U of R Chancellor honoured by alma mater

By Dale Johnson Posted: April 16, 2015 11:30 a.m.

Dr. Jim Tomkins is being honoured by Purdue University in Indiana.
Dr. Jim Tomkins is being honoured by Purdue University in Indiana. Photo: U of R Photography.

University of Regina Chancellor Dr. Jim Tomkins is being honoured by Purdue University in Indiana, where he earned his PhD in 1970.
Tomkins is one of nine Distinguished Science Alumni Award winners at Purdue this year. He is the first Canadian of 211 people to be so honoured.

“Well, surprise was the first reaction – and humility,” says Dr. Tomkins. “It's been 45 years since I graduated and I certainly wasn't expecting this award. Being the first Canadian makes the award even more humbling. Purdue has many unrecognized distinguished alumni to choose from. It feels nice to be remembered!”

Dr. Tomkins and his wife, Lynn, are travelling to Purdue for the ceremony on April 17, 2015.

Dr. Tomkins grew up in Regina, and attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts (1965) and an Honours Certificate (1966) in mathematics. Then he was faced with deciding where to go to continue his education.

“Back then, graduate programs weren't particularly common in Canada, except at a handful of larger universities. I had a particular field – probability theory – within mathematics in mind, and there were no programs in that field. I consulted with one of my professors at the U of S, and he recommended a Big Ten school. I applied to several and wound up choosing Purdue because it had a particularly strong faculty group in probability theory,” he recalls.

The Big Move to the Big Campus

So he made the move to West Lafayette, Indiana, to attend Purdue. The first thing he noticed was how huge the campus was.

“It was probably four times the size of the U of S. Purdue had its own airport, its own railway (to haul fuel to the heating plant), the Purdue University Creamery – five-cent ice cream cones! – and not one, but two, golf courses on campus. I particularly remember my first football game: 63,000 fans, an elaborate pre-game ceremony, the Purdue marching band, and the noise. It was like nothing I had ever experienced – even at Taylor Field!  

Student Unrest in the U.S.

But there was also a very serious side to university life in the United States during that era; the U. S. was involved in the war in Vietnam, and some campuses saw anti-war protests.

“I recall conversations with other Canadian students at Purdue. We worried a bit about the (unlikely) prospect of being drafted and, I think, we all became more aware of our Canadian-ness because of the war. When I came back, I did feel very Canadian. I was just ahead of the protest movements. I don't recall anything of that sort when I was at Purdue - though I do recall not being able to get access to the math library at Columbia University in New York City, where I wrote my dissertation because my supervisor was a visiting professor there – as a result of student protests in 1968 or ’69.”

Race to the Moon

Another big part of the 1960s was the space race.

“Because of the national goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, U.S. universities were under pressure to produce lots of doctoral grads in the sciences and engineering. Virtually all of those in my 1966 cohort finished a PhD in three or four years – in part, I believe, because of the moon project.”

Purdue has produced 23 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon in 1969.

Dr. Tomkins completed his master’s (1967) and doctoral (1970) degrees in statistics at Purdue. He says his experience and education at Purdue served him very well.

“A key part of my academic work was that I discovered that I could do – and enjoyed – mathematical research and I really learned how to think independently, find my own research problems and solve them. This latter factor was of immense benefit when I came to the U of R as one of the few probabilists in Canada at a time when collaborative work was much more complicated to do than it is now – and, to an extent, in the administrative work I did later in my career.”

Sterling Academic Career

Dr. Tomkins authored or co-authored more than 60 articles in mathematical and statistical journals. His research work was recognized and supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for 33 years, and he has chaired three different NSERC selection committees.

He was elected in 2013 as the eighth Chancellor of the University of Regina. He’s had a remarkable career at the University of Regina spanning more than 40 years. He served as President and Vice-Chancellor from 2007 to 2008; Vice-President (Administration) from 1998 to 2005; head of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics from 1985 to 1994; an advisor to the President from 1980 to 1985; and faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics from 1969 until his retirement. He has chaired the University of Regina Faculty Association.

Dr. Tomkins has received numerous awards including the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Regina Board of Governors in 2008. And now Dr. Tomkins adds to that list of honours Purdue University’s Distinguished Science Alumni Award winner of 2015.