The Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics is the most prestigious award made by the Association. This award first given in 1990, is the successor to the Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics, awarded since 1962, and has been made possible by the late Dr. Hu and his wife, Yueh-Gin Gung. It is worth nothing that Dr. Hu was not a mathematician. He was a retired professor of geology at the University of Maryland. He had such strong feelings about the basic nature of mathematics and its importance in all human endeavors that he felt impelled to contribute generously to our discipline.
The Gung-Hu Award Committee is pleased to forward the name of Clarence Francis "Steve" Stephens as its recommended recipient of the award. Born in 1917, Dr. Stephens (Ph.D. University of Michigan 1943) was the ninth African American to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics. From 1969 until his retirement in 1987, Stephens was Chairman of the Department of Mathematics at the State University of New York at Potsdam. It is for his role in achieving the "Potsdam Miracle" in the production of undergraduate mathematics majors at SUNY Potsdam in the 1980's, which led to a model for creating a welcoming atmosphere for undergraduate mathematics majors at many other institutions, that we are recommending him for this award.
Stephens had already received a number of accolades for a long and distinguished career in undergraduate mathematics education by the time he came to SUNY Potsdam in 1969, including an honorary doctorate from Johnson C. Smith University (1954) and a citation by Governor Millard Tawes of Maryland for distinguished service to mathematics education (1962). His connection with SUNY Potsdam began in the spring of 1969, when he was on the mathematics faculty of SUNY Geneseo and visited the Potsdam campus to give a talk sponsored by the Seaway Section of the MAA. The faculty at Potsdam were so impressed by his ideas on mathematics and teaching undergraduates that they began a campaign to have him come to the campus as the Chair of the Mathematics Department. He went to Potsdam in the fall of 1969 and retired from there in 1987.
Here are Stephens'own words about his goal as Chair, as reported in the book Math Education at its Best: The Potsdam Model (MEAIB), by Dilip Datta.
"My primary goal as Chair was to help establish the most favorable conditions I could for students to learn and teachers to teach. I adopted a method for developing the mathematics potential of students at Potsdam which had worked very well at Morgan State College and in National Science Foundation Summer Institutes for secondary teachers of mathematics. A team of mathematics faculty members with me as a member was formed to teach students in their early (freshman and sophomore years for undergraduates-first year for graduate students) study of mathematics, "How to Read Mathematics Literature with Understanding and to Become Independent Learners." A person selected for the team was a person who, in my opinion, had a warm relation with beginning students, strong loyalty to the department and the college. The team was informally formed by the way courses were assigned without informing faculty members that they were members of the team. Since each member of the mathematics faculty was given an opportunity to teach across the mathematics curriculum, every effort was made to add as many members to the team as possible.
Sometimes I would teach a section of the same course with team members, and often I would teach a following required course for the mathematics major. From my earlier experiences at Morgan State College and in National Science Foundation Summer Institutes, if team members were successful in reaching their goal, then I had confidence that any caring mathematics faculty member could effectively teach the students developed by the team. Also, the students who were developed by the team would help us teach other students as tutors. The indicated method for developing the mathematics potential of students was as effective at SUNY Potsdam as it had been at Morgan State College.
And effective it certainly was. Though SUNY Potsdam is a relatively small regional state college with a total enrollment of just over 4,000 students during Stephens' time there, in 1985 the college graduated 184 mathematics majors, the third largest number of any institution in the U.S. that year (exceeded only by two University of California campuses). This represented about a quarter of the degrees given by SUNY Potsdam that year, and over 40% of the institution's honor students were mathematics majors.
The "Potsdam Miracle" was not in any sense accomplished by lowering standards, but rather by raising the standards for teaching the students and providing a supportive environment for them. It would take much more space than is available here to describe all of the innovations that Dr. Stephens implemented that led to the "Potsdam Miracle." Portions of the model have been adopted elsewhere by institutions of many different types, particularly since the appearance of Datta's book.
For his pioneering accomplishments in undergraduate mathematics education, and the provision of a national model for institutions that wish to replicate the "Potsdam Miracle," the MAA Gung-Hu Award Committee is pleased to recommend Clarence Stephens for this award.
Stephens received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Johnson C. Smith University in 1938, and his Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1939 and 1943, respectively. He began his career in 1940 at Prairie View State College and served the United States Navy from May, 1942 to the honorable discharge in December, 1945. In 1946, Stephens joined the faculty of Prairie View as a Professor of Mathematics. The following year he left to become Professor and Chairman of the Mathematics Department at Morgan State College, where he remained until 1962. He then accepted an appointment as Professor of Mathematics at the State University of New York at Geneseo. In 1969, he joined the mathematics faculty at SUNY at Potsdam as Professor and Chairman of the Mathematics Department and served in this capacity until retirement in 1987.
I accept the Gung-Hu award with gratitude for doing the things I enjoyed doing. I wish to share this award with my wife, Harriette, for more than 60 years of love and support. We celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary last month. Also, I have experienced the joy of seeing the growing up of our children, Jeannette and Clarence, our grandchildren, Philip and Kim, and now our great grandson Taylor.
I learned, first at Morgan and then at SUNY Potsdam, that the practice of putting emphasis on the weak high school mathematics background of entering college students and requiring students to complete remedial mathematics courses on the basis of placement examinations created a very unfavorable environment for learning mathematics. Very few students majored in mathematics or enrolled in mathematics courses unless required to do so. Almost no students learning in this environment reached a high level of achievement in mathematics.
On the other hand, a very favorable environment for learning mathematics can be established if members of the mathematics faculty have faith in the abilities of their students to reach a high level of achievement in mathematics. This task is not easy and a solution depends on place and over time. The creative abilities of the faculty are needed to find a solution. One way to begin is by providing examples, from the students regularly admitted to the college, of students who have been encouraged to reach a high level of achievement in mathematics. We established favorable learning environments at Morgan and SUNY Potsdam.
At Morgan we attracted a high percent of the best students to major in mathematics and often the valedictorian each year was a major in mathematics. Our students were successful in the many careers they followed and in one year, three students in the same graduating class later earned the Ph.D. degree in mathematics.
At SUNY Potsdam, we had similar success. After the mathematics faculty demonstrated that they were successful in teaching almost all students who were enrolled in mathematics courses, high school teachers encouraged many of their best students to enroll in our college. Since we had a very demanding mathematics program in which students succeeded, we attracted many of the best students to major in mathematics. For a period of eight years, the average number of mathematics majors on the PRESIDENT'S LIST for academic excellence was 169, with a maximum of 197. Over 22% of the graduates in these three classes majored in mathematics.
Mathematics was not a requirement in the general education requirements at SUNY Potsdam during the 18 years I served as chair of the mathematics department. The only departments requiring calculus as part of their majors, other than mathematics, were Chemistry and Physics, and these two departments had only a few majors. As a result of a favorable environment for learning mathematics, one year with a freshman class of less than 1000 students, more than 700 of the freshmen enrolled in calculus during the fall semester. One year at least three students in the same graduating class later earned Ph.D. degree in mathematics.
Indeed, I accept the Gung-Hu award with gratitude for doing the things I enjoyed.