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Lida K. Barrett wins MAA Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics Citation

Lida K. Barrett’s solid mathematical background and her ability to get at the heart of problems and to find bold solutions led her into positions in mathematical policy: as a senior administrator at several universities, as President of the Mathematical Association of America, as Senior Staff Associate at the National Science Foundation, and as Professor of Mathematics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To this day, she continues to serve on many committees and boards and to contribute to mathematics, to mathematics education, and to increasing the participation of members of underrepresented groups in mathematics.

Her first administrative role was in 1973 as Head of the Mathematics Department at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the first female department head in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of the first women to head a doctoral mathematics program. (It was not until 1970, after her husband’s death, that she was able to hold a tenured position — becoming only the third female full professor in the college.)

As Associate Provost at Northern Illinois University (NIU), Dr. Barrett formed a Blue Ribbon Committee to review the entire undergraduate experience. She next served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi State University. In these positions, she remained an active supporter of the MAA Illinois and Louisiana-Mississippi Sections, respectively.

Lida Barrett served on the MAA’s Audit and Budget Committee from 1984 until 1989 when she became President-Elect of the Association. She advocated keeping the MAA headquarters at its current location and supporting its historical preservation. As the second female president of the MAA, Barrett sought to increase minority membership and involvement in the MAA and within the mathematics community. She helped initiate and/or enhance MAA programs and committees highlighting minority interests. She supported national awareness initiatives such as Mathematics Awareness Week (later Mathematics Awareness Month) and strengthened the relationship between the MAA and the AMS that remains to this day.

Throughout her life, Professor Barrett has championed the causes of the teaching and learning of exemplary mathematics in the schools and colleges of our nation and of increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in mathematics. In 1988-1989 she served as a member of the Committee on the Mathematical Sciences in the Year 2000 (a committee of the National Academy of Sciences) and in 1989-1992, as a member of the Mathematical Science Education Board. Through her work at the National Science Foundation as Senior Staff Associate for PreCollege Education for the Directorate of Education and Human Resources (EHR), she helped develop and sharpen EHR’s investments in K-12 science and mathematics education. She contributed to a ramped-up K-12 effort at NSF and was instrumental in developing the K-12 subgroup report that became part of the Federal Government’s first five-year plan (1994-1998) as laid out in the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET) report. At NSF she organized three major national, invitational conferences on science and technology education, which provided important tools for moving NSF to the forefront of national education initiatives in areas of mathematics, science, engineering, and technology.

Dr. Barrett later went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where she taught undergraduate mathematics and was involved in the professional development of the Academy’s instructors.

Lida Barrett received her Bachelor’s degree from Rice University at the age of 18, but her interest in mathematics began much sooner as a member of her junior high school mathematics team in Texas. Perhaps her concern for the plight of women and minority students in mathematics dates back to her college days. When she arrived as a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Texas, she and Mary Ellen Rudin were the only female graduate students. She met and married a fellow graduate student, John H. Barrett, and after he accepted a position at the University of Delaware she commuted to the University of Pennsylvania to continue her graduate study. Although her mathematical development was influenced by R. L. Moore, she finished her Ph.D. under John Kline at the University of Pennsylvania. She suffered from the effects of the “anti-nepotism” rules that plagued many women for many decades until they were slowly abandoned during the 1970’s and ’80’s. But she persevered, saying “You take the hand that’s dealt you; you look at the challenges that are there, and you meet them, head on.” Her husband died at an early age, leaving her with a family of three children to raise while she pursued a rigorous career in mathematics. All of these experiences made her an exemplary mentor and role model for many young women in mathematics.

It is a pleasure to present her with the 2008 Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics.

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