UI Mathematics marks 25 years of expanding access to doctoral education

The UI Department of Mathematics helped launch the Math Alliance, which has had an incredible impact expanding access to doctorate degrees to people of color across the country, including 50 minority graduates from Iowa.
Tuesday, September 5, 2023

By Charlotte Brookins 

A program created to recruit underrepresented minority (URM) students into Iowa’s graduate program in mathematics has spread to 40 different institutions across the country.  

The Math Alliance began at the University of Iowa with a GAANN grant from the Iowa Department of Education in 1995, when the department had no URM doctoral students. Since then, at least 50 URM students and counting have earned their PhDs at Iowa.  

To put this in perspective, for each year between 2002, when the department began to award a significant number of doctorates to underrepresented students, and 2017, when the Math Alliance began to increase these numbers nationally, the UI Department of Mathematics was responsible for between 5-10 percent of all mathematics doctorates awarded to minority students nationally. The initiative also resulted in many awards for the University of Iowa. 

Mathematics professor emeritus Philip Kutzko says the initiative began with only eight students.  

“I was involved first as a mentor, and then I was asked to see if we could expand this,” he says.  

Kutzko says he wrote a grant with four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) along with Iowa’s three public universities—from there the program expanded in the state.  

“By then it was not only our math sciences departments here [at the UI] using the program, but also statistics and math over at Iowa State, and mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa. Together, we earned a grant to bring students [from HBCUs] to Iowa universities,” Kutzko explains.  

The four HBCU’s involved in the creation of the initiative were Alabama A&M University, Benedict College of South Carolina, Florida A&M University, and Jackson State University. 

As the initiative developed in Iowa, universities and colleges across the nation became interested, and the program grew into what is now known as the Math Alliance, which has since moved its headquarters to Purdue University and grown into a community of more than 1,660 faculty nationally. It continues to exist at Iowa as a mainstreamed part of the doctoral mathematics program. 

“Through this initiative and its expansion to the Alliance, more people can appreciate the value of identifying and developing mathematical talents across people of all backgrounds in the U.S.  It has made a powerful positive impact on our departments, universities, and society at large,” UI Department of Mathematics DEO Ryan Kinser says.  

Portrait of Rolando de Santiago
Rolando de Santiago

The fifty URM students who earned doctoral degrees at Iowa have gone on to become deans, department chairs, and to play other influential roles, including Professor Rolando de Santiago, who is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of mathematics at Purdue University. 

"Almost immediately, I connected with other people who were from LA and were a part of the Alliance, and I slowly started to feel like I could not just survive graduate school, but thrive. An important part of that was Phil Kutzko, who I cannot thank enough for the advice that I received during grad school and beyond,” says de Santiago, who also went on to thank his former doctoral research advisor, Professor Ionut Chifan

Santiago is just one of many students who benefited from the program at Iowa, including 2019 White House Presidential Innovation Fellow Nelson Colón Vargas and Cornell College assistant professor Melanie King, with others still to come through the program both in Iowa and across the nation. 

“The faculty who were closely involved with the Alliance put in so much time and effort to identify students who should apply to Iowa, and then maintain a watchful eye on us students once we got to the university,” de Santiago adds. “It is possible to have an impact on your department if there is a critical mass of people who have the will to support their minority students.”

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.