Lewis reaches 50th year at UNL

Jim Lewis visits with Bob Wilhelm (left), Nebraska’s vice chancellor for research and economic development and Matt Larson (right), associate superintendent for instruction at Lincoln Public Schools on Nov. 18. Photo by Grace Kovar, UNL, senior, journalism.

When Jim Lewis first arrived at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln to begin his job as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics in 1971, Richard Nixon was in his first term as president, the city of Lincoln was about half the size it is today, and the Nebraska football team was busy pursuing its second national championship.

At the time, he likely did not envision that 50 years later he would still be teaching students, securing grants, improving mathematics education, and serving the department in myriad ways. Over the last half century, Lewis has laid the foundation for the department to flourish for decades to come.

A native Louisianan, Lewis received his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. His dissertation was in the field commutative algebra and written under the direction of Jack Ohm. Nebraska was his first and only job; although, he did spend four years working at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

For the 1987–1988 academic year, Lewis served as president of the Faculty Senate. In this capacity, he lobbied university leaders, the Nebraska Legislature, and the Board of Regents to push for a major increase in faculty salaries, which lagged far behind their peers. This success was one of the earliest of Lewis’s many signature achievements.

In 1988, Lewis was named chair of the department, a position he held for 15 years, the longest tenure of any chair since Albert Candy served 17 years as chair from 1917–1934. It would be difficult to overstate the impact Lewis had on the department during this period. Lewis has made the department a more supportive place for both faculty and students. For most of the 1970s and ’80s, the department had precisely one woman faculty member (Professor Emerita Sylvia Wiegand). Lewis recognized a basic reality and used it to the department’s advantage: many women who earn Ph.Ds. in mathematics have partners who are also Ph.D. mathematicians. Departments and institutions that are open to hiring dual career couples would have a leg up on hiring and retaining outstanding women faculty over those that are not.

During Lewis’s tenure as chair, the department added three dual career couples, all of whom are still members of our faculty, and Lewis hired several new faculty, 11 of whom are still on the faculty today.

“Jim’s impact on the mathematics department is unparalleled and long-lasting,” said Judy Walker, associate vice chancellor for faculty and academic affairs and Aaron Douglas Professor of Mathematics. “During his time as chair, he transformed the culture of the department from one which granted no Ph.Ds. to women in the 1980s to one that was recognized with a 1998 Presidential Award for its success with female graduate students. To this day — almost 20 years after Jim’s term as chair ended — the department still has a national reputation for offering a graduate program where women can and do succeed at a rate far above the national average.”

While there is still work to be done, the department now has eight women with tenure in Mathematics and three more faculty who have partial appointments, a vast improvement from where we were 30 years ago — due in large part to the leadership and priorities set by Lewis.

Similarly, Lewis found it alarming that of the 23 students who received a Ph.D. from the department in the 1980s, none of them was a woman. He set out to make our graduate program more welcoming and supportive for women—and by extension, for all students. In the succeeding decades the number of students receiving Ph.Ds. from the department greatly increased, and the percentage of them going to women dramatically so. This past summer, the department awarded its 100th Ph.D. degree to a trio of women.

In 1998, in recognition of these efforts, the department became the first mathematics department to receive the Presidential Award for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Around the same time, Lewis was honored with two individual awards: the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women Award in 1996 and the Lincoln-Lancaster Women’s Commission Erasmus Correll Award in 1997.

A constant throughout Lewis’s career has been his commitment to excellence in teaching, not just personally in his own classes, but as chair and as a national leader in the mathematical community. His goal for the department was for it to be a national model of a research university where outstanding teaching is valued as highly as outstanding research — and excels at both. In the 1990s, among other things, he urged the department to adopt new teaching practices in calculus, which called for more collaborative learning and a revamped curriculum, leading to a significant improvement in Nebraska’s success rates in these courses. In 1998, Mathematics became only the third department at UNL to win the University of Nebraska System-Wide Department Teaching Award. In 2003, Lewis was elected to the UNL Academy of Distinguished Teachers and received the University System-wide Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award.

