University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Alumni honor Foote with Kidder Award

Professor Richard Foote
Professor Richard Foote, photograph by Sally McCay


Alumni honor Foote with Kidder Award

The word beautiful is as likely to come up in conversation with a mathematician as with a painter, poet, or musician. For professor of mathematics Richard Foote, finding and sharing beauty is at the core of a philosophy that makes him one of the university’s finest teachers and this year’s recipient of the UVM Alumni Association’s Kidder Faculty Award.

Sitting in his office, Foote describes the grounding of his approach to every class, whether it’s pre-calculus or the highest-level graduate seminar. “I look at the stuff, and I say, ‘There’s something here which is really beautiful that you can get excited about.’ You look at the quadratic formula”—Foote hops out of his chair and erases space on a blackboard scrawled to the edges. Chalk rapping on the board as he writes out the classic equation (which stirs some Mariana Trench-deep recess in the mind of an English major), Foote says, “You can go in and say, ‘Well, it’s a formula; it does the job.’ Or you can go in and say, ‘This is really pretty. It says something about the behavior of conic sections. It is the top of this enormous iceberg that says for these kinds of equations there’s this fundamental symmetry.’”

Foote brings that same passion to his pursuits as a scholar, which have made him one of UVM’s most distinguished faculty members, recognized internationally for contributions to his field. Foote’s work was considered critical to “the classification of the finite simple groups,” widely regarded as one of the foremost achievements of twentieth-century mathematics. Abstract Algebra, which Foote co-authored with close UVM colleague and friend Professor David Dummit, is a text that mathematicians speak of with reverence, even deep affection.

Not all scholars immersed in pushing their fields forward also have the skills to gracefully share that knowledge from the front of the classroom. The Kidder Award celebrates the ability to do just that—to teach and advise in a way that not only educates but inspires, influencing alumni far beyond their years on campus.

Catherine Bliss G’00, a current UVM doctoral candidate who returned to the university after nine years of teaching, led the charge to nominate Foote for the Kidder. She notes the particular influence he had on her as a female striving to find her place in the often male-centric world of mathematics. That sense of support and helping to instill belief in themselves is something many former students emphasize about the professor that one colleague calls “an ethical touchstone” and another likens to Yoda.

Hy Ginsberg G’07 ’10, a professor at Worcester State University, vividly recalls Foote’s words after describing a daunting research problem: “But these are the kinds of problems that great minds like yours cut their teeth on.”

Ginsberg says, “We are all geniuses in his eyes, or at least made to feel so, and after speaking with Richard Foote I always felt that no mathematical feat was beyond my abilities.”

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