Faculty approves stat major

The Faculty voted to approve a major in statistics on Nov. 6. This authorization of the major is the culmination of the efforts of the mathematics and statistics department that began in 2007 when the College’s statistics professors first brought the idea before the Committee on Educational Policy.  At the time, the College only had three statistics professors, making the creation of a statistics major difficult given the frequency with which professors go on sabbatical and the demands placed on the department to offer introductory statistics courses to as much as 80 percent of the student body, according to Professor of Statistics Richard De Veaux.  With the recent hiring of Assistant Professors of Statistics Brianna Heggeseth and Wendy Wang, the College now employs four statisticians and is capable of offering a statistics major.  The creation of the major was motivated by the increasing importance of statistics in a variety of academic areas as well as its differences from mathematics.

“Mathematics and statistics are really two different disciplines,” Stewart Johnson, professor of mathematics and chair of the mathematics and statistics department, said. “Mathematics is very abstract and there’s an idea of mathematical beauty that is contained in the pure structure of mathematical ideas.  That’s also true of statistics but statistics is also much more based in context and what it can tell you about what you observe in the world. The statistics major reflects that different way of thinking.”

Required courses for the major in statistics will include “Multivariable Calculus” and “Linear Algebra,” “Statistics and Data Analysis,” “Regression and Forecasting,” “Inferential Statistics” or “Probability Theory,” three additional higher level statistics courses, a course in the computer science department, an application area course in any field in which statistics is relevant and participation in a colloquium. Statistics will remain part of the mathematics department due to the overlap between the disciplines and cooperation among mathematics and statistics professors.  Core statistics courses will remain unchanged and there are currently no plans to hire additional statistics professors.

The College will become one of the few liberal arts colleges to offer a major in statistics. “I think Williams College has a strong position in leading education of undergraduates and I see this as keeping up that leadership… and a very careful and thoughtful assessment of what this country needs and what education at this level needs,” Johnson said.

The creation of a statistics major is the continuation of the College’s commitment to expanding its statistics offerings. The College was one of the first liberal arts colleges to have three PhD statisticians, something only three percent of liberal arts colleges had in 2003 according to a survey conducted by Grinnell and St. Olaf.  The College’s pursuit of statisticians, despite the cost and difficulty in enticing them away from positions at research universities and careers outside of education, indicates how important the College believes statistics education is for its students.

“I think it’s the perfect major. Without too many required courses in statistics, majors will have room to take a wide range of courses they are interested in,” De Veaux said. “A liberal arts student with the ability to analyze data will be very well positioned, be it for graduate school or a career.”

“The mathematics and statistics department has been talking about this for many years, and as the number of math students has grown and as the field of statistics has come into its own over the last decade or so, we’ve had more and more students who are interested in statistics as a field,” Dean Bolton said. “We have the right number of people to really be able to offer a thorough curricular root that includes mathematics and a lot of statistics, but also connections to a lot of other fields where statistics is applied in Div. II and Div. III and even the humanities. I don’t necessarily expect that there will be 100 statistics majors right away, but I think for the students for whom this is really their intellectual interest and the direction they want to pursue going forward, it’s going to be a helpful addition.”