UF's Larson is a consensus builder


Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 12:55 a.m.
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Mathematics professor Jean Larson recently joined the UF board of trustees.

(ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun)
The voice of the University of Florida Faculty Senate has had a softer tone in recent months, since mathematics professor Jean Larson was voted chair early last summer.
The soft-spoken Larson said she has "a different leadership style" than past chairs, professors Richard Briggs and Joe Layon.
By virtue of a constitutional amendment passed in November, Larson recently joined the UF board of trustees.
Larson's immediate two predecessors as Faculty Senate chairs were quick to criticize the university administration when differences presented themselves, to the occasional dismay of Tigert Hall.
"I have a more of a collegial leadership style," said Larson, 56, adding that she sees herself as "a consensus builder."
"One thing I share with my predecessors is an understanding that to make decisions it's important for everyone to have good information available," she said.
Larson is an active member of Gainesville's Quaker congregation, where, rather than having a sermon Sunday mornings, the members sit in silence, listening for divine guidance.
Occasionally, when a member feels moved to speak, he or she shares with the group. But sometimes the whole hour passes in silence.
"I like to start by listening," Larson said, "and trying to see things from all sides before making a decision."
A math pioneer Larson grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley during the tumultuous '60s, from 1964 to 1968.
"The free speech movement was in full swing; there was wonderful music everywhere," Larson said. "It was an exciting time to be at the University of California."
Originally intending to become a high school teacher, Larson earned a math degree with a minor in English. But while she was at Berkeley, Larson said her logic professor, John Addison, "saw something" in her, and encouraged her to go to graduate school.
After earning a master's degree at Berkeley, she went on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Dartmouth College. At the time, the undergraduate student body was all-male.
While a doctoral student at Dartmouth, Larson said she experienced a quiet, understated type of sexism. While she was the first woman to earn a Ph.D., others before her had tried and failed.
"(My professors) would express hope that I would succeed, but it was always in the context that no one ever had - this strange sense of hopeful expectation laced with doubt," Larson said.
"One of my fellow students did express to me that 'Maybe they should stop admitting women if they weren't going to succeed.' "
Asked to describe her dissertation and area of research in mathematics, Larson prefaced her answer by saying she has tried and failed on a number of occasions to explain that very thing to her father, who has a degree in engineering from MIT.
"I work in combinational set theory describing infinite analogues of the party problem," Larson said.
The original party problem is this: What is the smallest number of people you would need to invite to a party to guarantee there are either three people all of whom have met before or else three, no two of whom have met before?
Look away if you don't want to see the answer, which is six.
The numeric answer, and the complexity of the party problem, grows as the constraints on the guests are increased.
"I don't think people appreciate how much fun math can be," Larson said. "I like doing something creative, and mathematics is very creative."
As more people realize that, the limited history of women in math will change, Larson said.
Math "is mostly a male environment," she said.
"But you see more and more women students in the math classes."
Active in congregation Outside of mathematics, Larson said she enjoys ballroom dancing with her husband and fellow math professor William Mitchell.
She also devotes time outdoors helping to stop the spread of invasive exotic plants in Gainesville.
"I spend almost every weekend trying to inhibit the reproductive success of air potatoes," she said.
Recently she's been focusing most of that attention on the 8.2 acre site of the future Quaker meeting house near Royal Park Cinema. On Saturdays, she picks up the round fruit of the Dioscorea bulbifera vine, which shades out and kills native plants - including mature trees.
"She is very, very active in the congregation," said Connie Ray, the reporting clerk of the Gainesville Friends meeting. "She has been presiding clerk, ministry and oversight clerk and is now clerk of the building committee."
Describing Larson's work as chair of the committee planning the new building, Ray said "She is very mindful of everyone's point of view."
"She is so skilled at getting people with divergent views to come together and see each other's side of things," Ray said.
"Whenever we can all come together and agree on something, she will celebrate it, no matter how small," Ray added. "When we were able to agree on what kind of walls we wanted, she said, 'Yeah, we agreed on something.' "
Larson said she has been bringing her consensus building skills to bear as chair of the Faculty Senate, moving forward on encouraging UF's employment policies to be "more family-friendly," and increasing the voice of faculty in university governance.
"There's no question that Jean is not in your face, the way I was and the way Richard was as chair," said one of her predecessors, Layon. "It strikes me that part of the strength of the senate is there are different styles that can carry along the changes that have to happen.
"Jean is extremely bright, very soft-spoken but equally articulate. She's one of those analytical kinds of people who sees things from six different sides," Layon said.
As the new board of trustees passed sweeping rules changes to conform to the new change in state governance, Larson may have been the exact right person to have in charge, Layon said.
Working with other senators, Larson helped scrutinize the new rules to make sure the faculty were not going to be injured in any way by the changes, Layon said.
On the UF board of trustees, she's a member of its educational policy and finance committees.
"I think it will be very nice to have a seat at the table and I look forward to being a faculty voice," Larson said.
"I feel like I have the whole university behind me."
Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or millerc@ gvillesun.com.

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