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EPADEL:A Semisesquicentennial History, 1926-2000

Section 8.4 Profile: Gerald Joseph Porter

Jerry Porter’s introduction to the MAA was pure serendipity. It occurred when David Rosen asked him to teach a seminar on algebraic topology at Swarthmore. That is how the two EPADEL stalwarts got to know each other. Rosen was the MAA governor at the time and he nominated Porter for the section’s Executive Committee. The rest is, as they say, “history”. In looking back over his 30 years of service to the MAA, Porter remarked, “I have a quote from Kundera on my wall that says, ‘An individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence ... into a motif, which then assumes a permanent position in the composition of the individual’s life.’ (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) That pretty much describes my MAA experience.”
And that pretty much describes the final EPADEL leader to be profiled.
Gerald Joseph Porter is a New Jersey native, born in Elizabeth on February 27, 1937, the son of Fred and Tillie Florence (Friedman) Porter. He attended Princeton University, graduating with an A.B. in mathematics in 1958. Then he enrolled in the graduate program at Cornell, earning a Ph.D. in 1963 for a dissertation on Whitehead products, the first written under the supervision of future AMS 1  president William Browder. Algebraic topology and homotopy theory, especially homotopy operations, would dominate his research during the first part of his career.
Porter married Judith Deborah Revitch, who then transferred to Cornell. Today she is a professor of sociology at Bryn Mawr College. The couple has three children – Daniel, Rebecca, and Michael.
Upon graduation Porter went to MIT for two years as an instructor. Although he accepted an assistant professorship at Penn in 1965, he spent his first year on leave as a post-doctoral student at Brandeis on a fellowship from the Office of Naval Research. He has remained at Penn ever since, except for the year 1969- 1970 spent at the Institute for Advanced Study. He was promoted to associate professor in 1969 and to full professor in 1975.
The year 1971 marked Porter’s entry into administration, as he chaired the undergraduate affairs division of the mathematics department for the next two years. From 1981 to 1991 he was the associate dean for computing at Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. He was elected chair of the Faculty Senate in 1992, which meant that he served a three-year term in office (chair elect for one year, chair the next, and then past chair).
In 1983, Porter joined the MAA Investment Committee and this led to his election to the MAA Finance Committee in 1986 and his subsequent election as treasurer of the national association in 1992 and reelection in 1998. He will leave this position in January 2002. He has been a member of the Board of Governors since 1986. As a member of the Finance Committee and then as treasurer he has served ex-officio on the Audit Committee, Budget Committee, Building Committee, Publications Management Committee, Committee on Meetings and the Committee on Management Evaluation and Oversight (CMEO). He has chaired the Investment Committee since 1986 and the Committee on Professional Development from 1995 to 2000 as well as the Budget Committee, Committee on Meetings, and CMEO. In 2000 Doris Schattschneider and he were awarded certificates of appreciation for their role “in the installation of a very special mathematical tiling in the front lobby area” of the MAA headquarters.
Jerry Porter has been a vital cog in EPADEL’s leadership for the past 30 years, beginning as a panel participant at the section’s 1970 meeting. He was elected to a three-year term on the Executive Committee five years later. In 1979 he was the program chair for the spring meeting held at Penn, and the following year he was elected to a three-year term as governor. In 1980 he also presented a perspicacious address on “The future of the MAA”. Two years later he gave a 30-minute presentation on “Linear algebra in computer graphics” at the spring meeting and moderated a panel discussion on CUPM recommendations at the fall meeting. He has served on numerous nomination and program committees and is currently the EPADEL Webmaster.
The spring EPADEL meetings in 1993 and 1995 saw joint presentations with David Hill on interactive linear algebra texts. Sponsored by a FIPSE grant, this pair developed an interactive text that was published by Springer-Verlag in 1996 under the title Interactive Linear Algebra.
Porter’s work on interactive texts is but one point in a long line of activity regarding the role of computers in undergraduate education. We pursue the outline of this line to show that life is really a journey rather than a sequence of isolated events. The journey began in the summers of 1955 and 1956, when Porter worked in a large insurance company that had just gotten its first computer, an IBM 650. This led to a summer job with IBM in 1957 writing subroutines to calculate trig functions and a part time job during the academic year at the Institute for Advanced Studies as the night operator of the Von Neumann computer. For his Princeton senior thesis his advisor, Harold Kuhn, proposed a set of initial states and wanted to know which one provided the best way to begin, so Porter used the Ford-Fulkerson algorithm to solve linear programming problems on an electronic computer. (In so doing, Porter may have been the first Princeton undergraduate to use a computer on his senior thesis.)
However, that was the end of Porter’s involvement with computers or computing for another ten years. Then at a colloquium party in 1968, Herb Wilf and he decided that each of them would teach a section of computer calculus, a new undertaking for the Penn math department. Porter’s goal was to use the computer not simply as a computational engine but as a tool to help students get a deeper understanding of the mathematics. That theme has persisted in his use of the computer in undergraduate mathematics.
By 1973 Penn’s mathematics department had received an ILI grant that provided typewriter terminals to the computer, which was a major step forward. Even though the programs still ran in “batch mode” the turnaround was hours instead of days. Eventually it became minutes. It became clear to Porter that “printer graphics” were completely inadequate for showing the mathematics he wanted to show, so he applied for, and received, an NSF grant for graphic terminals. This led him to organize, and speak at, the 1979 EPADEL spring meeting on computer graphics.
With the advent of the Apple II microcomputer the following year, Porter saw at once that educational uses on the mainframe were obsolete. He applied for an NSF grant to increase substantially the number of microcomputers on campus and to provide support for faculty to develop programs for their use in education, but by 1981 a change in presidential priorities essentially put NSF out of the education business. Nonetheless, Porter’s involvement in the proposal led the dean to ask him to be the second associate dean for computing in the School of Arts and Sciences. Porter served in that position for ten years. This activity caused MAA president Lynn Steen to ask him to chair CCIME, resulting in a spate of talks around the country on the use of computers in undergraduate mathematics education. In 1989 he organized the EPADEL spring meeting on “The role of Computer Algebra Systems in teaching mathematics”.
Porter left the dean’s office after 10 years but he continued his involvement in this area with the MAA. One grant provided equipment and support for the Interactive Mathematics Text Project. This led to the interactive text with David Hill. Of course Porter’s activities did not stop there. Since then he has helped the MAA begin the math digital library, MathDL, that now includes the journal he dubbed JOMA, the Journal of Online Mathematics and Its Applications.