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Charles Wexler arrived at ASU in 1930, started mathematics department.
Award provides shot of confidence to winners who go on to professional success.
April 4, 2017

Contributions to students, faculty and ASU remembered at a 40th anniversary celebration and awards ceremony

Charles Wexler did not believe in muddling classes with tests. Class time was for learning. Testing — a far lesser pursuit — was for Saturdays.

The legendary founding chairman of Arizona State University’s math department was respected for his intellectual and academic rigor by his colleagues. His students also respected him, mixed with a splash of fear.

Matt Hassett, now professor emeritus of mathematics at ASU, said a former student once told him that Wexler knew he was a B student and that's what he gave him — when he was the top student in the class.

“This was not a complaint, but a statement of affection and admiration,” added Hassett.

Wexler and his contributions to students, faculty and the university’s math program will be remembered at a 40th anniversary lunch celebration and awards ceremony Friday.

The Charles Wexler Awards honor an outstanding faculty member and an outstanding student with the Charles Wexler Teaching Award and Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize. The awards are the highest honor a student or faculty member can receive from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

This year’s ceremony will bring together past winners from all over the country, ranging from a retired MetLife actuary to a data engineer at a Silicon Valley dot.com.  

At the time of Wexler’s retirement, he had served 47 years, the longest period of faculty service in university history.

When he arrived from Harvard in 1930, he was the only math person on campus and had to teach all the math classes for 11 years. During the war years, Wexler started teaching mathematics to Army cadets while at the same time doing crypto-analysis work for the federal Intelligence Department. Pressed for time, he found help in an unlikely source: the school bandmaster, who put down the baton and picked up the chalk, stepping into the role of math teacher.

Back in 1956-1957, his son Jon Wexler was a sophomore at Arizona State College taking an advanced calculus course from his father.

“It was an interesting development,” Jon Wexler said. “In that course the first semester I got an A. The second semester I got a B. He was known as a hard grader. I had no problem with either grade.”

The next semester Jon Wexler took the first digital computer programming course ever offered at ASU. “I found it more interesting than advanced calculus,” he said.

The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is located in Wexler Hall, historically known as the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center. Wexler Hall was built in the late 1960s under then-department chair Evar Nering.

“When the mathematics building was completed, it was the gem of the campus,” Nering said in 2015. “In my opinion it still is.”

Cover of program from building dedication

Program cover from the building dedication and first Wexler Awards ceremony in 1978.

The building was dedicated in 1977, the year Wexler retired and later died.

Wexler was a lifetime learner.

“When I was a new young prof in 1966, he sat in on my graduate course in mathematical logic simply to learn something new,” Hassett said.

Late in life, Wexler became interested in meteorology, his son recalled, amassing a small library on the subject.

Wexler may have been a lion in the classroom, but he was a lamb at home, his son said.

“My mother and father had what I would say was an ideal marriage,” Jon Wexler said. “It lasted 50 years. I was their only child. Thinking back in marital situations there are oftentimes heated arguments, and that was never the case with my parents. To my knowledge, they never had heated arguments. They might have had soft arguments in the dark behind closed doors, but never heated arguments. That was not the case for many of my contemporaries. It was a fine model of a marriage.”

The Wexler awards were originated and endowed by the family. A suggestion from Professor Emeritus Alan Feldstein — who wanted to honor his colleague, “the late, great Professor Charles Wexler” — led to the addition of the student prize. 

“Essentially, my mother and I had been thinking about a teaching award on an annual basis in honor of my father,” Jon Wexler said. “Alan suggested there be an undergraduate prize as well.”

Feldstein received his bachelor's in mathematics in 1954 after studying under Wexler. He earned his doctorate at UCLA. In 1970, he became professional colleagues with his former professor.

The award money never lasts, but for both student and teacher, it provides a boost in confidence that lasts for years.

“I think this is a point of pride for each of them (and an excellent item for their resumes),” said Al Boggess, current director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “There is a cash prize associated to the award, but the cash is spent quickly whereas the pride of winning the top student award lasts a lifetime.”

Hassett, who was the Charles Wexler Teaching Award recipient in 1988, said the award affirmed the value of his commitment to teaching — a personal thing.

“It was nice to get it, but it did not seem to advance my career in terms of pay or promotion,” he said. “I am proud of it, and it hangs on my wall.”

David C. Kaspar is a research training group postdoc in the Division of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He won the prize in 2007.

“The financial generosity of the award had immediate utility in the transition to graduate school, but the greatest impact was the Wexler Award's symbolizing a vote of confidence from ASU Mathematics,” Kaspar said. “Much of a mathematician's time is spent facing challenging problems, which may yield only after months (or more) of steady pressure, and maintaining confidence is vital for sustaining that effort in those times when progress is especially slow. I think this issue is most acute at the earliest stages of one's career, so I am grateful to the Wexler family and ASU Math for selecting me for this honor during this critical period.”

