I’m breaking up with my oppressive professional society

I am a mathematician. Being a mathematician is a funny thing. When I tell people what I do for a living, they typically respond by telling me either “I used to be good at mathematics!” or, with an inevitably disapproving tone, “Oh. I hate math.” Regardless of society’s opinion of my job, the challenges and opportunities of human existence increasingly require quantitative tools. Math helps us build efficient power networks, create effective medicines, develop intervention strategies to support public health, animate movies, understand the workings of the human brain, and much more. Though mathematical tools are pivotally important for society, we are still finding our way when it comes to embracing the subject. After all, while the U.S. literacy rate is estimated at 99%, it remains socially acceptable to proclaim that one is simply “not a numbers person.” My deeply held belief is that anyone can do math.

Professional Societies

Many scholars belong to professional societies. In an ideal world, these societies support education, research, advocacy for the profession, and more. For my own field of mathematics, professional associations play an additional, critical role precisely because of the negative public image of our field. Some of the major mathematics societies in the U.S. include the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC), American Mathematical Society (AMS), the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), and Spectra.

One of the largest of these organizations, and arguably the most influential one, is the American Mathematical Society (AMS). I have been a member, I believe, since at least the year 2000. And AMS, I am sorry to say our 20+ year relationship is not a good one.

Public break-ups can be so ugly. And yet here we are.

Diversity Landscape in the Mathematical Sciences

The world of mathematics is neither a sufficiently diverse, equitable, nor inclusive place. Here are some quick facts and figures. Women account for roughly 40% of undergraduate mathematical sciences degrees, 30% of doctoral mathematical sciences degrees, and 20% of tenure-stream faculty at doctoral degree granting departments of mathematical sciences in the United States.

As for racial/ethnic diversity, the numbers are… nonexistent. (I bet you didn’t think that’s how the sentence would end.) That is to say, we just don’t know. There is so much to understand about this issue that I have written about the lack of racial/ethnic data in a separate post.

As for other excluded groups such as LGBTQ+ individuals and people with disabilities… forget about it. No one has any idea.

And now I am going to tell you about my break-up. Like many break ups, this one has been building for a long time, so I am going to spare you the full history. If you want the whole story, buy me a drink or two sometime. What I will do is tell you about two recent incidents that sealed the deal for me.

My Break-Up, Part 1

The Notices of the American Mathematical Society is one of the most widely-read mathematics publications in the world. In the December 2019 edition, Abigail Thompson, a Vice President of the AMS, published an invited essay critical of the use of diversity statements in faculty hiring within higher education.

Here’s the backgroud you need to know. In a typical faculty search process, candidates submit the following materials: a cover letter; a curriculum vitae; a research statement, which describes research experience and future plans; and a teaching statement, which discusses teaching experience and philosophy. Many faculty searches now additionally require candidates to submit a diversity statement (or similarly named document). The diversity statement is meant to empower search committees and institutions to identify candidates who have skills, experiences, and/or plans that would support inclusion, diversity, and equity on campus.

The essay argues that the required use of diversity statements in hiring is akin to McCarthyism, the campaign begun by Senator Joseph McCarthy against alleged communists in the United States during the early 1950s. The author writes:

Because I think that comparing diversity statements to McCarthyism is, to put it politely, misguided, I was involved in public push back. I also wrote a research paper about the whole debacle. In this paper, my co-authors and I analyze the demographics of signatories to various public petitions that responded to the essay. And wouldn’t you know it, there were vast demographic differences between the pro-diversity-statement folx and the anti-diversity-statement folx. In fact, if we consider the percentage of each group that is made up of tenured men who are at highly research intensive institutions and who are not members of excluded racial/ethnic groups, that percentage is a scant 5% in the pro-diversity-statement crowd and 85% in the most anti-diversity-statement crowd.

I was disappointed by the essay itself, of course, and by the response of a large part of the mathematics community. But I was most disappointed by the response of the AMS. So as is my way, I wrote them:

In response to critique from me and others, the publication’s Editor-in-Chief posted a response on Twitter which stated:

This was a problematic response for two reasons.

First, it was a classic non-apology apology, i.e., “I am sorry if YOU misunderstood,” rather than “I am sorry for how our actions hurt the community.” And those actions did hurt. In addition to the hundreds of upset people who signed the pro-diversity-statement petition, I received numerous private message from individuals in minoritized groups expressing sentiments such as “once again, I feel like there’s no place for me in mathematics.”

