Ian Goulden appointed Dean of Mathematics

Thursday, December 2, 2010

'Math nerd' now at the faculty's helm

Ian GouldenIan Goulden, the dean of mathematics, was inducted last week as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada — a reminder that he’s a scholar and researcher as well as, since he took the dean’s job last July 1, one of the University of Waterloo’s senior administrators.

Goulden (left) “is a superb algebraic combinatorialist,” said the citation issued by the RSC when his Fellowship was announced earlier this year. “He has had a profound effect on an area of mathematics that, increasingly, has been seen to deal with structures central to many other parts of mathematics. Much of his research has now entered into standard use within the discipline itself, as well as in applications to the mathematical sciences.”

Goulden calls himself “a math nerd” and “not an organizational genius” — but says he felt “some group responsibility” to be available as a candidate for the dean’s job. “We have to have a real live pool of candidates to choose from,” he said in a recent interview, and after twice serving as chair of the combinatorics and optimization department, he “wasn’t reluctant” to be considered.

“It’s our faculty,” says Goulden. “If we can’t find leadership from within, that’s disappointing.”

He’s been at Waterloo his whole adult life: as an undergraduate starting in 1972, then a grad student, and finally a faculty member in Combinatorics and Optimization (C and O) since he finished his PhD in 1979. Now his curriculum vitae includes academic articles with titles like “Transitive factorizations in the hyperoctahedral group”. Early in his career he was co-author, with colleague David Jackson, of the textbook Combinatorial Enumeration, which is now something of a classic. But he also likes to stress the years when active involvement in the math faculty took a back seat to helping raise his two daughters.

In the dean’s role, he feels the demand for a lot of face time, and says life on the fifth floor of the Mathematics & Computer Building (MC) has been “pretty frantic. I’ve met a lot of people. People send you things that require awkward decisions, and those are the ones you have to take the most care to sort out.”

After his early months in office, Goulden says he has “been struck by how many people we have who care so much about this institution. They feel it’s a really good place to make a career.” As a result, he’s “very much conscious of the tremendous responsibility that I have. If I, and others, do our jobs well, we can translate all that good feeling into something really positive.”

Actually, that’s the way he has felt about Waterloo and the math faculty ever since he was a high school student and wrote one of the mathematics contests that have been a major outreach tool for Waterloo over the decades. It was “so cool”, he recalls. He’s proud now of the work done by the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing, which has taken the contests and other outreach programs far beyond Ontario, most recently with programs starting in India.

“I am highly aware of how really strong our students are,” says Goulden, in part because of the CEMC’s outreach. He’d like Waterloo to be acknowledged as “the leading place in Canada for math… I think we have the capability of being there.” And that doesn’t apply just to undergraduate study, where the reputation is probably most advanced; he’d like to raise this university’s profile for graduate study and research as well.

His own contribution may be limited for a while; with the heavy workload of a dean, he’s not currently teaching, he said, and managerial work is bound to get done “at the expense of my own research”. (He does still have three PhD students, however.)

Since his early years at Waterloo, “everything’s bigger and more complicated”, says the dean, and he’s persuaded that “we need some reorganizing to modernize the functioning of the faculty” — nothing fundamental, but better techniques for communicating with students, for example. Another issue on his mind is the state of the 40-year-old Math and Computer building, which “certainly doesn’t show us well when new students come in”.

Perhaps it can be improved, he suggests. “I would like the space in which we operate to be good working space.” At least he’s optimistic for the new Mathematics 3 building, joined to MC by an overpass, which will be “coming on line” in a few months as a home for the faculty’s statistics and business programs.

One major organizational issue is the way math manages those business programs, which now make up about a third of total activity (another third of students are in computer science and the remaining third in more conventional math fields). Repeated academic reviews of the math-and-business programs have said they need a formal organizational home, and Goulden says he definitely plans to address that need.

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