Steven Troxler won the prize in 2009. He is now a data platform engineer at Stitch Fix, a custom-clothing company based in San Francisco. The award inspired him to join a pro bono data-science organization.

“I'd say that the Charles Wexler award has been a big inspiration for me, both before and since receiving it,” Troxler said. “Before I earned the Wexler, I knew a lot of the previous winners and looked up to them. Their success guided me toward making the most of my time at ASU: Without earlier winners like Dave Kaspar to serve as role models, I might not have taken many of the graduate-level courses the department offered or done the undergraduate research and teaching that I was able to do. Since then, it's served as a reminder of how much I've been given by the amazing educators I've known, both at ASU and elsewhere, and how I want to give back.”

The careers of the five Wexler award winners coming to campus for the celebration reflect the diversity of jobs that mathematics and statistics, and the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, helps to train for, Boggess said.

“The careers of these five include an actuary, two academics, an engineer/data scientist, and an educator working for a nonprofit organization,” he said. “All these positions are (presumably) high-paying and professionally rewarding. Labor data indicate that ASU's reputation in mathematics and statistics among employers is very high. A few years ago, we were ranked No. 7 in the country for salary earnings for our graduates.”

The department has come a long way since it enlisted a bandleader to teach math. In 2008-09, it was renamed the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in recognition of a broad focus that encompasses theoretical and applied mathematics, statistics and mathematics education.

Four separate doctoral tracks in these disciplines were started about the same time. In many universities, these disciplines are housed in separate departments and even separate colleges. ASU’s school keeps these disciplines housed under the same umbrella in keeping with the university’s philosophy of fostering multi-disciplinary work between related areas of study.

The Wexler award remains an important tool in recruiting undergrad students.

“I think my father would be very pleased with that,” Jon Wexler said. “My father always enjoyed teaching courses to bright undergraduate students with an interest in mathematics. In that sense the awards have been more than I might have expected.” 

Charles Wexler Awards 40th Anniversary Celebration

When: Friday, April 7. Meet-and-greet at 11:30 a.m. Program begins at 12:00 p.m. 

Where: Old Main, Carson Ballroom, Tempe campus.

Details: Find more information on this and other Wexler Week events at https://math.asu.edu/about/events.

 

Top photo: Charles and Helen Wexler on their 50th wedding anniversary on Aug. 15, 1977, in Tempe.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502

 
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Migrants, women, Natives and the poor among subjects at ASU film festival.
Public invited to free, three-day ASU film fest about human rights.
April 5, 2017

Free 3-day event to feature documentaries on people at risk in the US; panel discussions to feature filmmakers, experts, advocates

Heated rhetoric and finger-pointing dominate U.S. politics and headlines. But what happens to the people whose stories don’t make the news but whose lives are deeply affected by policy choices?

Arizona State University’s Human Rights Film Festival takes a closer look at these overlooked people.

“Film is a powerful way to convey experience,” said festival founder and director LaDawn Haglund. “It transcends an intellectual understanding of an issue to reach people’s hearts.

“With human rights violations, this is so important because statistics and facts make us numb rather than outraged, which is how we must feel — at least momentarily — if we want to create a world where such violations are stopped.”

This year, the free festival features documentaries about issues in the United States, such as the struggles of undocumented immigrants, reproductive rights and conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the history of indigenous struggles over land and resources.

Those topic areas were shaped by the interests of the ASU student team helping to put on the festival, part of a for-credit internship.

For Matt Hernandez, who will graduate next month with a bachelor’s in family and human development with a certificate in human rights, working on the festival increased his interest in the field.

“It’s broadened my scope of topics I’m interested in,” said Hernandez, who will be attending law school to study international law with an emphasis on human rights. “There are things I haven’t considered that fall under the umbrella of human rights — specifically, economic mobility and homelessness.”

The films at the festival will be coupled with Q&A sessions in which audience members will have a chance to speak directly with filmmakers, activists and experts “so they are not simply passive receivers of information,” Haglund said. “This hopefully will also spur people to act in defense of human rights, something the world sorely needs.”

Two panelists of note are U.N. Ambassador Crispin Gregoire, who has worked with the U.N. secretary general on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and who will discuss conflicts over indigenous rights and the extractive industry; and award-winning director Maxim Pozdorovkin, who will discuss his most recent film, “Clinica de Migrantes.”

The festival, now in its seventh year, was conceived as a way to “complement the intellectual learning that students receive with a deeper connection to the people who are suffering in the world,” said Haglund, an associate professorHaglund is also a senior sustainability scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a faculty fellow at the Center for Law and Global Affairs, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation. She talked with ASU Now about human rights and film.

Question: Is there an increasing need to take a closer look at these issues in today’s political environment?

Answer: There is no doubt that the founding principles are still at play today. We have become so numb to the suffering of others that we hardly stop to care, or to feel that it hurts us too. If we can’t feel for others, our whole society is degraded and a politics of hate and division becomes easier to maintain.