“Many students and faculty will cite Jim’s mentorship as invaluable. I am certain that I would not have the career I have if Jim had not hired me as an assistant professor 25 years ago. The fact that so many mathematicians with Nebraska ties have become national leaders in the profession is surely due to his influence,” Walker said.

In 2002, Lewis was named director of the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Computer Education (CSMCE), and, in 2003, he stepped down as department chair to focus more of his energy on CSMCE activities. The mission Lewis crafted for the CSMCE is to support UNL faculty engaged in educational activities focused on improving the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at both the PK–12 and collegiate levels. Lewis has been a principal investigator or co-principal investigator for over $41 million in externally funded projects, most aimed at mathematics teacher professional development and involving partnerships across departments and institutions.

Lewis was highly involved in the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences publications Mathematical Education of Teachers I and II (2001 and chairing the writing team in 2012, respectively). Lewis then led two large Math Science Partnership projects from NSF to provide extensive professional development for K–12 mathematics teachers, including Math in the Middle (for grades 4–9 teachers) and NebraskaMATH, which had components for elementary mathematics specialists (K–3), algebra teachers (grades 8–10), and novice secondary teachers. These large projects were followed by a NSF Robert Noyce Scholarship Program Teaching Fellowship and Master Teaching Fellowship grant designed to recruit outstanding candidates to become mathematics teachers in high-need schools or support mathematics leaders in high-need Nebraska schools.

Even while seeking external grants to get teacher professional development programs launched, Lewis has constantly thought ahead to how to sustain such programs beyond the end of grant funding. In 2008, Lewis led the launch of the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes (NMSSI). Featuring summer in-person and online courses for K–12 STEM teachers, this program has grown to include hundreds of teachers each summer, some years comprising nearly one-quarter of all summer graduate credit hours at UNL. Combined with master’s degree programs for teachers in the Departments of Mathematics (Master of Arts for Teachers) and Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education (Master of Arts), over 500 teachers have received a mathematics-focused master’s degree in the past two decades, all related to grant-funded programs and the NMSSI.

From 2015–2018, Lewis served in the Education and Human Resources Directorate of the NSF, first as deputy assistant director and later as acting assistant director. Upon his return to Nebraska in late 2018, Lewis — never one to rest — immediately led the effort to secure a multi-institutional $3.5 million grant from the NSF, called STEM CONNECT, which awards scholarships and mentoring to academically talented, low-income students with interest in careers in mathematics or computer science, aiming to promote diversity within those disciplines. In addition to his appointments as mathematics professor and director of the CSMCE, Lewis was named director of STEM education research initiatives for the Office of Research and Economic Development.

It is likely that no other faculty member in our department’s history has received more awards and honors, both local and national, than Lewis. In 2009, he received the Louise Pound-George Howard Distinguished Career Award and in the same year earned his named professorship, the Aaron Douglas Professor of Mathematics. The following year, he was named the Nebraska Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 2015 he received two national honors: the American Mathematical Society’s Award for Impact on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics and the Mathematical Association of America’s Gung and Hu Award. He is also an elected Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Mathematical Society.

“I had the good fortune to follow Jim as chair of a department that he shaped,” said John Meakin, professor emeritus and chair from 2004–2011. “In many ways, the Department of Mathematics owes to Jim its broadly accepted reputation as a national model among research mathematics departments, in which excellence in its mission is expected and is commonplace. His impact on the culture and intellectual life of this department is enormous. On many occasions throughout his professional life, Jim has exhibited extraordinary insight into what is possible, and an extraordinary capacity to motivate people to carry out his vision.”

Tom Marley

Those who want to join me in thanking Jim for his service can donate to the Jim and Doris Lewis Fund, the Emeritus Faculty Fellowship Fund, or the Math Teachers for the 21st Century Fund. Readers who want to share a memory of Jim can submit a class note at https://go.unl.edu/mathcareerprofile.