A New Adventure

May 27, 2011

Dan Ullman stands with sculpture in Kogan Plaza

In 1986, Professor of Mathematics Daniel Ullman, along with other GW faculty members, was on campus taking a Myers-Briggs personality test.

The results showed a majority of the group had the personality type “INTJ”— which stands for introversion, intuition, thinking, judgment— and the test facilitator announced that most university professors have this personality type.

But unlike his colleagues, Dr. Ullman was an “ENTJ.” The “E” stood for extroversion.

“Successful professors tend to be people who close their doors and work by themselves quietly on their research. This is a good path to success in academia,” he said. “But I learned that most faculty members are introverted and I’m not. It’s given me a sort of perspective on what I have done in my career and what I was well suited for.”

Since 2000, Dr. Ullman has served on 13 different university committees and as chair of the GW Department of Mathematics from 2001 to 2006.

On July 1, he will embark on what he deems “a new adventure” as associate dean of Columbian College of Arts and Sciences for undergraduate studies. He will replace Professor of Religion Paul Duff, who will return to GW's Department of Religion to focus on his teaching and research full time.

“It’s as if Dr. Ullman has been training for this position during his entire tenure at GW,” said Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt. “As a professor of mathematics, he demonstrated an ongoing commitment to undergraduate education and undergraduate students. Going forward, he will work to increase the challenge of our courses and the engagement of our students through learning.”

For Dr. Ullman, the new appointment will give him an opportunity to learn more about the university “in a different and deeper way.” It will also allow him to meet with more constituents across the university and engage in problem solving, all things that appeal to his extroverted side.

“My research has been very collaborative, and I like working with people. That ‘E’ was helpful to me as department chair,” said Dr. Ullman. “I’m quite sure this will allow me to be successful in the dean’s office as well. I don’t mind having meetings and talking with people.”

Dr. Ullman strongly believes in getting undergraduates more deeply engaged in their studies at GW. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard University, Dr. Ullman recalls feeling a sense of ownership of the school, and he wants the same for GW students.

“I’d like to see our undergraduates have a different understanding of their role and what they’re expected to do,” he said. “In a way I’d like to persuade them that their job is to come here and inspire us and inspire each other. I think they come to the institution looking to us—the faculty and administration—as if we are the institution and they are visitors. But they are the institution. They make the institution.”

“I’m interested in seeing a renewed engagement of undergraduates with their studies that makes GW an absolutely first-class place to be a student.”

Dr. Ullman also wants faculty to rethink their role.

“We have lots of fantastic faculty, many of whom are doing really special things with undergraduates,” he said. “I’m going to take on the responsibility of making sure that we’re giving a first-rate experience in undergraduate education. That’s a lot more than just pushing professors into classrooms. It starts in the classroom, but that’s not enough. We have to find a way to provide a deeply engaging personal experience for each student.”

Dr. Ullman received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley. His interests and accomplishments span a variety of areas: in teaching, at GW and as a visiting assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University from 1991 to 1992; in policy, as a AAAS science policy fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology from 2006 to 2007; and in scholarly works, as an editor and contributor to several publications.

In 2005, Dr. Ullman won the GW Robert Kenny Prize for Excellence in Teaching for his work creating a mathematics and politics course for liberal arts students. In 1995, he co-founded the GW Summer Program for Women in Mathematics, an intensive five-week program for women entering their senior year of college.

Dr. Ullman has also been involved in the D.C. community. He founded the D.C. Math Circle, an enrichment program for eighth graders from the D.C. public and public charter schools; was director of D.C. Fame, a math-science partnership to advance local middle-school mathematics teachers in D.C.; and served as deputy leader of the U.S. delegation to the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1991 and 1992.

Although he wears many hats on and off campus, Dr. Ullman’s passion is teaching. In his view, mathematics is “the best subject” to teach because he sees students fundamentally change as they begin to grasp challenging concepts.

“When math students learn something, they become a new person. They can do something with their mind that they could not do beforehand,” he said. “I see a sophomore who is struggling with a course or idea, and then two years later as a senior masters it easily. Two years later these students are different people. It’s not just because they know more now—they’re genuinely smarter.”

Dr. Ullman’s years involved with undergraduate theater in the 1970s also gave him a perspective on what he calls “the performance aspect” of teaching. The past academic year, he taught large lectures of more than 250 students and constantly thought of ways to keep students engaged.

“Making them lean forward, laugh, making sure they’re not drifting asleep —that’s part of good teaching too,” he said.

With his third and youngest child entering his freshman year at Princeton University in the fall, Dr. Ullman said now may be the best time to assume more responsibilities in his professional life.

“I’ll be an empty nester so it will be a good time to take on a new challenge at work,” he said.

“I enjoy my multifaceted professional life,” he said. “I want to do research, write books and articles; I want to teach at different levels, meet students and learn how the institution works. I’m trying to get to be a wise citizen on the campus and learn more and more about how things work. This is just one more step.”

“I certainly have a very strong passion for excellence in undergraduate education,” he added. “There are things we can do to make undergraduate education at GW really something special.”