In Memoriam: William L. Duren Jr.

William Larkin Duren Jr., former dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia from 1955 to 1962 and University Professor until he retired in 1976, pioneering work profoundly influenced the national development of higher education, died April 4, 2008, in Charlottesville. He was 102.

Born in Mississippi, Duren attended Tulane University, where he majored in mathematics, played on the football team and was a star athlete in track, winning the Southeastern Conference championship in the high hurdles. He did graduate work in mathematics at the University of Chicago, writing a doctoral thesis in calculus of variations under the direction of G. A. Bliss. At Chicago with Duren was his wife-to-be from New Orleans, Mary Hardesty, a graduate student in zoology. They obtained their Ph.D. degrees in the same Chicago commencement in 1930 and were married in 1931.

They lived in New Orleans while he taught at Tulane. They spent the year 1936-37 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he was assistant to Marston Morse on calculus of variations in the large. There he became acquainted with a number of leading scientists such as Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann and Albert Einstein, and he formed friendships with younger mathematicians who became important colleagues as his career progressed.

During the Second World War, Duren served the Army Air Corps as a civilian scientist, working in an operations analysis group based in Colorado Springs. In collaboration with military personnel at various locations, he devised and implemented improved strategies for flexible gunnery and bombing. In later years he would view that experience as the turning point of his career.

From the success of his war work he discovered that his talents lay more in general science and administrative skills than in mathematics alone. Appointed chairman of the Tulane Mathematics Department in 1947, he obtained a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to establish a Ph.D. program that became a model for other such programs in the South. Seeing a need for curriculum reform at the undergraduate level, he worked through the Mathematical Association of America to form the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics, which operated for over 10 years and brought about substantial improvements in curricula throughout the country.

In 1952-53, Duren was in Washington as the first program director in mathematics at the National Science Foundation. Under his leadership, the NSF made grants to establish new Ph.D. programs and funded a series of national summer institutes to help faculty members improve their mathematical skills. Two years later, Duren was elected President of the Mathematical Association of America.

In 1955, he left Tulane to become dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. As dean he worked closely with President Colgate Darden to begin a transformation of the University to high academic standing. He was instrumental in negotiating new admissions policies that led to a dramatic increase in the graduation rate, creating the first undergraduate library (Clemons Library, still in use), founding the Echols Scholars program to attract and nurture superior students and bringing racial integration to the College. Upon leaving the deanship in 1962, he was appointed the first University Professor, allowing him to move to the School of Engineering, where he formed a new Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. As dean and later, he fought for admission of women to the College, a battle that was finally won in 1970.

After retirement in 1976, and up to two months before his death, he continued to live in his home in Charlottesville, writing historical articles for mathematicians, humorous essays about his Mississippi boyhood and life in New Orleans, and more serious essays. One, written at age 97, proposed an interdisciplinary graduate degree in Arts and Sciences generally, as an antidote to the over-specialization he saw in today’s Ph.D. programs. Another, which he delivered as a colloquium lecture to the U.Va. mathematics department on the occasion of his 100th birthday, surveyed his career as a scientific generalist based in mathematics, with observations on luminaries he had known and on the changes wrought by revolutionary scientific developments in his lifetime.

After the death of his wife Mary in 1998, he resumed overseas travel, regularly attended weekly seminars in operator theory presented by the mathematics department and continued exercising three times a week at U.Va.’s Cardiac Rehab and Wellness Center, a habit he maintained for the last 20 years of his life, past age 102. It was to his friends at Cardiac Rehab that he addressed most of his essays, which took the form of annual birthday letters from age 90 through 101.

A memorial celebration will be held in Charlottesville on June 21.  Memorial contributions in his name may be made to the Mathematical Association of America, 1529 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

— from Peter Duren