Suspended for three years, the financial mathematics major program is quietly returning to Knox. At first glance, however, the major’s specificity and pre-professional appearance causes the program to stick out amongst other areas of Knox’s “liberal arts” catalogue.
Hidden within the mathematics department and not listed in the “Courses of Study” page on the Knox College website, the financial mathematics major is less publicized than most minors. Why, then, should financial mathematics be offered as a major when programs such as business and management or journalism that have their own departments are still not considered majors?
The answer is that in a liberal arts setting, many subjects are kept as minors because they are too specific and pre-professional to adhere to the ideals of broad-based and integrated education. Emory College recently closed their journalism program and took away the major because it cut too close to being pre-professional. The director of the journalism program, Hank Klibanoff, was quoted in an opinion piece for the Yale Daily News that the major was “’not an easy fit’ in a liberal arts environment.”
Pre-professional programs such as architecture, law, medicine and occupational therapy are put in the same boat and labeled as too pre-professional to be offered as a major.
Instructor of Journalism David Amor explained the reasoning behind journalism as a minor.
“We feel that the best preparation for a journalist is actually to have a broad-based liberal education in any case, he said. “What the minor does is to build on that to help to prepare somebody for a possible career or just to learn the kinds of values, approaches, and techniques of journalism whether or not you’re planning to become a journalist professionally.”
Students majoring in financial mathematics are required to take courses in mathematics, economics and business. According to Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Financial Mathematics program Kevin Hastings, the major integrates the theoretical components of mathematics with topical subjects such as personal debt management or the 2008 stock market crash.
“It fits in [with liberal arts] much the same way as mathematics itself fits in. It is all about modeling and analyzing situations and coming up with solutions,” Hastings said. “So that’s a form of critical thinking that I believe is appropriate for Knox.”
“One of the advantages, but also challenges, of financial mathematics is that it requires the students to have both quantitative and critical thinking ability,” junior and financial mathematics major Blair Yu said. “It’s a bridge connecting school work to real life application.”
The program was started in 2008 as both a major and minor, but the amount of prerequisites made the minor too impractical. According to Hastings, the impetus for the program was student interest in the subject. Referencing Hari Ramaman ’00, whose Honors project involved using mathematical techniques to evaluate investment firms, Hastings saw a great potential to develop a program at Knox that combined mathematics with business and economics.
“I thought, ‘Well, if students like Hari are able to actually rise to a level to address this stuff, why can’t other students do it? Why can’t I have an, albeit small scale, but official program at Knox which will lead not only to interesting problems for them to look at while they’re here, but also has the promise of very rewarding, both personally and financially, careers after they go.’”
The financial mathematics program was suspended from 2009 until 2012 due to low staffing, but many students continued the trend of applying mathematics to economic situations.
Melati Nungsari ’10 utilized her knowledge of financial mathematics for her Honors project on “Measure Theoretic Probability and Its Applications to Finance.” Nungsari is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Hastings attributes her success as a technically skilled economics student to the work she did with financial mathematics.
More recently, senior Haining Wei used computer simulations integrating mathematical calculations and investment data to analyze the 2008 stock market crash for her Honors project on “Risk Management in Banking.”
“Combining mathematical tools and financial knowledge is a fast growing aspect of the industry,” Yu said.
With the success of current students and alumni, the financial mathematics program may provide the impetus for expanding other pre-professional subject areas to offer majors.
“Programs like these would spearhead the pre-professional courses at Knox such as the business minor and provide students with a better foothold on the areas they are interested in,” freshman Srichandra Masabathula said, who is planning to major in financial mathematics.
Professor and Chair of Business and Management John Spittell supports the financial mathematics program, praising how the program gives students the opportunity to build upon their knowledge of mathematics with the practical tools of business.
Spittell further explained the strength of the liberal arts as it helps students become more adaptive to changing times and gives them the ability to draw upon different areas of knowledge to succeed.
“Liberal arts is actually the best way to go, he said. “You pick up a foundational understanding of a whole lot of fields.” Spittell reinforced the idea that studying liberal arts is about finding “the love of your life, not a job.”
Financial mathematics makes it possible for students to fall in love with both the practical aspects of mathematics and its connection to real world situation. It also sets them apart from others with the knowledge and tools of multiple subject areas.
“This is the kind of major that, while conforming to Knox’s ideals, has certain practical aspects,” Hastings said. “It opens doors to people that may not have been as easily opened without it.”