David M. Bressoud January, 2009
This is an exciting and challenging time to be taking on the presidency of
the MAA, six year shy of its centennial. The economic situation is difficult.
Those of us in academia find our colleges and universities squeezed from many
directions. Public funding is drying up. Endowments are taking a hit. Student
enrollments are increasing as people enter or stay in college to improve their
chances of finding employment or to postpone entering the job market. At the
same time, there is greater demand for financial aid. We are all being asked
to do more with less.
The MAA itself is not immune to these economic difficulties. We have always run a lean operation. Even before the financial crisis we were struggling with declining print subscriptions to our journals, a symptom of the broad transition from print to electronic delivery. Our financial reserves, which had come within a whisker of equaling one year’s operating expenses, have been set back. We are concerned about whether membership numbers will hold up as our members find themselves under increasing financial strain.
For all of these institutions, the MAA included, this is a time to refocus on the core mission, to think about what is really important, and to direct our resources not just to preserving but to strengthening that which is essential to who we are. It means being especially attuned to the needs of those we serve and focusing on how we can do what is needed of us more effectively. In our nations, in our schools, within the MAA, this is a time of opportunity.
In the year and a half since my election, I have learned a great deal about the MAA and come to understand it more deeply. As I guide it through the next two years, I will need to be particularly attentive to the needs of all of our members as well as those of the other communities it serves, and I will be guided by my personal sense of our core mission. I would like to describe how I see this core mission of the MAA. Given my own proclivities, I will do this through an historical lens.
The MAA was founded in 1915 to provide a home for The American Mathematical Monthly. This and our other journals and publications have always been at the center of who we are, “The preeminent provider of expository mathematics.”  Immediately following its founding, MAA Sections began to appear, establishing the other central feature of the MAA: This is a grassroots organization that relies on local networks and volunteers.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the mission deepened. The MAA took on responsibility for guiding and shaping the undergraduate curriculum, what would become CUPM (Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics) and eventually encompass other education committees. And the MAA began what would grow into AMC (American Mathematics Competitions), AIME (American Invitational Mathematics Examination), USAMO (USA Mathematical Olympiad), and the training of the US team to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad. These were natural outgrowths of the original vision. If we are to take seriously our task of sharing good mathematics as broadly as possible, we need to encourage and provide outlets for mathematically talented young people, and we must work to improve the undergraduate preparation of future users of mathematics.
Two other significant and natural expansions occurred in the 1990s. The first was Project NExT (New Experiences in Teaching). It was no longer enough for MAA to provide opportunities for college faculty to get together and guidance in how to make their teaching more effective, it also needed to make a special effort to support, encourage, and nurture new faculty. In the tradition of the original Sections that created local networks, one of the strongest aspects of Project NExT has been the formation of cohorts of Fellows who continue to support each other via listserves and gatherings at meetings.
The second new program, officially launched in 2000, was the creation of the SIGMAAs (Special Interest Groups of the MAA), communities built around common interests that, in this electronic age, do not need geographic proximity in order to flourish. I find it very appropriate that the first of these was SIGMAA on RUME (Research on Undergraduate Mathematics Education), a community of people dedicated to the use of research to better understand how we can improve undergraduate education.
This, then, is our core. We are a grassroots organization of many interwoven communities coming together to share our enthusiasm for mathematics with each other and the rest of the world and to sustain each other as we identify and encourage mathematical talent and prepare the next generations who will use mathematics. Our focus always has been and needs to remain on collegiate level mathematics, but that focus reaches beyond those who are likely to be future members of our communities. It encompasses the preparation and support of K-12 teachers and the education of all college students.
But it is not enough to have a sense of the past and who we are, I will also be setting directions. I have a vision of the MAA as the pre-eminent source to which mathematicians turn when they are teaching a course for the first time, looking for examples to use in class, wanting to learn more about the use of electronic resources or active learning, or seeking to improve the effectiveness of their department in attracting, encouraging, and preparing students. This has always been an important component of who we are, but we need to be the first place that people turn to for information and ideas.There are a lot of good people working on this. A big part of my job is to encourage them. Another big part is to listen to the many good suggestions that are out there and to help bring the best and most viable of them to reality.
It is a humbling task to take on the leadership of this sprawling and dynamic organization, but, as I said at the beginning, I am excited about these next two years. There are opportunities to build on our many strengths as we provide services to help our members be the very best mathematicians and educators they can be, even in tough times, and to continue communicating the beauty and importance of mathematics.
 From the Vision Statement of the MAA, www.maa.org/aboutmaa/visionstatement.html
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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and president-elect of the MAA. You can reach him at email@example.com. This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.