After 52 years, mathematician Lewis retires from Nebraska U

center for science mathematics and computer education

Scott Schrage, September 26, 2023

After 52 years, mathematician Lewis retires from Nebraska U

‘I HAD TO USE MY OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE’

The first time Jim Lewis visited the University of Nebraska–Lincoln — a prologue to proving theorems, teaching courses, heading departments and directing centers from City Campus — the Husker football team had claimed the first of back-to-back national titles.

The original, not the sequel.

It was 1970 when Dear Old Nebraska U, a bit younger then, really last knew life without Lewis. As of fall 2023, it must learn to forge on without him — just as Lewis himself now learns to live without it.

The Aaron Douglas Professor of mathematics has now formally retired from a place that, as a child of the Deep South with a deep suspicion of white winters, he might never have expected to land, let alone stay.

“My friends had trouble telling the difference between Alaska and Nebraska, and they kept asking me if I knew how cold it was,” said Lewis, who was born in Florida before moving to Mississippi, then Louisiana.

Yet the mathematician did stay, long enough to establish a legacy that has sometimes left his colleagues grasping for words to describe its scope. In lieu of words, there are always numbers, of course, and those numbers would seem suited to define a man of mathematics: 52 years at the university, 15 of them heading up his department, 20 leading the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, where he helped secure more than $40 million in grants. There are, too, the thousands of students taught and mentored.

Maybe the essence of his career lies in commutative algebra, the mathematical branch that Lewis trod throughout it. “Commutative” means that rearranging values or variables will not change the result of operating on them — a property true of addition and multiplication, but not subtraction or division.

Which is fitting, because Lewis has long favored adding and multiplying over subtracting or dividing. He’s shown it, most of all, by advocating: for mathematics, for women in math, for his fellow faculty, for the underserved.

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“I loved math in high school, but I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer,” Lewis said, “because that’s what people who are good in math did — they became an engineer.”

Then came an honors course in calculus and, with it, a change of plans. He would pursue a career in math, he decided, via a graduate degree at Louisiana State University. While there, the same professor who nearly threw him out of an algebra course for failing to finish an assignment would eventually become his doctoral adviser.

“And I, in essence, fell in love with commutative algebra because of him,” Lewis said.

Dissertation done and doctorate in hand, Lewis was officially on the job market — one with a dire shortage of math positions in academia. It hadn’t seemed so long ago that he’d heard stories of institutions with more openings than applicants. But the intervening years had seen an acceleration in the Space Race, the fevered pitch of which had drawn more young scholars to STEM programs and, ultimately, yielded a glut of new Ph.D.s in math.

In Lincoln, the Department of Mathematics had managed to thaw a hiring freeze just long enough to open a faculty position. Any hesitation stirred by the hiring committee’s accounts of snowstorms was superseded by Lewis’ gratitude for a job offer.

“I was really afraid of the cold and the snow,” he said. “So the first thing I did was go out to the Surplus Center … and buy the biggest parka I could find.”

Lewis would survive his first winter, then dozens more, with a little help from his colleagues-turned-friends. He bonded with Max Larsen, the professor who spearheaded his hire, along with John Meakin and David Skoug, each of whom would remain at Nebraska until their own retirements. Shortly after he joined, the department also welcomed Roger and Sylvia Wiegand, both commutative algebraists and, as Lewis would soon learn, avid runners. Hoping to stay in shape for basketball, Lewis began joining Roger on his runs. The habit became hobby. Over the coming decades, Lewis would run more than a dozen marathons, preside over the Lincoln Track Club, even become an official measurer of courses in Nebraska and Iowa.

“Your course was not accurate,” the mathematician noted with a grin, “until I said it was.”

From 1971 through the mid-’80s, his career continued apace with the same runner’s stride, following the course of a “somewhat traditional” academic: teaching classes, publishing papers, earning tenure. Those early years would pave a path to being named a fellow of the American Mathematical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, both marks of extreme prestige in his field.

Then, in 1987, Nebraska U’s Faculty Senate elected him president.

“That,” Lewis said, “dramatically changed my life.

