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Thirty Years In Thirty Minutes

Thirty Years in Thirty Minutes

Paul E. Pfeiffer

Expansion of a presentation at the thirtieth anniversary celebration
of the Department of Mathematical Sciences
(now Computational and Applied Mathematics)

This presentation has obvious limitations on detail and is biased by my personal views and by the failure of an aging memory, in spite of use of some records, such as minutes and excerpts from proposals and reports.

Formation of the Department of Mathematical Sciences

On February 14, 1968, President Kenneth Pitzer sent the following memorandum and statement of policies to Friedrich (Fritz) Horn, who had agreed to chair the new department until a permanent chairman could be found.


To: Professor Friedrich Horn
From: K.S. Pitzer
Subject: Establishment of Department of Mathematical Sciences

Upon recommendation of Dean Gordon I am hereby approving the establishment of the Department of Mathematical Sciences to begin active operation on July 1, 1968. Attached is a statement of policies relevant to the new department. Details for the first year of operation will be covered by the budget approved for 1968-69.

(Signed) K.S. Pitzer

Department of Mathematical Sciences

The Department of Mathematical Sciences at Rice University will be devoted to areas of mathematics which are important to applications and certain areas of interdisciplinary and theoretical character. The new department will provide some of the instructional needs in applied mathematics of students in engineering and the physical and behavioral sciences. A particular effort will be made to strengthen the areas of computer science, probability theory, and numerical analysis at Rice.

A typical member of the new department will be either a scientist or engineer who gives more attention to the mathematical aspects of his work than would be normally true of equally competent men in his professional field, or he will be a mathematician who is interested in the relationship of his mathematical work to applications and who desires to associate professionally with persons concerned with applications.

In order to ensure a proper interaction between the new department and other departments, a number of faculty in the Mathematical Sciences Department will hold joint appointments with either the Mathematics Department or another science or engineering department. Of necessity, at first, most of the members of the new department will hold joint appointments.

The department will have a graduate program which will be open to any engineering, science, or mathematics major who has sufficient qualifications and is willing to supplement his background in either mathematics or one of the engineering and science areas.

The department may develop a proposal for a curriculum leading to a B.A. degree with a major in Mathematical Sciences for presentation to the University faculty.

Thus the department was born. But as with most births there was a long gestation period.

Formation of the Department

  1. The department was an outgrowth of the University Science Development Program grant. This grant was obtained under the leadership of Franz Brotzen, then Dean of Engineering and Science. Although many persons were involved, his was the guiding vision and aggressive action that brought it about. He remained in active leadership until Bill Gordon became Dean of Engineering and Science in 1966. The following description is taken from PART I. Review of the Original Five-Year Science Development Plan in "A proposal for Extension ..."
  2. The original proposal, dated December, 1964, and entitled "A Program on Mathematics, Systems Research and Engineering", envisioned a broadly conceived interdisciplinary program encompassing a variety of activities in mathematics, science, and engineering. In April, 1965, an addendum to the original proposal in which particular emphasis was given to enlarging the scope of the behavioral and social sciences at Rice was submitted. The entire program was to be organized with the objective of promoting interaction among disciplines rather than the creation of new disciplines.

    The "systems" concept, with its attention to "models" of a wide variety of behavioral and physical systems, provides the unifying perspective of the program. Since these models are most often mathematical or logical in character, mathematics and mathematical surrogates such as computer languages become fundamental disciplines of inquiry. It is clear that the primary role of mathematical studies in this program is to aid in formulating, testing, and studying models designed to assist in the explanation of physical and social phenomena. These studies often lead to important mathematical and computer investigations not directly related to applications and often may use the results of pure mathematical studies undertaken without concern for applications.

    It seems natural to refer to the program as the systems program, although the diverse applications of the word "systems" in scholarly literature makes its use somewhat unsatisfactory. In a similar way, Rice has tended to speak of systems personnel, systems research, systems grant, and the systems area. In each case, the term "systems" must be interpreted broadly, as the nature of the original proposal made clear.

    Oversight of the grant was placed in the hands of a Committee on Applied Mathematics and Systems Research (the "systems committee"), whose chronology through June, 1968, is as follows:

    • March 31, 1965 — President Pitzer appointed the Committee originally consisting of F. R. Brotzen, F. Horn, F. K. Levy, H. H. Rachford, J. A.Robinson, and P. E. Pfeiffer (Chairman)
    • August 25, 1965 — President Pitzer appointed additional members: M. Curtis and D. Price-Williams
    • June 23, 1966 — W. E. Gordon replaced F. R. Brotzen
    • September 1966 — M. L. Curtis became an inactive member of Committee, but was back as an active member Sept. 25, 1967
    • October 7, 1966 — D. A. Schum replaced Price-Williams
    • June 1967 — Prof. Robinson left Rice University
    • June 1968 — Present Committee: P.E. Pfeiffer (Chairman), M. L. Curtis, W. E. Gordon (ex officio), F. Horn, F. K. Levy, H. H. Rachford, D. A. Schum

To consider the mathematical aspects of the program, Pitzer also named a Committee on Applications of Mathematics, chaired by F. Horn. As of March 31, 1965, this committee consisted of:

  • M.L. Curtis, R. deFigueiredo, F. Horn, J.D. Ingram,
  • J.E. Kilpatrick, P. Pfeiffer, H.H. Rachford, and R.D. Young.
  • Need for a new department. In the early stages of planning for the program supported by the grant, it was hoped that the Department of Mathematics would be expanded to include members with more "applied" interests to teach basic courses and guide research. This hope was shared by some members of that department. When early recruiting efforts under the grant showed that this approach did not promise to meet the needs of the systems program, let alone the broader needs of the sciences and engineering at Rice, intensive study of the feasibility and desirability of a new department was undertaken.
    • On May 21, 1965, I wrote a memo to the systems committee on a "Proposal for organizing programs in Applied Mathematics, Computer Science, and Systems Science." This included a proposal:
    • "That a Department of Applied Mathematical Sciences be established. This would include personnel for a program in Computer Science as well as in Applied Mathematics.
    • In dealing with the question of applied mathematics, it should be recognized that there are wide differences in applied mathematicians. There are some who are primarily interested in mathematics itself, but who are properly called applied mathematicians because they work on mathematical problems arising from science and technology. Frequently such men will be happiest and most at home in the Department of Mathematics.
    • On the other hand, there is a much larger group of applied mathematicians whose primary interest is in applications of various kinds but whose work is essentially mathematical in nature. Many of these are quite happy to be identified with a department in which most of the problems to which they address themselves are to be found. But there are those for whom the range of applications is so wide that none of the present departments is their natural habitat. Many people interested in systems science would fall into this category. A Department of Mathematical Sciences, many of whose members are interested in systems problems, would seem to provide a natural "home" for these people.
    • The arguments for a Department of Mathematical Sciences, with its beneficial consequences for work in applied mathematics and in computer science do not rest solely on the needs of the systems program, by any means. ..."
    • In the fall of 1966, Joseph LaSalle of Brown University was asked to review the situation at Rice:
      • On February 25, 1967, LaSalle presented a proposal for a Department of Mathematical Sciences
      • LaSalle made a second visit in April, 1967, with additional suggestions and information.
    • Discussions in the systems committee led eventually to a tentative proposal coauthored by Fritz Horn and me.
      • This was bounced around, with consultation with various departments and individuals. At first the math department opposed vigorously. Finally, I received a phone call from Jim Douglas (who, I supposed, was speaking for the math department) in which he said in effect "There is clearly a job to be done and obviously we do not want to do it." That broke the log jam.
      • There remained the question of leadership. In a meeting of the systems committee with Pitzer present, Morton Curtis remarked there were several people at Rice who could do a good job of leadership, and suggested some names. As I recall, Pitzer, who had been leaning against the wall in his chair, came down as if this were what he was waiting for. Things began to happen.
    • Horn's appointment as chairman was announced on July 28, 1967. Horn agreed to serve only until a permanent chairman could be recruited.
    • The previous proposal was revised to take advantage of some of the discussions that had been ongoing. On November 22, 1967, this proposal was presented to the university. [See Addendum.]
    • On February 14, 1968, Pitzer's memo and policy statement was released.

    Not only was the gestation period long, but the childhood and adolescence of the department were long and sometimes difficult.

    Evolution of the Department

    1. The Department operated for a number of years with mostly part-time appointments*. This was both a necessity and a positive feature in the early years. It aided in establishing relationships across disciplines and departments. And it was the beginning of a more effective management of applied mathematics taught in several departments — principally engineering — and a more efficient use of university personnel. Engineering departments had developed a number of applied courses to meet their needs. Often these were useful in a variety of other departments. It was more cost effective to have a course offered as a general Mathematical Sciences course, although taught by a member of one of the cooperating departments.
    2. This was not without problems. Scheduling was a difficult task. Even though an individual wanted to teach one of the Masc courses, his department may have other needs. And of course, this raised problems for junior faculty who had the task of gaining tenure before them. Not the least of the difficulties was the problem of departmental identity, which had important implications for our relations with the administration.

      * Seventeen persons were named as Mathematical Science faculty for 1968-69. One was on leave and R.M. Thrall (see below) was listed as a consultant, since he was hired in 1968, but could not come until May, 1969. Of the sixteen beside Thrall, only two were full time (C.C. Wang and W. Schmaedeke). One was 75%, five were 50%, and eight were less than 50%. Of the fourteen joint appointments, three were in Chemical Engineering, three in Electrical Engineering, two in Mechanical Engineering, and one each in Civil Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Mathematics, and Physics.

    3. In May, 1969, Professor Robert M. Thrall assumed full-time leadership of the department. During its first year of operation (1968-69) under the chairmanship of Professor F. Horn, the department undertook responsibility for the instructional program in applied mathematics previously developed cooperatively by the engineering and economics departments, with some expansion of course offerings. Recruiting efforts were directed toward strengthening work in probability, statistics, and certain aspects of computer science — the latter in cooperation with the Department of Electrical Engineering, particularly. Departmental committees studied long-term needs of the department, produced a proposal for an undergraduate major in Mathematical Sciences, and participated in a university-wide study of instructional needs in statistics which the department sought to meet. Significant cooperation with the Department of Mathematics included the teaching of courses in that department by Mathematical Sciences personnel. The various joint appointments with economics, engineering, chemistry, and physics provided important interdepartmental links.
    5. Departmental identity and the faculty. The problem of defining the department is intimately tied up with faculty — especially full time faculty. On the one hand, these are chosen on the basis of current goals; on the other, the department's program and character are shaped by the interests and abilities of those who are hired.
      • Robert Thrall, 1968-1982. Because of his ability and reputation as a first-rate applied mathematician, Thrall gave us credibility. Because of his many travels and wide acquaintances, he gave us visibility. He was able to identify and attract some outstanding faculty — Richard Tapia, James Thompson, Guillermo Owen, and Ken Kennedy are cases in point.
      • His interest in consulting helped underline the importance of working on important problems. This broadened the horizons of young faculty and graduate students. At times there was concern that some of the latter may have been rushed into applications before gaining a suitable mastery of the necessary mathematics. But the nature and importance of applications were effectively highlighted.

      • Richard Tapia established important activities in optimization, and was instrumental in bringing John Dennis in 1979. John brought with him Mike Pearlman, who has since become a key player in all aspects of ongoing computation.
      • Tapia and Jim Thompson did some important joint work, and were instrumental in bringing David Scott to the faculty. Thompson and Scott developed an important, though necessarily limited, program in statistics.
      • Ken Kennedy, and later Robert (Corky) Cartwright, working with various colleagues in Electrical Engineering, provided the leadership for developing computer science.
      • C.C. Wang's work in theoretical fluid mechanics led eventually to his transfer to Mechanical Engineering, where he continues to do outstanding work.
      • Henry Rachford and Mary Wheeler transferred to Masc from Math to give the department a significant presence in numerical methods. After Rachford's retirement, Mary was able to bring in Clint Dawson and Todd Arbogast. Unfortunately, this team was hired away. But rebuilding is under way.
      • In 1983, Bob Bixby gave operations research (particularly discrete optimization) new life and new directions. He was instrumental in bringing William Cook and David Applegate in 1995, to form a powerful team.
      • William Symes in 1983 gave new directions to work in differential equations with his inversion project. He was able to attract Steve Cox in 1988, who has worked with Bill not only on research, but also on important curricular innovations.
      • Some thought that when Computer Science split off in 1985 that Masc would be out of the computation field. Just the opposite occurred. The role of computation as distinct from computer science became clearer, and Dan Sorensen joined the faculty in 1989 to begin a new teaching and research emphasis on scientific computation.
      • Strong reinforcement of the ongoing areas of activity is provided by the recent additions of Liliana Borcea, Petr Kloucek, Matthias Heinkenschloss, and Yin Zhang. Just this spring a further enhancement came in the appointment of Nate Dean, who brings industrial experience to supplement his analytical and computational skills.
      • This thumbnail sketch does not do justice to the contributions of joint appointees, research associates, post-docs, and visiting professors. It is intended to show how the department has effectively defined itself over the years through new hires.
    6. Some milestones:
      • The undergraduate program was begun in 1970, with the first graduates in 1971.
      • The Computer Science department opened in the fall of 1985. It had become apparent that full development required a separate identity. Various members of the Masc department, principally Tapia, aided and supported the move to form a new department.
      • In 1987, the Statistic Department was formed in the School of Social Sciences. Because the University did not recognize the need for a viable program in statistics and provide positions specifically for that area, Thompson and Scott felt the only chance to develop was to accept the offer of the then Dean of Social Sciences. With the subsequent move to Engineering, it has been possible to develop closer cooperation between Stat and Masc (now Caam) — especially in providing courses of instruction.
      • The name of the Masc Department was changed to the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM or Caam) in the fall of 1992. It was felt that this more nearly communicated the nature of our program and interests.
    7. Relation to the administration. Because of the unusual character of the department, particularly in the early years, our administrations have not always recognized the superb work of our department. For a number of years we were much better known and more highly regarded in other first-rate universities.
      • Brotzen. A founding father through the systems program, he has understood us better than most and has been a constant supporter of the department as it has worked to establish itself.
      • Pitzer. Because he was closely in touch with developments that led to the formation of the department, President Pitzer was highly appreciative. However, he left the university shortly after the department was formed. This was a loss. For one thing, because of his standing with the NSF our ability to get an extension of the systems grant was jeopardized.
      • Gordon. Gordon admitted that he had difficulty, at first, in evaluating the department because of its eclectic character. As late as 1979, when we had made an important hire, he commented that the ability of the department to attract such a person had given him a new appreciation of its status. Nevertheless, Gordon was very supportive when we could make a case.
      • President Hackerman and Deans King Walters and David Hellums had growing respect as the work and the external reputation of the department grew and was better known internally.
      • Carroll. Our major growth and support came under Michael Carroll. On the one hand, his professional interests made it apparent to him the achievements and the potential of the department. On the other hand, a great deal of progress had been made, so that the promise was more evident than previously. Within the limitations of budget and available positions, Carroll made every effort to enhance the work of the department. In addition, he recognized the importance of Statistics and the reason they needed an identity as a separate department. His strengthening of Statistics was an important contribution to the general area originally envisioned under Mathematical Sciences.

    I think the department has "come of age." In spite of many frustrations, it has been a gratifying experience to watch its development from a nondescript academic entity (albeit with a sound vision) to a strong department with an international reputation and a world class faculty. Many of its students have distinguished themselves professionally and personally. We are on the way. Keep it up!


    The following proposal was presented with a covering memorandum from F. Horn, dated November 22, 1967, to Department Chairmen, Prospective Faculty of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, the Faculty Council, and the Committee on Applications of Mathematics.

    Proposal For a Department of Mathematical Sciences

    It is proposed that a Department of Mathematical Sciences be established at Rice University. This department would be devoted to areas of mathematics important to applications and to other related areas of an interdisciplinary and theoretical character. It would be tied to existing departments by a number of joint appointments which would stimulate research not only in the new department but also in the existing departments. It would also provide a "home" for new faculty personnel who are interested in mathematics and theoretical aspects of science and engineering, but who do not identify themselves sufficiently with any one of these fields to be satisfied with membership in already established departments. The new department would undertake to provide some of the instructional needs of students of engineering and the sciences as well as those of its own students.

    1. The Need for a Department
    2. In order to achieve or maintain excellence in the various fields of engineering and science (throughout this proposal, we include under science the behavioral and social sciences), it is necessary for the University to establish an appropriate mechanism of interaction between mathematics and areas of application. Most good mathematics departments are devoted primarily to the development of mathematics as an end in itself, with secondary interest, at most, in applications. In order to maintain high professional standing in the mathematical community, they must pursue policies of hiring and promoting personnel and of organizing courses which fail to provide certain needs and exclude or neglect significant areas of mathematical and theoretical research important to modern society.

      Much important work in these areas is being carried out in existing departments. Freedom of research at Rice is such that an engineer or scientist can (and many do) engage in work which is essentially applied mathematics. However, there are significant limitations and omissions — e.g., in probability and statistics, computer science, mathematical programming, etc. Recent recruiting experience has shown that the hiring of qualified persons has been hindered by the fact that many of the best people available do not wish to identify with one of the existing departments but have indicated an interest in a department of the kind proposed. Many see their work as sufficiently distinct from, although related to, science and engineering to want to maintain a separate identity. In particular, they want to be free to give more attention and emphasis to the purely mathematical aspects of their work than they feel is consistent with the interests of a department in one of the fields of engineering or science. In addition to these considerations is the fact that some of the current activities carried out in the departments — notably, the development of courses of instruction in applied mathematics — would profit by the structure and associations provided by a new department.

      In the past, an instructional program in applied mathematics has been developed by members of the faculty in engineering and science. The need for this program has been demonstrated by the large enrollment of students from many departments in the University. It is a common conviction of those who have participated in producing this program that the organization and development of such courses could be carried out much more effectively and efficiently by a department rather than by an interdepartmental committee. Not only could more and better courses be designed to serve the instructional needs of students of engineering and the sciences, but they could serve as the basis for degree programs in Mathematical Sciences itself. Current trends in research point to the desirability of such degree programs. There are significant areas of research that are ordinarily neglected in departments of mathematics and which attract persons who do not wish to be identified as engineers, economists, physicists, etc. The total effectiveness of the research and instructional program at Rice would be enhanced by attracting some of the outstanding people in this category.

    3. The Name of the New Department
    4. In view of the rapid and often unexpected developments in modern research, it does not seem proper or possible to divide mathematics into two areas, one of which is "pure" and the other "applied". For this reason, the name "Department of Applied Mathematics" would seem misleading, since it suggests such a division. On the other hand, most of the members of the new department will have interests in the theoretical foundations of science and engineering as well as in mathematics. This fact should be expressed in the name of the department. In view of this, it is proposed that the name of the new department be "Department of Mathematical Sciences." This proposed name has been discussed widely among those concerned, including members of the Department of Mathematics. There is rather general concurrence that this designation would be appropriate.

    5. Research Areas, Qualifications for Membership
    6. The research areas will be, as it is the case for other departments, determined by the members of the new department. In order to achieve the objectives of the new department, the following policy will be adopted.

      • A member of the new department may come from any of a variety of backgrounds in engineering, science, or mathematics. His work will be characterized by a high degree of mathematical competence. If he is an engineer or scientist concerned with certain types or areas of applications, he will give more attention to the purely mathematical aspects of his work than would normally be true of equally competent theoretical men in his fields of application. If he is a mathematician, he will be interested in the relationship of his mathematical work to applications and will desire to associate professionally with persons concerned with applications. An attempt will be made to maintain a reasonable balance between the research interests in the broad areas of science, mathematics, and engineering.
      • A substantial part of the members of the new department should have joint appointments with either the Mathematics Department or another science or engineering department. A joint appointee is expected to participate actively in the affairs of the other departments he is associated with.
      • In hiring personnel, the most urgent needs of science and engineering at Rice will be considered first. In particular, it seems very desirable at present to make every effort to hire personnel in probability theory and statistics and in computer science.
      • Of necessity, at first, most of the members of the departments will hold joint appointments. In order to obtain maximum flexibility, the joint appointments of those presently on the faculty in other departments will be for a three year term. A prospective joint appointee from one of the currently existing departments will have the option of a shorter "visiting appointment" for a period of one or two years.
    7. Instructional Program
    8. The department will be responsible for some of the mathematics courses offered to engineering and science undergraduates in the third and fourth year. This will include the mathematics courses presently taught by members of the engineering and science faculty. There will be a departmental committee responsible for planning these courses. This committee will have at least one member from each department which is represented in the Mathematical Sciences Department by a joint or visiting appointment. Any department interested in this instructional program will have opportunity to discuss the content and organization of courses with members of the committee before major decisions regarding these courses are made.

      The Mathematical Sciences Department will also develop courses for its own undergraduate and graduate program as needs arise and staff is available.

    9. Graduate Program
    10. The department will develop a program leading to M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. Admission to this program will be open to undergraduates of the Department of Mathematical Sciences with sufficiently good records and to any engineering, science or mathematics major who has sufficient qualifications and is willing to supplement his background in either mathematics or one of the engineering and science areas.

      Candidates for a degree will have to pass a qualifying examination in which competence in mathematics and in one area of the physical and behavioral sciences is tested.

      The thesis topics will reflect the interests of the members of the new department. A departmental committee will decide on the suitability of thesis topics regarding mathematical significance.

    11. Undergraduate Program
    12. The department will be responsible for a curriculum leading to a B.A. degree with a major in Mathematical Sciences. This program would attract students interested in mathematics who are strongly motivated by applications and also students primarily interested in engineering and science who wish to go deeper into the mathematical aspects with less emphasis on experimental aspects.

      During the freshman and sophomore years, students intending to major in Mathematical Sciences may register in either the Academic Division or the Science-Engineering Division, provided they take suitable courses in science and mathematics. For the third and fourth years, about nine mathematics courses (including probability theory and numerical analysis), four interrelated courses of theoretical nature taken either in the Mathematical Sciences Department itself or in an engineering or science department, and two additional Group B or C courses would be required.

    13. Size of the Department
    14. It is estimated that in the academic year 1970-71 the total number of appointments should be 15. Joint appointments are included in this number and counted as one-half. The estimated graduate enrollment should be about 50 at that time.

    Committee on Application of Mathematics


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