When Petruska returned to Budapest he spoke with colleagues about the discussions he had with me and they responded by outlining what soon was to become BSM. Immediately, Petruska lent his support to the new project. What had happened was this.
A new government regulation had come out according to which universities would be allowed to offer fee based programs to foreign students from the West. A successful program had already been developed for German medical students and the Ministry of Education was encouraging additional programs in several areas including mathematics. Most important, and quite uncharacteristic of a Communist government, the universities would retain a degree of control over how the tuition fees would be spent. Encouraged by this prospect, Vera Sós and Laci became the engines behind a plan to create a school of mathematics for foreigners in Hungary. But the target audience (or even target country) was not clear at all. In a letter to Laci Babai, a friend from Eötvös University visiting Oregon that fall, wrote that he felt Masters or Ph.D students could be counted on and perhaps a curious undergraduate or two. Sós, on the other hand, was more optimistic about an undergraduate audience, feeling that with appropriate advertising, one could recruit students for a four or five year undergraduate program. Babai was excited at first, but quickly became skeptical. Many years later he relayed his reaction to me as follows:
A graduate program? Students don’t pay for that, they receive a stipend from the university. A commitment to go for an entire 4 or 5 year undergraduate program with such a limited scope? The number of applicants would probably be nil, but even if not, the number would be too small to sustain a program. I also quickly discounted all countries other than the U.S. and Canada, for a variety of reasons.
The critical idea came from Gene Luks, Babai’s friend and colleague at the University of Oregon with whom he spoke immediately after receiving the letter. Luks recognized that the right niche was the “semester abroad” for undergraduates. He argued that this niche was taylor made for an Hungarian program, it was a concept Americans were familiar with and all that was needed was to fill it. It was the solution and, as Babai recalled later, “from that moment I was totally committed to creating this program.”
Babai coined the name, “Budapest Semesters in Mathematics,” and set out to design the curriculum, the brochure, the advertising strategy, etc. As he wrote me of this period:
The curriculum was relatively easy to design; emphasis on combinatorics and number theory came naturally both because they are Hungarian strengths and because they are generally neglected in American curricula. I decided that we should use Paul Erdős’s name and fame, he would certainly warmly embrace the endeavour (as he indeed did), so one subject should be called “Conjecture and Proof,” adapting Erdős’s favorite phrase. I thought the course would be an adaptation of a course taught by Posa at Eötvös University to math education students; eventually it was Laczkovich who filled the title with wonderful contents. History, arts, and Hungarian language seemed the natural choices of non-mathematical subjects.
The brochure was a critical task. My English was quite limited at the time, this made the task several orders of magnitude more difficult. Gene Luks was immensely helpful. I would write a page into the computer, he would correct every phrase, suggest alternatives, I would rewrite it and add another page, etc. After a dozen iterations which consumed my entire holiday season, the brochure was ready, and with it a detailed outline of the program. It was clear that the target starting date of September ’84, requested in ‘s letter, was impossible to meet, so I set the beginning of the program at February, 1985. My communication with Budapest was limited; letters were too slow and the telephone too expensive, e-mail to Hungary did not exist. I knew I was doing the right thing, those at home had to implement it.