“I sometimes joke that I’m like the person who was made conductor because they didn’t know how to play an instrument. But at every stage of my life, from high school (onward), I usually ended up in some sort of leadership role.”

His first order of business? Attending to what an accreditation report had called a “crisis in the making.” Of 168 doctorate-granting universities, faculty salaries at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln ranked 163rd — nowhere near the neighborhood of its peers in the then-Big Eight or the Big Ten, which were leveraging the advantage to attract and retain researchers and instructors. With Lewis’ encouragement, the Faculty Senate hired a lobbyist. Lewis, meanwhile, started going door to door at departments across the university, asking his fellow faculty to support the cause.

“I told the chancellor and the (NU system) president that I hoped we were on the same team, fighting for faculty salaries, because I was going to be down at the state legislature,” Lewis said.

With the aid of Lincoln native, Husker alumnus and then-legislator David Landis, the Faculty Senate’s tenacity bore fruit. The Nebraska Legislature agreed to increase faculty salaries at the state’s flagship by roughly a third across a three-year span.

Lewis was keen on waging another crusade, this time to mandate and later maintain that four years of high school math be required for enrolling at Nebraska U. He had seen some stark numbers indicating that only a sliver of first-year students who lacked even two years of high school math were sticking around for their sophomore years. The university had an obligation, he believed, to ensure that incoming students had a proper shot at leaving in cap and gown.

“Every one of them has a mother,” Lewis recalled saying at the time. “They sent their child off to college wanting a future for them, and we took their money.

“We should be clear about the education they need. And if you’re not busy learning math, you’re busy forgetting it.”

Lewis hadn’t forgotten the math of Robert’s Rules of Order, which would come out in his favor: A motion to eliminate the four-year math requirement died on a 4-to-4 vote.

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“And that made me wonder: What about us?”

The question arose as Lewis leafed through an LSU alumni magazine touting the progress of its law college, which was admitting roughly as many women as men by the late 1980s — right around the time Lewis was tapped to chair the Department of Mathematics.

Rummaging through some files delivered Lewis his answer. It was a sobering one. When he arrived at Nebraska in 1971, about 20% of the department’s graduate students were women. By 1988? Still 20%. Just six women had ever graduated with a doctorate from the department, and the outlook wasn’t much rosier. It was already clear that the 1980s would pass without a single woman earning a Ph.D. in math from Nebraska.

“That became sort of a moral imperative, that I couldn’t pick up my salary if I couldn’t make a difference,” Lewis said.

An experience at home would only steel his resolve. After returning from work on a day much like any other, Lewis asked his daughter how her own had gone. She was walking back from school, she said, when she passed a construction site. Catcalls rang out.

“This was a middle school girl. And I said, ‘Where? I want to kill them.’ And she said, ‘Dad, that’s just what a woman has to put up with.’

“I had to use my opportunity to make a difference,” Lewis said. “And charity begins at home. I started to recruit female undergraduates to stay here for graduate school.”

Those in-house efforts alone, he knew, would prove too little to resolve the issue of gender equity. The department would also have to address the tricky, sticky two-body problem: the reality that many academics were married to fellow scholars also in need of jobs. By the mid-1990s, Nebraska U was offering a one-year, $15,000 fellowship to the academic spouses of faculty it hired — a number that Lewis considered “embarrassing.”

In 1996, a pair of wedded mathematicians, Judy and Mark Walker, applied for an open faculty job at Nebraska. Judy received the offer. Through the National Science Foundation, Mark had been offered a postdoctoral appointment at Northwestern University. So Lewis persuaded the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to upgrade the typical fellowship offer from one year to two — enough of a sweetener for Mark to split his time between Evanston and Lincoln. A couple of years later, Mark would receive a tenure-track offer of his own in the department. The Walkers have remained at Nebraska U to this day, with Judy ascending to the rank of chair and, later, associate vice chancellor. Other, similar success stories followed: In 2005, the department’s current chair, Petronela Radu, arrived in Lincoln with spouse and fellow mathematician Mikil Foss.

“By being supportive of couples,” Lewis said, “we have an ability to compete for some very outstanding people that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to compete for.”

