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Topic: [HM] Death of David Pingree
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Jeff Oaks

Posts: 56
Registered: 12/3/04
[HM] Death of David Pingree
Posted: Nov 15, 2005 10:05 AM
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I was just sent this by our director of communications. It is from a
higher ed web page.

Out With the Old

It was a sad weekend for anyone familiar with the Department of the
History of Mathematics
<http://www.brown.edu/Departments/History_Mathematics/history.html> at
Brown University. David Pingree, its venerable leader since 1986 and a
faculty member since the 1970s, died Friday evening not knowing the fate
of his beloved program. Last week, he told The Brown Daily Herald that
small programs like his ? including some that provide a unique lens into
complex realms of human culture and history ? are increasingly
threatened in higher education.

The department?s sole full-time faculty member, Pingree was the kind of
professor who liked to take a few motivated students under his wing and
foster their own interests within a complex field. His personal library
collection is considered to be among the finest in the world for
scholars interested in the study of mathematical science in the ancient

?Back in the late 1980?s, I was looking at graduate programs in history
of science, but I had also fallen in love with Sanskrit via a Harvard
Extension School continuing-ed course in the language,? said Kim
Plofker, who received her Ph.D. from the department in 1995. ?Sort of on
a whim, I asked my Sanskrit professor, ?Is there some way I could
combine these interests by studying history of science in Sanskrit?? And
she said, ?Well, yes, as a matter of fact, there?s David Pingree at
Brown.? And the more I found out about the department, the more
fascinated I was by the range and depth of the interests there.?

On Thursday, in an e-mail message sent before the professor died from
complications of diabetes, Provost Robert Zimmer acknowledged that
administrators were considering eliminating the department altogether,
while ?appointing any successor to Professor Pingree in another department.?

These were terms that did not sit well with the professor, who was
planning to retire at the conclusion of this academic year: ?In the
?70s, we were under a very different administration, and that
administration respected what we did,? said Pingree in his last
interview with The Herald.

Respect for unique university programs is a principle that several
faculty members and graduate students are now left to ponder ? and fight
for ? without Pingree?s strong voice to help guide the way.

?If this department doesn't continue, there will be millions of unread
ancient mathematical and scientific texts languishing in libraries, not
to mention the loss of an internationally respected center of study,?
said Alice Slotsky, currently a visiting assistant professor with the
department. ?This department is one of the few in the world that
concentrates on the ancient history of science. Because of my background
in Assyriology and Babylonian astronomy and mathematics, teaching in
Brown?s History of Mathematics [has been] a dream come true.?

While Zimmer indicated Monday that no firm decision has been made to
eliminate the department, Slotsky has already been told that she will be
required to teach within the university?s classics department next year.
Faculty associated with the History of Mathematics Department said that
its budget for next academic year has already been zeroed out.

Zimmer described Brown?s commitment to the study of ancient world as
?major,? adding that the university is ?dramatically expanding our
presence in this area.? Indeed Brown is generally expanding the size of
its faculty in many key liberal arts fields.

Noting the small size of the History of Mathematics Department, Zimmer
indicated that finances were not the reason for the possible
consolidation. ?There is little or no cost differences between the
alternatives,? he said. ?The real question is what is the optimal
configuration to support the work of our students and faculty.

According to Brown faculty members as well as current students, there is
a ?burgeoning? interest among both undergraduate and graduate students
in this field. Slotsky said that she has over 130 students enrolled in
beginning Akkadian this year and another 18 students taking intermediate
and advanced courses.

Slotsky also offered her firsthand analysis on the composition of the
department: ?The graduate program is purposely highly selective to allow
for a small community of scholars to intensively study, co-operate, and
make use of the unique and rare resources in the department,? she said.
?It has a worldwide reputation as a center for the study of the
mathematical astronomy of many cultures and the transmission of this
science from one society to another.?

Students who have participated in the program in recent years aren?t
sure that administrators have students? best interests in mind.

?I fear that such a combining effort [of moving scholars to other
departments] may dilute the tradition,? added Toke Lindegaard Knudsen, a
graduate student, just hours before his faculty supervisor died. ?The
focus of this department has been on many cultures, investigating how
knowledge is transmitted between them and how the received knowledge is
adapted to the new culture.?

Peter Scharf, a professor of classics at Brown, said that the
administrative decision-making in this case is reflective of a
?concerning? trend in higher education. ?The people who are hired at the
top of administrations now often have less and less to do with actually
knowing the spirit, if you will, of the universities they work for,? he
said. ?It has made universities in general more corporate-like, I think.?

Scharf said he personally finds it ?ridiculous,? that as one of fewer
than five faculty members involved with the department that no
university administrators had been in contact with him as of late last
week regarding the department?s future ? or lack thereof.

?I don?t think they ever really knew what Dr. Pingree did,? said Scharf
of the university?s current administration. ?There?s a new provost, new
deans ? they just don?t understand the structure.?

?Dr. Pingree was really feeling a lot of pressure,? said Micah Ross, a
doctoral candidate with the department, who spoke to the professor after
he entered the hospital last week. ?I think he cast his mind back to the
days when the university respected what he did more.?

? Rob Capriccioso <mailto:rob@insidehighered.com>

Jeffrey A. Oaks, Associate Professor & chair
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
University of Indianapolis
1400 E. Hanna Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46227

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