A tribute to Meakin's leadership

John Meakin

John Meakin, Department Chair, 2003-2011

As this edition's View from the Chair addresses, John Meakin, after eight years of serving as Department Chair, will be handing over the reins as chair to Judy Walker. In honor of his dedicated service, we wish to highlight some of the contributions Meakin has made to the department and thank him for a job well done.

Much like the mark of a good pilot is an uneventful flight, the mark of a good department chair is when faculty members remain oblivious to the work that it entails. The most important aspect of the job is to ensure that faculty members feel encouraged and well supported, enabling them to perform at their very best.

Professor of Mathematics David Pitts, who came to UNL in 1986, said, "Administration is a huge job. John takes care of that, and it insulates the rest of us. While the work is a burden on the chair, done effectively it helps the entire department."

As a result, much of the work is behind the scenes, making Meakin's hard-working and selfless nature among his greatest attributes as chair. This became apparent almost immediately, when, shortly after he began his term as chair in 2003, Meakin was faced with the task of relocating the department from the eighth and ninth floors of Oldfather Hall to newly renovated Avery Hall, across the walkway to the west. Organizing such a feat is rather unglamorous and hardly seems like noteworthy work for a mathematician, yet its smooth coordination was incredibly important to the uninterrupted work of the department. Meakin forged ahead without complaint and the leadership he provided quickly set the tone for the next eight years.

One of the most notable areas of growth experienced by the department under Meakin's leadership is the graduate program. With encouragement and support from Meakin, the department was awarded federal funds for grants such as Mentoring through Critical Transition Points (MCTP), which supports IMMERSE and other programs (see http://www.math.unl.edu/programs/mctp/), and the continuation of GAANN (Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need) grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

These programs have fundamentally altered the graduate program at UNL by contributing to a significant increase in the number and quality of applicants for graduate education and by bringing both national and international attention to the department. In 2004, there were 94 applications for acceptance into the mathematics graduate program; though this was already a respectable number, it steadily increased to reach 178 in the spring of 2011. The increase in the number of Ph.D.s (from just two and three in 2004 and 2005 to 10 and 11 in 2009 and 2010) awarded by the department during Meakin's tenure is also indicative of this growth, and shows Meakin's commitment to graduate education.

While the list of accolades and accomplishments for Meakin is vast, among those mentioned most frequently by faculty members are:

  • Department faculty. Eleven new faculty members were hired while he was chair, including Carina Curto, a 2011 Sloan Research Fellowship award winner. Other strategic hires have enabled the department to assemble a world-class research group at UNL, particularly in the area of commutative algebra. There is heavy demand from students to gain admission to the graduate program in this area and a constant stream of top research visitors and postdocs attracted by UNL's research environment.
  • The growth of the postdoctoral program. In 2001, the department obtained administrative approval to create a postdoctoral program to fully support three positions per year by seeking state funds. From 2003 to present, 11 individuals have served in these postdoctoral positions. In 2005, under Meakin's direction, the department was able to use private funds through the University Foundation to convert two of these positions into permanent, named postdoctoral positions: the Edith T. Hitz and Marilyn M. Hitz research assistant professors in mathematics.
  • Support for the mathematics undergraduate program. The department is heavily committed to mentoring undergraduate research projects and to interacting with undergraduates. The department's MCTP grant has supported 11 undergraduate mentees and RUTE has supported 17 and 12 in 2011. Since 2001, 38 undergraduate research projects have been supported by UCARE, and math majors have had 33 REU experiences (14 at UNL and 19 away) and 14 internship experiences away from UNL. Moreover, approximately half of the Goldwater scholarships awarded in Nebraska, and around 80 percent of those at UNL in all areas of science and engineering, have been awarded to undergraduate mathematics majors at UNL. Six undergraduate math majors have won coveted NSF graduate fellowships and seven more have received honorable mention (one last year).

But the department's faculty members are not the only ones who have observed Meakin's successes as chair. Under Meakin's tenure, the UNL Department of Mathematics was the recipient of the prestigious AMS Award for an Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department in 2009. The award highlighted a broad spectrum of features for which the department was commended, including contributions to graduate education, undergraduate research, women in mathematics, the mathematical education of teachers and outreach. Since only four departments have ever received this award, it is a true testament to the leadership that Meakin has provided.

Being the humble leader that he is, Meakin is quick to give credit for the department's successes to other faculty members and often points out that the department already was experiencing much success when he became chair in 2003. However, as Gordon Woodward, Professor of Mathematics and chair of undergraduate mathematics education, said, "Continuing a strong department is no small matter. John was able to find support to help us continue to do our jobs, to do them better, and then to do even more."

Pitts concurred: "John continued the upward trajectory of the department's success and national profile."

"John has been a fantastic chair," Judy Walker said. "I am grateful both for the shape John has left the department in and for the advice John has given me thus far (and, I hope, will continue to give me) as I take over the reins."

The growth and success of the department since 2003 can be, whether in large part or small, attributed to him. Thank you, John Meakin, for a job that has been indeed well done.