The Department of Mathematics and Statistics: Beginnings and Mission
“Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”― Thomas A. Edison
The University of Jaffna began functioning as the sixth campus of the University of Ceylon in 1974. The first intake to the Faculty of Science was in October 1974, which was then situated in the Undergraduate Section of Jaffna College. The first head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics was Professor P. Kanagasabapathy who came from the Peradeniya Campus (now University of Peradeniya). University of Jaffna was the first to start a degree course in Statistics. The first Professor of Statistics was J. Balan Selliah who was previously attached to Jaffna College. Professor V. Tharmaratnam who specialised in Algebra, and had previously taught in the Colombo Campus (now University of Colombo), joined the Jaffna Campus in 1976. The Jaffna Campus became the University of Jaffna in 1978.
The Campus being new, the new staff worked hard to make it outstanding. Prof. Kanagasabapathy’s selfless dedication left a strong impression on those who studied under him. He strongly believed that the foundations were of utmost importance to the development of a mathematician and insisted that beginners should be taught by the more experienced hands. Some of the early staff members were Miss. Ponnuthurai and Mr. Malgadeen, who made the students feel at ease, and Mr. Varatharajaperumal was a highly respected teacher of Statistics, who instilled the basics very firmly. Mr. Mahinan later became the head of department and served through difficult times until his passing away in 2008. Prof. Tharmaratnam whose counsel was always important was with us until his retirement in 2001, and continues to teach courses in the department.
At the start, a third of the students were Sinhalese. The Campus faced a crisis during the August 1977 communal violence. The staff and students saw to the protection of the Sinhalese students and ensured their safe conduct to the South. From that time until 2010, Sinhalese students were not admitted to the University. It was a blow to the University as a place where different views and political persuasions could be aired and discussed openly.
Computer Science was introduced as a subject in the early 1980s by Dr. S. Kanaganathan and became a separate department in 1989.
The onset of the civil war in the early 1980s resulted in rising insecurity and saw the departure of several senior academics. Few who went abroad for doctoral studies returned. Yet paradoxically, Jaffna continued to have one of the strongest departments of Mathematics in the country and, but for the war, would have kept this position.
From the late 1980s onwards, the main challenge was to maintain existing courses and those left behind laboured to ensure this. Once more the Department has an opportunity to work for goals that suffered during the war years. One is to get back to Prof. Kanagasabapathy’s ideal of instilling strong foundations.
In Lanka, we had the good fortune of inheriting a strong Mathematical tradition, which we need to preserve and strengthen. In developed countries, and especially North America, maintenance of this tradition has become a pressing issue for the future direction of education. In the past, strong grounding in the Mathematical tradition was founded on Euclidian Geometry, Calculus and Algebra and students were encouraged to work many problems on their own. Quite mistakenly, persons drawing up curricula began to think that education should be job oriented and designed for easy learning. The value of analytical skills and hard work was taken out of it.
The crisis for Mathematics has been aggravated in this country by the inexplicable delay from the O Levels to the university. Ideally it should be not longer than two years, but here it takes nearly four years or more. Someone who gets a pure science degree at the age of 21 has many options for further study and careers. Unfortunately the pressure of advancing age is to take job-oriented courses where the intellectual development is limited, and consequently a reluctance to take Mathematics, especially Pure Mathematics.
We wish that those of you who have the patience and confidence in your ability would opt to specialize in Mathematics. Mathematics, it has been said by Carl Friedrich Gauss, is the Queen of Sciences. If we fail to protect the tradition of Mathematics, it would lead to decay in all other sciences. Path-breaking ideas often come from Pure Mathematics. You also need patience. We began with a quote from Edison. To cite him once more: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.” That is the kind of patience you need for Mathematics, where the satisfaction in discovery or in getting to the bottom of something hard, is correspondingly great.
In upholding standards, the contribution of students is no less important than that of teachers. Teachers could at best guide, but the hard work is yours. You must go to the Library, master your subject matter and feel challenged to learn more. When there is no communication between the teacher and the student, the activity of learning becomes moribund. When you go to a teacher with a difficulty, it is challenging and encouraging to the teacher, who often sees something he has not noticed before. When students do not work tutorials or problems on their own, and rely exclusively on what has been worked on the board, there is pressure on the system, and on us, to lower standards. And what is in the syllabus may not be a reflection on the standard of the degree or what our graduates are capable of.
While we will endeavour to enrich your learning experience, do keep in mind that you play an important role in upholding a strong Mathematical tradition and the value of the degree with which you will soon go out into the world. We are a poor country with meagre resources. You do not need costly laboratories for Mathematics. Most of the labour is performed by your intellect. Our Mathematical tradition helped many to go to other countries and shine. Many of our graduates shone in the applied sciences in foreign universities because their basic Mathematics was sound.