quarter term, 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.

The institution was renamed Western State Teachers College on May 12, 1927. The subsequent Depression years were very hard on Western, but the institution survived. 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. 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. In fall of 1953, at the end of the first fifty years of the University, the central focus of the institution and of the Math Department, with its seven faculty members, was teacher training. On June 2, 1955 the institution became Western Michigan College, and on February 26, 1957 it became Western Michigan University.

Major changes were occurring at this time 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 was 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 1960’s. As a direct response to the Sputnik rocket launched by the Soviet Union in the late 1950’s, there was an urgency to improve mathematics and science education throughout America. The Department was successful in obtaining several NSF grants for three-year summer institutes for secondary mathematics teachers, beginning in the summer of 1959. A Masters of Science degree in the Teaching of Mathematics was granted to the students who completed the program.

Major changes in the Department occurred under the leadership of James Powell, who was appointed Head in 1960. Research oriented faculty were hired who brought new enthusiasm to the Department with a whole new bevy of goals. 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 and a series of conferences and symposia was initiated, which through the years has brought many world-class mathematicians to the campus.

T. H. Hildebrand, Professor Emeritus from UM, spent a semester in 1962 as a visitor in the Department, the same year that the M.A. in Mathematics was introduced. In 1967, A. Bruce Clarke left UM to become the Head of the Department. Eric Rothe, also Professor Emeritus from UM, spent the full 1967–68 academic year in the Department as a visitor, a visit that was particularly timely for the development of the Department’s Ph.D. program. The first Ph.D. in Mathematics was awarded in December 1969. In the summer of 1970 the Department moved into offices in the newly completed John P. Everett Tower, appropriately named in honor of the first Head of the Department.

The Department has played a major role in the overall success of the University over its first century. 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 fledging 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. For additional information about the history of the Department, especially the period since 1970, please read a more complete history on the Department’s Web site, www.wmich.edu/math/alumni/history.

John W. Petro, Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus

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