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Phil Kutzko – Math Education Seminar (Apr 4)

Just Walk Away, René: Cultural Issues in Broadening Participation in Mathematics

Phil Kutzko, University of Iowa

  • Thursday, April 4
  • 4-5pm in JWB 335 (refreshments at 3:30 in JWB common room)

This presentation is hosted by the Department of Mathematics

Science, as we know it today, developed in a particular time and place for reasons that have never fully been explained. The concept of a function—a concept that underlies all of modern science—first appears in Descartes’ La Géometrie in 1637; within a generation, Newton and Leibniz had developed the calculus and Newton had laid the foundation for modern physics. Similar transformative advances occurred shortly thereafter in chemistry, biology and medicine. This is the context in which we do science today; a West European, Cartesian context in an increasingly non-European nation. The Western approach to science embodies certain cultural values, among them skepticism, objectivity, secularism and a belief in progress as an unmixed virtue. These values are by no means universally accepted, either internationally or within our own country. Further, they have sometimes been used to justify aggression and sometimes worse by Europeans and their descendants in the Americas against other ethnic groups and even against certain groups of European ethnicity. This, it would seem, is reason enough for underrepresented minority groups and other Americans who have not historically been invited to the table to steer clear of European science. Any approach toward broadening participation in science that fails to take into account this cultural context can only go so far. Examples are afforded by standardized testing and affirmative action each of which is ultimately motivated by the same goal: to remove impediments to access caused by overt ethnic and class discrimination (standardized tests) and by the consequences of such discrimination (affirmative action). Both have been valuable in extending access to ethnic and national groups who have found Western science culturally appealing as well as to individuals with similar proclivities from underrepresented groups; indeed, the use of standardized testing transformed the populations doing science during the Sputnik era while affirmative action has been responsible for similar transformations in more recent times. However, these and other strategies that have focused largely on removing barriers to inclusion may be nearing the limit of their utility.

One of the distinctive features of the University of Iowa math department’s initiative to broaden participation in our graduate program is the awareness we have developed of the cultural context in which this initiative takes place. I will discuss this cultural context in my talk and argue that an understanding of this context can lead to new strategies, strategies which, in our case, have transformed a traditional mathematics department in an ethnically homogeneous state into what some have called a model for what an American math department should look like in the twenty-first century.



Phil Kutzko was born and raised in New York City and is a product of the New York City public schools. He attended the City College of New York and received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Wisconsin. He joined the University of Iowa mathematics faculty in 1974. Kutzko’s research is in the area of pure mathematics known as the representation theory of p-adic groups, an area with applications to the theory of numbers. He is the author, with Colin Bushnell, of a monograph in the Annals of Mathematics Studies (Princeton) and has lectured widely on his work. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society and was a University of Iowa Collegiate Fellow at the University of Iowa until his retirement in December, 2017. Kutzko is honored to have played a part in the University of Iowa Department of Mathematics’ activities in minority graduate education and in the extension of these activities to other departments of math sciences nationally as well as to STEM departments at the Iowa Regents universities. In this context, he was the Principal Investigator and Director of the Iowa Regents Universities NSF-AGEP project and the Principal Investigator and Senior Advisor to the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation/University of Iowa Center for Excellent Mentoring.  He presently serves at the Director of the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences, a project which involves mathematical sciences departments at a variety of colleges and universities and whose goal is to increase the number of doctoral degrees in the mathematical sciences awarded to underrepresented US minority students. Kutzko was honored for his work in this area with the 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. This award was presented to him by President Obama in a White House ceremony in January, 2010.