Q: What is the power of seeing something on film, as opposed to on the nightly news?

A: We try to choose films that touch the heart, but that also are told objectively. This is not always easy, because in the case of human rights violations, there is often no “equally valid viewpoint” of a violator of human rights. There is something wrong when basic human rights are violated, though it is important to understand what drives these violations. Film can also better convey the complexity of an issue, which is almost impossible in a two-minute news story.

Q: Do you choose the topics first, or the films? 

A: This year, we chose the topics specifically to address human rights violations in the United States. People in this country often believe (falsely) that human rights violations don’t happen here; human rights are for other countries like China and Sudan. But the shameful truth is that millions of people experience conditions on our soil that constitute human rights violations, according to international human rights treaties, conventions and declarations, several of which we have signed. CERD (on racial discrimination) and DRIP (on the rights of indigenous peoples) are two good examples, and violations of both are featured in our lineup of films.

Q: Do documentaries tend, by their nature, to be more skewed toward activism and the liberal end of the spectrum?

A: This is an interesting question. What does it mean to be “liberal”? If believing that human rights should be respected is a liberal concern, then by definition, a human rights film festival is going to be “liberal.” I think calling this “skewed,” however, is like saying believing in the rule of law makes you biased. Bias toward human rights is not a political viewpoint; it is a moral commitment. To say this is skewed is a bogus claim made by people who perhaps have not yet discovered the moral conviction and compassion for the suffering of others to yearn (and fight) for a more just world.

Q: Which of this year’s films surprised you, and why?

A: It is difficult to surprise me with human rights, as I teach about them for a living. However, I will say I was fairly disturbed by the militarization of policing that is documented in “Do Not Resist.” It is such a direct attack on the fundamental civil rights of people who are swept up in the frenzy of SWAT-like policing; all people of sane mind should be disturbed by it. I don’t think people realize how bad it is. Of course, when the main victims are demonized and categorized as deserving of this treatment because of their race or where they live, it is again hard to get people to empathize. Racism has that ugly side that demeans us all.

Q: Which of the films do you predict might stir the most discussion after?

A: I think they all are fairly provocative (or we haven’t done our job). It will depend on who attends, as well, as some people will not accept the reality that is portrayed about immigrants, or abortion, or militarized policing, or poverty and homelessness, or indigenous rights and the destruction of the environments in which Native communities live. But it is good to have these discussions and air the different perspectives so that we can arrive at a place where more sane and humane policies become possible.

Q: One of the main benefits of film festivals is the Q&A after each film, the interaction with the filmmakers and experts themselves. In previous years, what were some memorable post-film discussions?

A: There have been so many memorable moments. The first year we did the festival, we organized a session focused on (former Maricopa County Sheriff) Joe Arpaio’s immigrant raids on businesses. We were fortunate to include a young girl whose parents had been snatched up, as well as her parents! That was very memorable and moving. During the third year, we invited Academy Award-nominated director Mark Kitchell to discuss his wonderful film “A Fierce Green Fire,” about the history of environmental justice movements in the United States. It was a huge crowd, and the discussion was very rich and inspiring.

Q: Can you talk about some of your recent research into the social and political dimensions of sustainability, and how that touches on human rights?

A: My work is on the human right to water, which actually exists in constitutions or laws in many countries. My research examines what happens in difficult urban environments when people’s human right to water and sanitation is violated because of inadequate services, inadequate funding, poverty, or mismanagement, in particular when those claims wind up in court.

It is hard for many of us to imagine what it is like to go without water — think of not being able to shower, ever. Or not having water to flush a toilet. Or not having a toilet at all. These are the real conditions people face in many places, and it is not a matter of opinion whether people should have access to these public goods. It is a moral imperative. But how that actually happens is where it becomes complicated. We had a situation in Flint, Michigan, where people have been denied this basic right, and it will be interesting to see if any of the people responsible for making those communities suffer like that will have to take any responsibility for it.

Q: What do you hope students will take away from the film festival?

A: I hope students can become softer and more open to seeing the consequences of polarization, demonization of “others,” and carelessness in the face of suffering. I hope it will spur them to look deeper than the headlines or their Facebook feeds to understand their society — and to want to make it better. 

 

Human Rights Film Festival

What: A three-day film festival, open to the public, that aims to engage ASU and the greater community in a discussion of human rights issues through film. This year’s event will focus on documentaries about human rights at risk in the United States.

When: 4–6:30 p.m. Friday, April 7; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday, April 8; 10 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 9.

Where: College Avenue Commons auditorium, 660 S. College Ave., Tempe. Find a campus map here.

Admission: Free, and light refreshments will be served.

Details: Find the schedule of films at https://humanrights.asu.edu/content/human-rights-film-festival

 

Top photo: A screenshot "Red Power: Standing Rock, Part II," part of the film collection "Rise." Two episodes of "Rise" will be shown at the festival, including "Red Power." Courtesy of Vice Media

Penny Walker

Senior Editor , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

480-965-9689