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Math professor’s legacy lives on through $300,000 endowment for sustainability
17 October 2019
John and Liane Roe

John and Liane Roe in 2015. The couple shared a great love for the outdoors and a passion for sustainability. Image provided by Liane Roe.

Fueled by faith and a passion for sustainability, the late John Roe created a legacy at Penn State that will continue to inspire students for years to come, thanks to a $300,000 endowment. The Dr. John Roe Fund for a Just and Sustainable Future in Penn State Outreach will help to ensure the continuation of Roe’s unique approach to teaching mathematics through applications to sustainability. The fund was established by his wife, Liane Roe, a research nutritionist for the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State.

“John and I shared the belief through our faith that we are stewards of the Earth — we are to respect it, not exploit it,” Liane Roe said. “The planet’s resources are finite and should not be consumed with a ‘winner takes all’ attitude. The poor and the marginalized end up being the ones to bear the cost.”

John Roe was a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Penn State for more than 20 years, five of them serving as department head. Born and raised in England, he received his secondary education at Rugby School. He earned his bachelor of arts from Cambridge University and his doctor of philosophy from Oxford University.

Liane Roe said that her husband became a Christian as a teenager and his faith motivated him to promote equitable treatment of those without privilege and to welcome marginalized individuals. John Roe also had a deep love for the outdoors, which led him to use his field of mathematics to advocate for a sustainable future.

He combined these interests to create the course MATH33: Mathematics for Sustainability, and before his death in 2018 he completed the course textbook, co-written with Russ deForest and Sara Jamshidi. In his blog, “Points of Inflection,” John Roe asked students this question: “You must take a math course. Would you rather learn the quadratic formula, or would you rather save the planet?”

Liane Roe said she wants to capture her husband’s passion and inspire others to carry it forward.

Roe at age 5

John Roe was interested in mathematics from an early age. He is pictured here with a drawing compass at age 5. Provided by Liane Roe.

“The endowment will focus on John’s passion for sustainability, supported by the motivations of his faith and commitment to social justice; for him, these three were all intimately connected,” she said.

The endowment will be collaboratively managed by Penn State Outreach and the Sustainability Institute at Penn State to fund student engagement opportunities across the University. The endowment will also be used to support faculty members who integrate sustainability into their coursework and to establish a Student Sustainability Award to recognize student leadership and service related to sustainability on campus and beyond.

Peter Buckland, academic programs manager for the Sustainability Institute at Penn State, said he is grateful for the Roes’ gift to the University and the higher calling it places on those who work toward achieving John Roe’s ideals.

“At the Sustainability Institute, we have been inspired by John’s commitment to the dignity of all life, the right treatment of all people and the planet, as well as his exacting intellect,” Buckland said. “It is a deep honor to be entrusted with his legacy.”

Tracey Huston, vice president for Outreach, said this endowment is invaluable toward supporting sustainability efforts at the University.

“We are deeply appreciative of the Roe family’s generosity to make this gift to Penn State in John’s memory,” Huston said. “We will be able to create meaningful programs, course content, and student engagement experiences that advance his vision for a sustainable future.”

This gift will support “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hard-working students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and affecting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit