Celebratio Mathematica

Thomas Milton Liggett

Some remarks on Tom Liggett’s contribution
to excellence in teaching

by Yiannis N. Moschovakis

Tom was the col­league I ad­mired most, for his equal com­mit­ment to — and ex­cel­lence in — both re­search and teach­ing, and for his choice to work in a large, urb­an pub­lic uni­versity like UCLA, so dif­fer­ent from the small, private, lib­er­al arts schools where he had stud­ied. He con­trib­uted im­mensely to the dra­mat­ic im­prove­ment of our De­part­ment — in both re­search and teach­ing — in the fifty+ years he spent here.

About Tom’s view of the im­port­ance of ex­cel­lent teach­ing in a pub­lic uni­versity, I re­call our ef­fort in 1985 (or ’86) to lower the teach­ing load for the reg­u­lar fac­ulty: it had been set to 5 quarter courses when we moved to the quarter sys­tem in 1965, and the pro­pos­al, 20 years later, was to bring it down to 4.5 and also of­fer some teach­ing re­lief for ex­tras (su­per­vising doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tions, ad­min­is­trat­ive work, etc.). This would, in ef­fect, bring the av­er­age teach­ing load down to 4 courses per year. There were some doubts wheth­er the Ad­min­is­tra­tion would let us get away with it, but we had re­ceived some friendly sig­nals; and, nat­ur­ally, there was very strong, un­ques­tion­ing sup­port for the scheme from the fac­ulty — ex­cept for Tom: he wanted to be con­vinced that we could do it without hurt­ing the teach­ing pro­gram, ex­cept for a (small) in­crease in the size of classes which was con­ceded right up front. He spent sev­er­al hours with me chal­len­ging and im­prov­ing plaus­ible class sched­ules, tak­ing in­to ac­count fac­ulty leaves, the avail­able classrooms and lec­ture halls, etc. In the end he sup­por­ted the pro­pos­al; which was ap­proved, to a large ex­tent be­cause of the im­prove­ments he had pushed for.

Much later, when he was Un­der­gradu­ate Vice Chair in 2004–06, he ap­proached me one day in the cor­ridor and asked me dir­ectly, out of the blue, if the one Up­per Di­vi­sion (UD) class in Lo­gic that was (then) reg­u­larly offered each year was enough or wheth­er we could use a second one. I re­call be­ing startled and mum­bling some ver­sion of as­sent, and then he asked for the lo­gic group to make a con­crete pro­pos­al for the Un­der­gradu­ate Stud­ies Com­mit­tee, which we did, and they ac­cep­ted, and we have been teach­ing two UD lo­gic classes every year since then. There was noth­ing spe­cial about lo­gic, of course: I learned later that he had ad­ded courses in sev­er­al fields where the De­part­ment had strong re­search groups.

Bey­ond his con­tri­bu­tions to re­search and teach­ing, Tom was one of the friend­li­est, genu­inely nicest per­sons I have known, al­ways will­ing to help and nev­er dis­par­aging the work of oth­ers. It has been a priv­ilege to have been his col­league and his friend.

Yi­an­nis Moschova­kis is Pro­fess­or Emer­it­us of the UCLA De­part­ment of Math­em­at­ics and of the De­part­ment of Math­em­at­ics at the Uni­versity of Athens, Greece.