William Larkin Duren Jr., 102; Dean of Arts, Sciences at Virginia

William L. Duren honed skills as a mathematician and helped to improve gunnery on World War II-era bombers.
William L. Duren honed skills as a mathematician and helped to improve gunnery on World War II-era bombers. (Courtesy Of University Of Virginia)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

William Larkin Duren Jr., 102, a mathematics professor who became dean of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia and influenced a generation of math educators, died April 4 at the U-Va. Hospital in Charlottesville of kidney failure.

In his 21 years at the university, Dr. Duren was considered instrumental in negotiating new admissions policies that led to a dramatic improvement in the graduation rate. He helped create the first undergraduate library and found the Echols Scholars program for academically gifted students. He fought for racial integration at the university and later championed the admission of women on the grounds that female students would improve the academic quality of the student body. Women were admitted in 1970.

As a young man, Dr. Duren had wanted to be a writer but his skill at mathematics led him into that field. He spent 1936 to 1937 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he had an office adjacent to Albert Einstein's. "I knew Einstein, but he didn't know me," he told his family.

After a year surrounded by some of the greatest mathematicians of the century, and after spending World War II working on strategies for improving gunnery on B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers, Dr. Duren discovered he was more of a generalist and moved into administration.

He was "a mentor's mentor," said John Ewing, executive director of the American Mathematical Society. Dr. Duren founded National Science Foundation-sponsored summer institutes for top math teachers, which served to inspire a generation of educators.

"Few real-world problems come neatly packaged in a single academic discipline," Dr. Duren said at a University of Virginia colloquium upon his 100th birthday. "So in subsequent years, I have taken on a variety of multidisciplinary problems, using my mathematician's way of thinking, but not strictly applied mathematics."

Dr. Duren was born Nov. 10, 1905, in Macon, Miss., and as a teenager moved with his family to New Orleans. He graduated from Tulane University, where he played on the football team and won the Southeastern Conference championship in the high hurdles.

He received his master's degree and doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1930. Dr. Duren returned to New Orleans to teach at Tulane, interrupted by his year at Princeton.

During World War II, Dr. Duren served in the Army Air Forces as a civilian scientist, working in an operations analysis group based in Colorado Springs. He flew and became friends with Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., who later piloted the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Returning to Tulane after the war, Dr. Duren became chairman of its mathematics department. He obtained a grant in 1947 that allowed Tulane to set up a doctoral program in math, which became a model for other such programs in the South.

In 1952-53, Dr. Duren became the first program director in mathematics at the National Science Foundation and made grants to establish PhD programs across the nation. He also started a program to boost undergraduate teaching in mathematics.

After integrating the Louisiana-Mississippi meetings of the college mathematics teachers, but frustrated with the financial insecurity and slow pace of change at Tulane, Dr. Duren left in 1955 for the University of Virginia.

U-Va.'s graduate schools had been integrated in 1950 and its professional schools such as engineering and business also admitted African Americans, but admission to the College of Arts and Sciences remained segregated. Dr. Duren, seeking to break down the policy, finally persuaded a black engineering student to transfer in the late 1950s. The college officially desegregated several years later.

Dr. Duren also set up a professorship of creative writing in the English department and supported the department's decision to offer a writer-in-residence job to William Faulkner. When they met at a Charlottesville reception in the late 1950s, Dr. Duren mentioned that he grew up in Mississippi.

"What are they saying about Elvis Presley in Tupelo?" Faulkner asked.

"They are saying, 'I jes' bet you he's makin' a barr'l o' money,' " Dr. Duren told him. "And with a straight face," Dr. Duren later wrote, "Faulkner continued: 'Mo'n two hunnerd a week.' "

When he first became dean, he discovered that although SATs were not required, a large number of incoming students who took them had scores below 500.

"It turned out that they were there to build up the tuition-paying enrollment to a point that would justify the new buildings and facilities that President [Colgate] Darden had installed," Dr. Duren wrote. "Many of them were prep-school graduates who had been rejected by the Ivy League universities. They made fairly good grades in the first year, but their graduation rate was very poor."

By refusing to accept transfer students with low grades and requiring SATs and foreign language proficiency, Dr. Duren slowly raised the quality of the students in his college.

After seven years as dean, he was appointed in 1962 the school's first University Professor, an interdisciplinary post that allowed him to move to the School of Engineering. There he formed a new Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. He retired in 1976 but continued to attend a weekly seminar in operator theory in the mathematics department until early this year.

He was a board member of Analytical Services Inc., a defense think tank.

His wife of 67 years, Mary Hardesty Duren, died in 1998.

Survivors include three children, Peter Duren of Ann Arbor, Mich., Sally Schloemann of Weston, Mass., and David Duren of Silver Spring; and three grandchildren.

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