Clarence F. Stephens (born July 24, 1917) was the ninth African American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. He is credited with inspiring students and faculty at SUNY Potsdam to form the most successful United States undergraduate mathematics degree programs in the past century.
One of six children, he was orphaned at the age of eight at Harbinger Institute, a boarding school in his native South Carolina.
Stephens graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in 1938 with a B.S. degree in mathematics. he received his M.S. (1939) and his Ph.D. (1943) from the University of Michigan. He was the 9th African American to receive his Ph.D in mathematics.
After serving in the U.S. Navy (1942–1946) as a Teaching Specialist, Dr. Stephens joined the mathematics faculty of Prairie View A&M University. The next year (1947) he was invited to join the mathematics faculty at Morgan State University.
From research to teaching
As a Mathematics Association of America (MAA) biography explains, “Dr. Stephens' focus was on being a research mathematician, so he accepted the position in part because he would be near a research library at Johns Hopkins University. While at Morgan State University, Dr. Stephens became appalled at what a poor job was being done in general to teach and inspire students to learn mathematics. He changed his focus from being a researcher to achieving excellence, with desirable results, in teaching mathematics.
Dr. Stephens remained at Morgan State until 1962, at which time he accepted an appointment as professor of mathematics at SUNY Geneseo. In 1969 he left Geneseo to join the mathematics faculty at SUNY Potsdam, where he served as chair of the mathematics department until his retirement in 1987.
The MAA biography reports that during Dr. Stephens’ tenure at SUNY Potsdam "the department became nationally known as a model of teaching excellence in mathematics. For several of these years the program was among the top producers of mathematics majors in the country. The teaching techniques that Professor Stephens introduced at Potsdam, and earlier at Morgan State, have been adopted by many mathematics departments across the country. They have been described in publications by the MAA, and recently in a book, Math Education At Its Best: The Potsdam Model, by Datta (Center for Teaching/Learning of Mathematics, 1993)."