A Mathematician Deals With Another Complex System

October 23, 2016

Applied Math

Emory U.
Robin Forman
Fifteen years ago, Robin Forman, Tulane University’s new chief academic officer, couldn’t have foreseen that he would devote his career to university administration. In fact, if someone had said so, "I would have been a bit insulted," he says.

His perspective changed when he became chair of the mathematics department at Rice University in 2002, after being a faculty member there since 1986.

"Mathematics is the study of complex systems," he says. "Universities are enormously complex."

"It was amazing that I had been part of the university for as long as I had been, and knew so little about it."

Mr. Forman’s academic training was well suited to administrative work: Math, he points out, is a sort of connective tissue between academic disciplines. "It has both the rigor and structure of the sciences, but is driven by curiosity and a sense of aesthetics."

In 2010, after serving as Rice University’s first dean of undergraduates, Mr. Forman became dean of Emory University’s College of Arts and Sciences. On September 1, he stepped into his current role as Tulane’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Though he embraces administrative work, Mr. Forman says he sometimes misses the solitude of his research into combinatorial topology. "I was left working in a world which had a set of abstract rules," he says. "The world around me would drift away, and I would begin to inhabit the world I was studying."

Tulane University has faced budget shortfalls in recent years, which may force Mr. Forman to do a more pragmatic sort of math. At Emory, he made considerable budget cuts and oversaw the closure of the journalism program and the departments of physical education and visual arts. "No university can do everything," he says.

At Tulane, Mr. Forman says his strategy will include careful consultation and collaboration within the university itself. "Any great university," he says, "is always a place of unlimited opportunity and limited resources." — Daniel A. Gross

Taking Comics Seriously

Columbus College of Art & Design
Stewart McKissick
Stewart McKissick, chair of the new program in comics and narrative practice at Columbus College of Art & Design, believes that comics and graphic novels can help transcend language barriers and tell compelling personal stories that give voice to diverse cultures.

The college has long offered a comics course as part of its illustration program, but students’ growing interest in creating their own comics led Mr. McKissick, chair of illustration, and some of his colleagues to develop a separate major for the form. The move was also influenced by the rise in independent comics, as well as increasing cultural interest in the medium. As he was doing research for the program, he found, for instance, that 12 major motion pictures were based on comic books in 2014.

Because of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel about the author’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust, comics are also "being taken more seriously as a personal narrative art form," Mr. McKissick says. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. This year the Library of Congress, together with two nonprofit organizations, appointed Gene Luen Yang, an Asian-American cartoonist, as national ambassador for young people’s literature. Mr. Yang, whose books include American Born Chinese, is the first graphic novelist to fill the position.

The college’s comics program will begin enrolling students in the fall of 2017. Besides learning to draw and write narratives, students will study how to promote their work, create budgets, collaborate, and develop other entrepreneurial skills that could be useful in other fields like animation, screen writing, and editorial design.

Laurenn McCubbin, an assistant professor in the program and a former art director at Image Comics, says she picked up the practical skills comic artists need through trial and error.

"When I got the chance to help start this program," she says, "it was really important to me that a lot of the practical knowledge that I had to find along the way was given to students right out of the gate."

The program will also pair students with professional comic-book writers. Students who have taken the comics course have already collaborated with Jonathan Hickman (Fantastic Four), Noelle Stevenson (Nimona), and Matt Fraction (Hawkeye).

By providing hands-on experience, Mr. Mc­Kissick says, the program will prepare students for the realities of working in the comics world and help make them multifaceted professionals. — Anais Strickland

Political-Science Award

Dewey M. Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville, has won the 2016 American Political Science Association Distinguished Teaching Award.

The association describes him as "a dedicated, inspirational and innovative instructor and mentor" who uses varied pedagogical techniques. Singled out for praise was his "Political Discourse" class, which combines public speaking with political discourse from the modern civil-rights movement.— Ruth Hammond

A Family Profession

John E. Tropman just completed 50 years as a professor of social work at the University of Michigan. A half century may not seem like an unusually long time to his extended family, though. Mr. Tropman’s two daughters are married to the sons of professors, and those two professors have also worked for 50 or more years at their respective institutions.

The two fathers-in-law are Martin C. Hawley, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science, senior associate dean of engineering, and director of the Composite Vehicle Research Center at Michigan State University, and Alan Schenk, a professor of law at Wayne State University. The three men celebrated their collective achievement together in August and reflected on the value that longtime faculty members provide their institutions. — Ruth Hammond