Together, the retention of female undergrads and recruitment of female faculty would work wonders. In 1991, the department finally awarded its seventh doctorate to a woman. By the mid-’90s, Lewis said, “the floodgates opened.” From 1994 to 2003, 41% of the department’s doctorates — 26 of 63 — went to women, a percentage that the American Mathematical Society deemed No. 1 in the country. In 1998, the National Science Foundation recognized the department with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, which Judy Walker and her invited guest, Lewis, accepted during a two-day symposium at the White House. An additional 80-plus women have earned Ph.D.s in the past two decades, pushing the department past the century mark.

Lewis celebrates the graduation of three students who earned master’s degrees in mathematics from Nebraska U. Courtesy photo

The department soon noticed another, indirect but unmistakable effect. As the number of women in the department skyrocketed, the number of men increased, too.

“When you made the department better, and a friendly place for women,” Lewis said, “it was a friendly place, a supportive place, for everyone.”

While presiding over the Nebraska chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Lewis encountered another troubling number that spoke to a lack of equity. The university was slicing its budget and numerous jobs, including those of faculty who were either on the track to tenure or had attained it. A disproportionate percentage of the proposed cuts, he realized, would see women leaving the university.

“I asked one of the statisticians in our department: What’s the chance that such a high percentage were female? And he said, like, 1 chance in 5,000.”

A Husker contingent would join the AAUP in challenging the cuts. The chancellor would ultimately reverse them. That same year, the AAUP honored the university with its Konheim Award, given to institutions advancing academic freedom and equity. The Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women would follow suit a few years later, recognizing Lewis with its own award.

“You might think doing the right thing costs you rather than benefits you,” he said. “But I’ve been lucky, and it’s almost worked out as a reward that you feel like you don’t deserve.”

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“I used to think of myself as the last of the great Southern orators.”

Lewis had reason to think that his lectures, and lecturing in general, were working. In 1979, after all, the university had given him its Distinguished Teaching Award. But by the time he was chairing his department, the U.S. math community — spurred by emerging research and the National Science Foundation — was pivoting away from lecture and toward a more student-centered philosophy.

As the math community wound the clock forward on its time-honored ways, Lewis found himself doing the same. In 1991, he was giving a quiz in a calculus class when he made a call that the Lewis of ’79 could not have envisioned.

“I could tell that everybody was really struggling,” he said. “So I went over to one young woman who was really bright, and I said, ‘Do you know what to do?’ She says, ‘I think so.’ I said, ‘Stand up and tell everybody.’ She stood up and said, ‘Here’s how I think you solve the problem.’

“And then everybody went to work. I remember giving a test, and the class did really well — averaged a 90 or 92 or something. And I walked in and said, ‘Y’all realize what you’ve done to me? I will never again have a class do that well on an exam. It’s all downhill from here.’”

Later, Lewis would ask the graduate students teaching Nebraska’s pre-calculus courses to consider what was, at the time, a semi-radical request: writing curriculum that allowed for the use of calculators in class. The shift would wind up forcing faculty to develop exam questions focused on concepts, questions capable of being answered with or without calculator in hand.

He also began looking for ways to incentivize excellent teaching. Having won awards himself, Lewis encouraged any member of the department who received one to pay it forward by nominating a colleague. At one point, 23 of 28 tenure-track faculty in the department had earned either collegewide or universitywide recognition for their efforts in the classroom.

“It was like the opposite of an albatross or scarlet ‘A’ around your neck,” he said. “If you win a teaching award, you want to always be worthy of that teaching award. So people put more energy into their teaching.”

It didn’t hurt, he figured, that threading those awards into the fabric of the department happened to activate an instinct inherent to most faculty.

“As I thought of it at the time, everybody had a kind of private attitude toward teaching. If it mattered to them, it mattered to them, but it was private,” Lewis said. “Make it more public, and if the person next door to you succeeds — academics are so competitive, they want to succeed, too.”

