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Extraordinary Life: He Had An Outsized Influence On Wesleyan, And Math

10/15/2018 8:05 AM | Anonymous


Bob Rosenbaum was a mathematician with a wry sense of humor and a desire to make math more accessible to all. He taught at Wesleyan University, where he is credited with helping shape it into the prestigious liberal arts institution it is today.

“He was, hands down, the most influential and constructive faculty member at Wesleyan in the second half of the 20th century,” Prof. Karl Scheibe wrote in a college newsletter. “He was a brilliant teacher, a superb athlete, and a voracious student of the life of the mind, of nature, of art and music — with an infectious sense of humor.”

Robert A. Rosenbaum, an emeritus professor of mathematics and the sciences at Wesleyan, died Dec. 3 in Colorado, after moving there in 2013 to be closer to his children. He was 102.

His career at Wesleyan, which began in 1953, encompassed teaching and administration. Although he told an oral biographer that he didn’t think he was very good at administration, he served as dean of sciences, provost, vice-president of academic affairs and acting president, and could have been chosen as president if he had wanted. “He was quite insistent on not becoming head dog permanently,” Scheibe said.

“I never enjoyed the work,” Rosenbaum told friends of administration. “I enjoyed classroom teaching more.”

He became very interested in the way math or arithmetic was taught in high schools, and was the organizing spirit behind PIMMS, or Project to Increase Mastery in Mathematics and Science, which ran summer seminars for math and science high school teachers beginning in 1979.

Along with other faculty members, Rosenbaum proposed that Wesleyan institute graduate programs in math, the sciences and music. He pushed for the construction of a science center, tweaked the curriculum and played a leading role in establishing the Center for African-American Studies and recruited the school’s first professor of African-American studies. “He took the opportunity to make statements about the kind of social justice we are supposed to stand for,” said his son Robert. “He had a very broad idea of what education should contain.”

As an administrator during the years of student protests in the late 1960’s, Rosenbaum was even-handed. Wesleyan was grappling with the recent re-admission of women, an endowment that was endangered, anti-war sentiment, and the anger and disappointment of many African-American students. When students went on strike after the U.S. bombed Cambodia in May 1970, Rosenbaum supported their protests while opposing violence and retaining academic standards.

“He recognized, in the energies of protest, the voice of conscience and the chance to join learning with action,” colleague Richard Ohmann wrote in a tribute in Wesleyan Magazine.

“Bob was at his best … calm, modest, reassuring, listening,” wrote Prof. Nathanael Greene. “As acting president, his was an amazing feat of politics and perseverance.”

Rosenbaum had a subtle British wit that helped defuse tension. At one faculty meeting, a colleague ended his angry remarks with a threat to sue the college. “Bob’s quick response, ‘Thanks. But not very much,’ evoked laughter, even from the potential litigant. That brief remark served its purpose admirably,” Greene said.

Rosenbaum was born on Nov. 14, 1915, and grew up in Milford, where his father taught math at a private school. Joseph Rosenbaum, who was born in Russia, had emigrated to the United States and gone to Yale and earned a Ph.D in math. He used to take Bob on long walks where he would pose complicated math problems, such as “imagine the corners on a dodecahedron” — a solid figure with 12 flat faces. Bob recalled that he would have preferred playing with friends, but he grew to appreciate the challenge.

“My father thought this was a good way of teaching me mathematics, which eventually would become the intellectual field that I enjoyed most,” Rosenbaum told a Wesleyan interviewer. “I thought there could be nothing more beautiful than mathematics, and that I could make anybody see that beauty.”

When Bob Rosenbaum went to Yale at the age of 16 — he had started schooling early and skipped some grades — he majored in math and followed a narrow curriculum consisting mainly of math and science courses. He found Yale difficult: He had little money and felt isolated. He graduated in 1936, and after a fellowship at Cambridge University, he spent two years at Yale doing graduate work, then accepted a fellowship at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he married Louise Johnson, a colleague in the math department.

Because of his math skills, he served as a navigator with the Naval Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He later resumed his studies at Yale and obtained his Ph.D in math in 1947, then returned to teach at Reed, until Victor Butterfield, then the president of Wesleyan, recruited him in 1953 as part of a campaign to strengthen the faculty there.

Rosenbaum became concerned about the quality of the high school math and science courses his students had taken, and started a small summer program to provide professional development for high school teachers. An executive with the General Electric Foundation called Rosenbaum with idea about improving the way high school math and science were taught, and Rosenbaum went down to GE headquarters in Fairfield to talk about it.

Rosenbaum outlined his own ideas on helping teachers gain a better background in their subjects, and walked away with a donation of $200,000 as seed money to improve his program. Rosenbaum directed or guided PIMMS, which grew to include pre-school and elementary school teachers from around Connecticut, from 1979 to 1994. Currently, the program, which has offered summer programs to hundreds of teachers, is being administered by Central Connecticut State University.

Among the courses Rosembaum gave was one called Patterns and Chaos, which he taught along with professors of music, biology and history, “searching for things that defy pattern making, which may be thought of as chaotic.”

Rosenbaum was always interested in athletics, and became a squash player at Yale. He continued to play, and won several national awards in his age group until he outlived the age categories and played until he turned 90. Wesleyan named its squash center for him, and he carried the Olympic torch on its way to Atlanta in 1996. He went rafting at age 83 and hiked in the Rockies at 10,000 feet when he was 100.

After his wife died in 1980, Rosenbaum married Marjorie Rice Daltry, a Wesleyan professor. She died in 2013, and he is survived by his three sons, Robert, Joseph and David, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

He received many honors, including Wesleyan’s Baldwin Medal, and the city of Middletown twice honored him with a Robert A. Rosenbaum Day. He wrote articles in many journals and published three books and was active in professional organizations.

“He was a gifted teacher and loved teaching, said Scheibe. “He’d make the hard parts simple , and made everyone love it.”

“He was interested in absolutely everything,” Greene said. “He always wanted to get something accomplished and knew how to do it.”

The ATOMIC Mission is to ensure that every Connecticut student receives world-class education in mathematics by providing vision, leadership and support to the K-16 mathematics community and by providing every teacher of mathematics the opportunity to grow professionally.

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