Ian Goulden


Ian Goulden takes a pie in the face for Pi Day.
Perhaps rightfully so, most people are cynical when they hear a CEO praising his or her own firm. As Dean of Mathematics at University of Waterloo (2010-2015), Ian Goulden was essentially the CEO of the Mathematics faculty, but his testimonial holds great credibility because he faithfully spent his entire academic career at this institution. “I was a graduate student at Waterloo, and we had postdocs who would come from all around the world to work with Professors Bill Tutte, Jack Edmonds, and Ron Mullin – people who since became colleagues, but who were my professors at the time,” Ian reflects. “For me, having a big combinatorics group within a big faculty with a strong mathematical supporting structure was fantastic!”

After having been on trips to countless other universities worldwide – including a brief stint as visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1980s – Ian can confidently say that Waterloo has a place among the elite, both in terms of mathematical research and the quality of its students. Ian became a full professor at the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization in 1990, the same department through which he obtained his BMath in 1976 (he finished the degree with a second major in statistics as well).

Ian has distinguished himself as a researcher and was recognized as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2010 for his work in enumerative combinatorics. His book, Combinatorial Enumeration, co-authored with Professor David M. Jackson, is a highly regarded text in the field. Despite his expertise, Ian wasn’t satisfied with staying confined to a single area. “What I’ve done is, over time, I found out about something new or I saw a new type of result that really interested me. I knew it must be related to something that I knew about, but I didn’t see how because I didn’t have the supporting material, so I learned about it on my own,” he says. It was through this type of self-instruction that he became familiar with the principles of mathematical physics and algebraic geometry, fields that are well outside his formal training in combinatorics and optimization and statistics.

“As my wife can tell you, I’m always sad or I feel a bit disgruntled if I haven’t had a mathematical thought in a given week, so I really do have that fundamental need to be discovering something different,” he remarks. Because of his obsession with math, Ian works hard to balance his duties as dean so that he still has time for research; he is currently working on several projects in collaboration with present and former PhD students.

In 2009, Ian received the Faculty of Mathematics Award for Distinction in Teaching, alongside Dr. Troy Vasiga. Reflecting upon the award, he attributes his ability to connect with his pupils to his own short attention span. He explains, “I don’t see the point of students – a hundred of them at a time – just sitting like bumps on a log, observing me doing something. I like to have something interactive, and I’d like to convince them that the material is interesting.” Ian doesn’t use notes so that when he asks students open-ended, provocative questions, the lecture can be responsive without being boxed in by a premeditated agenda. He literally avoids stationariness by pacing around the classroom and “invading the students’ space” to include them in the dialogue instead of just talking at them. His sense of humour is also crucial to his allure as an instructor, because frivolity, when used tactfully, can help drive home a difficult concept and make a dreadfully long, 8:30 am class pass by fairly quickly.

Ian hasn’t taught in a classroom since he was appointed as dean in early 2010 because he considers teaching to be a serious commitment to students, and his administrative or ambassadorship functions will certainly interfere with this commitment. Although he might not be able to teach his favourite class – advanced-level "Introduction to Combinatorics" (Mathematics (MATH) 249) – any time soon, Ian is working on getting back into the game. He has expressed interest in co-teaching either "Mathematical Discovery and Invention" (Combinatorics and Optimization (CO) 380) or "Introduction to Combinatorics" (MATH 239) with colleagues sometime in the future.

Ian is ambitious about the long-term success of the faculty, but he remains true to his ‘why-so-serious’ outlook on teaching and on life in general. Just this past winter, Ian boldly volunteered to take a pie in the face for charity as part of the Pi Day festivities. “I didn’t wear my suit,” he says. “I did notice how nice the students were to me that they didn’t put pie all over my hair… they just put it in the centre and gently prodded it around.” It is rather rare for someone in Ian’s position to partake in something like that, but after seeing the president of UWaterloo, Feridun Hamdullahpur, agree to have paint poured over him as part of the Colour Me Educated campaign, one is left to wonder whether this is the future direction of the university's administration.