For all the progress Lewis was making on campus, those who had appointed him department chair also wanted him to develop a national profile. With support from Woody Varner, then-president of the NU system, and Robert Duncan, then-president of Duncan Aviation, Lewis and colleagues formed a statewide math coalition and were pursuing a small grant for it. When the National Science Foundation announced that it would fund its own series of state-focused initiatives aimed at revitalizing the teaching of science and math, Varner and Duncan asked Lewis to reach higher.

“They said, ‘Why are you trying for $50,000 when you could go for $10 million?’”

In 1991, a Nebraska team would go for exactly that — and get it. Helping land the grant would also help prepare Lewis to take over as director of the university’s Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education in 2002. Other major NSF grants would follow — $5.9 million in 2004, $9.2 million in 2009 — most of them earned in partnership with Nebraska’s Ruth Heaton, a longtime professor of math education. Many of the projects prioritized education in kindergarten, elementary grades and middle school, when confidence and competence in math are gained or lost, often for good.

In the early 2000s, Lewis began partnering with Ruth Heaton (right) to improve the education of future math teachers and professional development of those working in schools. Courtesy photo

Since its inception, the center has helped hundreds of teachers earn master’s degrees or math specializations, so that “the first-grade teacher or second-grade teacher likes math, and believes in their knowledge of math,” and can pass that affinity and knowledge on to students. Another motivation: closing gaps before underserved children can fall through them.

“My children had an advantage over the poor, the first-generation,” he said. “There are Title I schools in half of Lincoln. Some kids come to kindergarten way behind, and some kids come fairly far ahead. And that knowledge gap is still visible in high school.

“What we have to do is change the paradigm. We have to change the beginning … when kids can really learn fast, soak up a lot, so that middle school and high school can continue the journey of helping get all kids learning at a higher level.”

Heaton and Lewis looked to the future without ignoring the present. The duo persuaded Nebraska U to place elementary education majors into cohorts that took multiple courses together, fostering a camaraderie that helped them through the most demanding math and rigorous pedagogy. When formulating professional development for educators already working in schools, Heaton and Lewis eschewed what he called “hospital math” — a sterile, inert approach — to foster habits of mind that helped teachers, and their students, solve problems via creative thinking.

“Two people might know the same facts about mathematics, like a Rolodex,” Lewis said, “but one of them knows how to use it and do something with it, and the other doesn’t.”

Lewis chats with Nebraska teachers taking part in one of the many professional development projects spearheaded by the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education. Courtesy photo

His successes put Lewis on the radar of the brass at the National Science Foundation, which eventually urged him to apply for the second-in-command of what’s now called the Directorate for STEM Education. In 2015, he earned it, later taking on the directorate’s head job — and the responsibility of divvying out hundreds of millions in grants — for nearly two years.

In late 2018, Lewis returned to Lincoln and a job with the Office of Research and Economic Development, yet another feather in a cap now akin to a peacock. He wasn’t done: Shortly thereafter, well into his 70s, Lewis helped Nebraska earn a $3.5 million NSF grant known as STEM CONNECT, this one dedicated to helping low-income students pursue STEM degrees.

“To me, that comes full circle, because I was the child of a high school teacher in the Deep South,” he said. “Teachers weren’t paid very well, and we had to farm a very large garden in the summer to have food to eat.

“Education made a difference in my life, and then I’ve had the chance to try to make a difference in our students’ lives.”

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“All last year, I thought about retiring, walking away from what I love.

“But it was a really, really hard decision, because I like trying to contribute to the university,” Lewis said, adding, “Now I have to figure out how to be helpful or supportive in an emeritus professor role.”

He remembers, still, what Nebraska U looked like, what it valued, when he packed a U-Haul and drove up from Baton Rouge in 1971, the “dramatically different” place it was then. He changed alongside it, marrying a Lincoln native who helped root him to the place, remaining a Southerner but becoming a Midwesterner, a Cornhusker.

Maybe, he admits, it was just in his nature to settle down, to stay. David Skoug, his late friend and career-long Husker, always seemed to think so.

“He once made a comment that I was like a tree; I grow where I’m planted,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of truth in that.

“The university gave me an opportunity, and I tried to make the most of it.”

Lewis will be honored with a Nov. 4 reception at the Wick Alumni Center. Details are forthcoming.


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