Second, the response did not address the heart of the problem. The decision to publish something is not a neutral decision. I am not sure if the AMS truly doesn’t understand this, or if they simply chose their response as the most politically expedient one.

Allow me to flesh this idea out a little bit. On one hand, the AMS has an actual, official statement on the value of equity, diversity, and inclusion. On the other hand, it seems the AMS Notices (which, of course is part of the AMS) holds a value akin to “let all sides be heard.” These values have come into conflict. In the right corner of the ring, the Editor-in-Chief seems to have chosen “let all sides be heard” as the top priority. In the left corner of the ring were many people who wanted to see AMS live out its stated commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion by taking a stand on the issue. The AMS never did.

Furthermore, here’s the response that I (and some others) got back from a leader at AMS:

To summarize, the AMS didn’t do anything tangible other than actually offer an additional platform for people to publish opinions that exclude in a public forum. I guess the AMS would say “there are good people on both sides.”

My Break-Up, Part 2

Besides being a mathematician, I’m gay. Not just a little. I’m like seriously, deeply, unapologetically gay. And married. And a parent.

File this fact away for a moment.

Every four years there is a super-fancy math conference called the International Congress of Mathematics (ICM). The next ICM, in 2022, will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia. The AMS belongs to the organization that helps organize the ICM, so it is a decision maker and stakeholder in the process.

Remember how gay I am? You know where is really bad for gay people to go? Russia.

Here is, in full, the email exchange I had with AMS about this topic (with names redacted). I don’t think I even need to analyze the exchange for you because, well, it’s all there in black and white. I wrote:

I got a friendly response from AMS Fancy Person #1, but it didn’t address my concerns:

I wrote back:

Now AMS Fancy Person #2 chimed in:

This reply left me speechless (at least for a while) which is an accomplishment for AMS Fancy Person #2. Eventually, I found some words:

And you know what reply I got to this? None. No taking me up on my request for further dialogue. No acknowledgment that structural oppression exists, or that they even understand what structural oppression is. Just… nothing.

Break-Up and Rebound

AMS, I’m breaking up with you. My membership expires at the end of this year. I’ve decided not to renew. You know what saddens me most? It was not even a difficult decision to make.

Some people who read this will point out all the good that the AMS does. And of course, they do plenty of good. But that’s not the point. The point is that I do not wish to be a member of an organization that is oppressing me. Other people who read this will chide me for walking out and will critique this piece as quit-lit. To those people, I would say: I have been working on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the mathematics community for at least two decades. I have served on countless committees, written countless reports and papers, given countless talks, and had countless personal conversations with people about difficult issues.

You know how much improvement I have seen over those two decades? None. The numbers for representation of women at various levels are more or less the same. As I mentioned, we don’t know the situation for people excluded on the basis of race/ethnicity. As for the LGBTQ+ population, well, you know what? Turns out that in 2014, I wrote AMS with concerns I had about a conference they were running in the United Arab Emirates. I wrote:

I got an email response from another AMS Fancy Person who helpfully assured me that the AMS Council formulated a policy in 1995 that said:

It seems that in terms of my human rights, what AMS has to offer me is a 25-year-old quotation that they won’t even stand by.

Some folks who work at AMS full time, who provide service to the organization, and who participate in AMS events are among my very dearest friends and most admired colleagues. But time and again, the organization as a whole has proven to me that despite good intentions of some individuals, it is incapable of change and it certainly won’t watch out for my own well-being.

I’m moving on to greener pastures. I still believe math has the power to change the world, so I have co-founded an institute, the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (QSIDE). There, I work to use mathematics to shine a light on injustice and to address it head on, in fields including criminal justice, the arts, health care, higher education, and more. Since the AMS won’t be my partner, I’ll be my own.

Addendum: One day after I posted this piece, the AMS annouced their class of society fellows for 2021. Very sincere congrats to all those honored. That said, it really IS a class of “fellows” because merely 13% are women, at least according to my count. There are scads of women in the AMS who are equally well-qualified to be named. And no, the idea that the AMS is helpless to fix this problem because they depend on members doing the nominating is bogus. Under that notion, a group overwhelmingly composed of men would need to decide to start nominating lots of women, or the women would have to do the work of nominating themselves or each other. Also, don’t tell me to nominate women. I have. Lots of times in the past. My nominations rarely went through.

Professor, data scientist, applied mathematician, social justice researcher and activist, nonprofit leader. See www.chadtopaz.com and www.qsideinstitute.org.