This article is published in the February/March 2012 issue of MAA FOCUS.
For Michael Pearson, the journey from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C., has been much more than a 973-mile, 16-hour drive. He arrived nearly 10 years ago to become the MAA’s director of programs and services. He is now stepping into the role of MAA executive director, succeeding Tina H. Straley.
Raised in Hattiesburg, Pearson showed his mathematical prowess early. Around age four, he figured out base 10 and made his dad listen to him count to 1,000. “I then explained to him that it just keeps going,” Pearson says.
“I enjoyed the patterns in the multiplication tables in elementary school, but really, I coasted through math classes for the most part, without really putting out much effort,” he adds. “It wasn’t until I started into the more abstract courses as an undergraduate—intro to real and complex variables, in particular—that I really sat up and took notice and began to think of mathematics as a serious pursuit.”
Pearson attended the University of Mississippi as an undergraduate and earned his master’s degree at Mississippi State University. He went on to pursue his Ph.D. under William Beckner at the University of Texas at Austin. His thesis in harmonic analysis was titled “Sobolov Inequalities for Ultraspherical Polynomials.”
Pearson joined the MAA as a graduate student. “My first experience with MAA came from reading the [American Mathematical] Monthly,” he says.
“But the first time I really got a sense of the community fostered by the association was at my first section meeting, which was the spring 1982 meeting of the Louisiana-Mississippi Section,” he notes. “The sense of collegiality at the meeting was really a revelation to me, and one of the events that encouraged me to pursue an academic career.” Pearson still attends every meeting of the Louisiana-Mississippi Section.
From 1989 to 1992, Pearson was on the faculty at Florida International University. He then moved to Mississippi State University, where he stayed until he joined the MAA in 2002 as director of programs and services.
“I first met Michael when he interviewed for the position of director of programs,” says Don Albers, retired editorial director of the MAA books program. “He was the youngest of the finalists, and I was impressed by his ideas and relaxed delivery. He came across as a down-to-earth person and a problem solver.”
Pearson says he fully expected to return to Mississippi after one or two years with the MAA. “I think that’s what MAA expected as well,” he says. “But, it turns out I enjoyed working within the MAA to develop projects—mostly National Science Foundation-funded—and we were very successful at getting support.”
“So, when I was offered the chance to stay, I really didn’t hesitate,” Pearson says. “Working with MAA members to develop projects is in many ways like working within a really big math department towards similar goals. It’s been a huge learning experience for me, and I’ve never regretted my decision to stay.”
During his tenure as director of programs and services, Pearson oversaw significant growth in the scope of activities offered by the MAA. These included the Professional Enhancement Program (PREP) to encourage and support faculty development, the Regional Undergraduate Mathematics Conference (RUMC) program to engage students, and the MAA Distinguished Lecture Series to increase public awareness and appreciation of mathematics.
“I’ve been very impressed by Michael’s relaxed demeanor combined with the organizational skills to get things done,” says MAA Past President David Bressoud. “Over the past nine years, he has built up a strong understanding of the work of the MAA staff in both Washington, D.C., and Lincoln, Nebraska. At the same time, he brings his own distinctive vision of how the MAA should position itself as we enter our second century in 2015.”
“Michael understands that technology is changing the way we do things and is eager to embrace it,” says John Travis, a Mississippi colleague. “He is always willing to try new ways of doing things and is not afraid to suggest scrapping things that no longer work.”
“Michael comes to the job [of executive director] with extensive experience in MAA,” Straley says. “He knows the positives and negatives and has thought a lot about assuming this position. He is well prepared and will do a great job.”
As executive director, Pearson says, “I intend to work to ensure that MAA enters its second century in a strong position to continue to provide leadership for the broader mathematical sciences. That will mean adapting to the changing landscape in the publishing industry, and even more importantly, to the changes occurring in higher education.”
Pearson lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife, Ellen. They have two children, Jason and Laura Lee, and two cats, Josie and Baby. He enjoys cycling, has a black belt in taekwondo, and avidly collects jazz and blues recordings.
Read Michael Pearson's Vision Statement
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