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Kenneth Hoffman, former math department head, 77

Kenneth Hoffman
Kenneth Hoffman
Photo courtesy / MIT Dept. of Mathematics

Former Department of Mathematics Head Kenneth Hoffman, who spent more than 40 years on MIT's faculty and made significant contributions to U.S. education and science policy, died Sept. 29 following a heart attack. He was 77.

Hoffman, who led the math department from 1971 to 1979, was instrumental in addressing mathematics in U.S. public policy. After stepping down as head of the mathematics department, he moved to Washington, where he directed the David Committee on federal support of mathematical research from 1981 to 1984. He established and ran the math community's first Washington Office of Governmental and Public Affairs from 1984 to 1989. During that time, media coverage of mathematics increased dramatically, according to the American Mathematical Society.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., Hoffman earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Occidental College in 1952. He later received an MA and PhD in mathematics from UCLA.

Hoffman joined the MIT Department of Mathematics as an instructor in 1956. He became a full professor in 1964, and served as chair of the Pure Mathematics Committee from 1968 to 1969. From 1969 to 1971, he directed the Commission on MIT Education, appointed by MIT President Howard Johnson to conduct a comprehensive review of education, research and governance at MIT. He retired in 1996.

Hoffman's area of research specialization was functional analysis. Along with Richard Arens and Isadore Singer, he made fundamental contributions to both complex and abstract analysis. Among them was a paper (with Singer) that answered many of the questions on commutative Banach algebras raised by I. M. Gelfand.

In 1986, the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics awarded Hoffman its first Public Service Award "for his farsighted and effective initiation of the planning and the implementation of a national mathematical science policy."

In 1990, Hoffman also received the first Award for Distinguished Public Service of the American Mathematical Society. Its citation reads in part, "Through his efforts, the awareness of the importance of mathematics and the support of mathematical research has been significantly heightened in the general public, among makers of science policy in the government, and among university administrators."

Hoffman was also a leader in national K-12 education. At the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council he launched a series of initiatives with national impact. These included creation of both the Mathematical Sciences Education Board and the National Science Education Standards project.

In 1961, Hoffman wrote an undergraduate linear algebra textbook, co-authored with Ray Kunze, that was used for many decades and became a classic in the field.

He is survived by his wife, Alicia Hoffman; former wife Patti Hoffman; a son, Robert Hoffman; two daughters, Laura Lasa and Donna Ullah; a sister, Barbara Hollis; and 14 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at the Curran-Bromwell Funeral Home in Cambridge, Md., on Friday, Oct. 3. Another service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, at the Mathematical Association of America Carriage House, 1781 Church St. NW, Washington, D.C.

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to MIT for the Kenneth Hoffman Memorial Fund. Checks should be mailed to the attention of Bonny Kellermann, MIT Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive Room W98-500, Cambridge, MA 02139. Please include a note stating that your gift is in memory of Kenneth Hoffman.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 2008 (download PDF).

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