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Philip Kutko
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PHILIP KUTZKO Honored for making mathematics more inclusive, a son of the Sixties gains new perspective on the pace of social change.

You might think Philip Kutzko joined the August 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, took the famous "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to heart, and immediately set out to change the world.

But you’d be wrong. After the march, Kutzko simply went back home to New York to attend college.

“I was 16. I had friends of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. President Kennedy was in the White House, and it looked to us that progress was being made,” recalls Kutzko, today a professor of mathematics and a Collegiate Fellow in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Like a lot of other white people, we thought we had turned the corner.”

In time, they realized that achieving equality would demand long-term resolve. Some, like Kutzko and his Department of Mathematics colleagues, took up the cause in their academic and professional lives.

Beginning in the 1990s, UI math faculty launched a program to make their graduate programs more inclusive, earning national attention. Thanks to their work, the department now accounts for 5-10 percent of all U.S. doctoral degrees awarded annually to minority students.

This fall, Kutzko will be honored for his efforts to mentor students from backgrounds underrepresented in graduate-level mathematics. President Barack Obama will present him with the prestigious 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring at a White House ceremony.

Kutzko and other Department of Mathematics faculty shared the same award in 2005. Supported and administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), it was the only such award presented to an academic department that year.

Helping students realize their personal dreams has given Kutzko new insight into an era filled with aspiration.

“The 1960s were a time of great hope, but we misjudged how hard the process of becoming one nation would be,” Kutzko says. “Gradually, we learned it wasn't going to happen quite so fast.”

While events of his youth shaped his worldview and his professional life, Kutzko rediscovered the power of Dr. King’s message and the impact of other March on Washington leaders like Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer, 40 years after the historic event.

“That 40th anniversary triggered something in me. Like many other Americans, I began to think about those 40 years, what progress we had made and what was left for us to accomplish,” Kutzko says. “Since then, I've read everything I can about Dr. King, and he has affected me profoundly these last five years.”

In addition to teaching and mentoring, Kutzko has directed two large-scale NSF projects at Iowa’s public universities. He wrote the grant application that won NSF support for Iowa AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education in the Professoriate) and was the program’s first director. He directs the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences, another NSF-funded project that aims to increase doctoral degrees awarded to students from underrepresented groups.

The recognition for his department’s work is gratifying. Far more powerful, however, is the satisfaction of seeing students succeed and knowing that they, in turn, will influence new generations of scholars.

“Social change, including what we used to call ‘integration’ during the time of the March, is difficult,” he says. “No single action or program can bring about such change. But the passage of time and people's yearning to become one country is helping us get to where we need to be.”

Story by Gary Galluzzo; photo by Tom Jorgensen


September 28, 2009