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UC Berkeley Press Release

Leon Henkin, advocate for diversity in math & science, has died

– Leon A. Henkin, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, who labored much of his career to boost the number of women and underrepresented minorities in the upper echelons of mathematics, died of natural causes at his Oakland home on Nov. 1. He was 85.

Leon Henkin
Leon Henkin (George Bergman photo)

Colleagues said Henkin was a social activist who in the 1960s noticed that mathematically talented women and minority undergraduates were not pursuing math or math-related careers in college. He spearheaded the formation in 1964 of the Special Scholarships Committee at UC Berkeley, comprised of Nobel laureates and top campus scholars, to study the problem and establish special opportunity scholarships for disadvantaged students.

The program, which started out preparing high school students to succeed in college and supporting them with Special Opportunity Scholarships, served as a model for the federal Upward Bound Program, which was founded a year or two later, and for programs that sprang up at universities around the country, according to Henkin's former student, Uri Treisman, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas, Austin. Treisman is executive director of that campus's Charles A. Dana Center, which sets K-12 standards for Texas schools.

"Today, there are several hundred programs aimed at ethnic minority students and poor white students, and Henkin's model has become a dominant one," Treisman said. "It affected the then-new movement to diversify engineering schools, for example, providing a core insight for them."

Henkin was chair of the Special Scholarships Committee for many years, and stepped down after more than 40 years as a member only a year ago, though the committee designated him a "permanent guest member."

Henkin and Treisman discovered in the mid-1970s that talented high school students often failed to succeed in college because of unfamiliarity with the college environment and uncertainty about what was required to succeed in science and math. In 1974, they set up the Professional Development Program to address these problems, focusing on students in mathematics and math-related fields. Among the strategies they developed was to encourage group study as well as solo study; and to tell students with "rock solid clarity" what is expected in order to succeed.

"We realized that what these kids needed was not a remedial program, but an honors program," said Treisman. "That's what we created, and we produced a lot of kids who went on to become math majors and get Ph.Ds."

The program proved so successful at promoting academic achievement among high-achieving minority undergraduates that it spawned clones throughout the campus. These programs were combined in 1992 and became the Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering, which is still going strong today. The coalition received the 1998 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Bill Clinton.

In 1989, Henkin and Treisman also instituted the Summer Mathematics Program, which brought talented undergraduate math majors to campus for workshops on hot new areas of mathematics. The program, which ran for 10 years, was a success, but funding eventually ran out.

After Proposition 209 passed in 1996 and racial or ethnic preferences in UC's admissions process were forbidden, Henkin remained optimistic, even when talented disadvantaged high schoolers turned down admission to UC because of an alleged unfriendly atmosphere, said Caroline Kane, head of the coalition.

Henkin would "heave a deep sigh, shake his head, then say, 'We just have to tell them to come here for graduate school,'" said Kane, UC Berkeley professor in residence of molecular and cell biology.

In 1983, Henkin also played a central role in development of the Bay Area Mathematics Project, an early collaboration linking students, teachers, parents, administrators and community leaders to improve the teaching of math in the schools. He pushed this idea nationally, fathering the American Mathematics Project with the same goals.

"Few individuals of our era have had a grater impact on the health of American mathematics than has Leon Henkin," read a tribute to Henkin in 1990 upon his receipt of the first Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Distinguished Service to Mathematics Award of the Mathematical Association of America. "He was one of the pioneers to recognize the importance of mathematicians involving themselves actively in the improvement of mathematics education at all levels."

Henkin also led, with UC Berkeley statistics professor David Blackwell, a 1989 study of math literacy in the U.S. commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Part of an effort dubbed Project 2061, their report advocated sweeping changes in math education, including less rote memorization of mathematical rules and a more engaging and lively exploration of concepts and processes that explain the world around us.

Henkin came to UC Berkeley in 1953, having already established his reputation in the field of logic with a "brilliant" doctoral dissertation in which he produced a radically new proof of the fundamental Gödel completeness theorem, according to logician John W. Addison, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of mathematics. This theorem states that the axioms and rules of inference of basic ("first-order") logic are complete, that is, that they are sufficient to prove all logically valid sentences within the logic.

"The proof was recognized by leading logicians to be extremely original as well as shorter and easier to understand than Gödel's original proof," said Addison. "It was based on a new technique, involving the use of so-called 'Henkin constants,' that became and remains one of the fundamental tools used in the branch of logic known as 'model theory,' now one of the four leading branches of mathematical logic."

Henkin also brought the tools of algebra to the study of logic, co-authoring the major work "Cylindric Algebras" (1971) with J. Donald Monk and Alfred Tarski. The late Tarski, a UC Berkeley math professor and one of the great logicians, helped build the campus into what many consider the world's leading center of mathematical logic, and Henkin was his first major hire.

Henkin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 19, 1921, the son of immigrant Russian Jews. He earned a B.A. in mathematics and philosophy from Columbia University in 1941, and an M.A. in 1942 and a mathematics Ph.D. in 1947 from Princeton University, where his dissertation supervisor was the famous logician Alonzo Church.

During World War II, he worked in industry for the Manhattan Project, first as a mathematician for the Signal Corps Radar Laboratory in Belmar, New Jersey; then in New York City on the design of an isotope diffusion plant; and finally, as head of the separation performance group at Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

After completing his Ph.D. and two years of post-doctoral work at Princeton, he moved west in 1949 to the University of Southern California's math department before joining the UC Berkeley faculty in 1953. Henkin declined an earlier invitation to come to UC Berkeley because of the required loyalty oath, which was declared unconstitutional in 1953.

He achieved the rank of full professor in 1958 and retired in 1991.

Henkin served several years as vice chairman of the Department of Mathematics, three times as acting chairman, and from1984-85 as chairman. From 1959-60, he served as the first chair of UC Berkeley's pioneering interdisciplinary Group in Logic and the Methodology of Science. And from 1973-75, he was associate director of the Lawrence Hall of Science, a science museum and education research center at UC Berkeley.

Addison, a former longtime chair of the Department of Mathematics, described Henkin's teaching as truly exceptional. "His writing and teaching were both characterized by extraordinary clarity," he said, "and his enthusiasm for the importance and the beauty of mathematics and logic made a lasting effect on several generations of students."

He was the first recipient of the Leon Henkin Citation for Distinguished Service, presented to a UC faculty member for "exceptional commitment to the educational development of students from groups who are underrepresented in the academy."

Henkin was passionate in his support of many organizations, such as the campus's Young Musicians Program, which helps talented yet less advantaged musicians, as well as Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy, Doctors Without Borders and the Oakland Museum.

Henkin is survived by his wife, Ginette (Potvin) Henkin of Oakland; sons, Julian of New York City and Paul of San Diego; and sister, Estelle Kuhn of New York City.

A memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Bancroft Hotel, 2680 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Contributions in Henkin's memory should be sent to the campus's Professional Development Program, through the online Give to Cal site or at 230-B Stephens Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-5881, or to Doctors Without Borders.