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.
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:
In 1950 the Regents of the University of California required all UC faculty to sign a statement asserting that “I am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government, by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means, that I am not a member of the Communist Party.” Eventually thirty-one faculty members were fired over their refusal to sign… Faculty at universities across the country are facing an echo of the loyalty oath, a mandatory “Diversity Statement” for job applicants. The professed purpose is to identify candidates who have the skills and experience to advance institutional diversity and equity goals. In reality it’s a political test, and it’s a political test with teeth.
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:
I am truly dismayed by the AMS’s decision to publish a piece critical of diversity statements in the December Notices. The “personal opinion” disclaimer at the start is no consolation. You have given a far-reaching platform to dangerous views that build a false equivalency between diversity and inclusion, on one hand, and on the other hand, McCarthyism. There’s no room in today’s world for a both-sides-ism approach whether it’s in math or politics or any other venue.
I believe you have made a grave and very damaging mistake by publishing this piece.
In response to critique from me and others, the publication’s Editor-in-Chief posted a response on Twitter which stated:
Thank you to everyone who has responded to Abigail Thompson’s “A Word from…” in the Dec. 2019 Notices. Since Jan. 2019, I have invited AMS leadership (both governance and staff) to write “A Word From…” on a topic of their choice. In each case, I did not censor or try to change the context. While Prof. Thompson stated that the opinions expressed were those of her as an individual, I can see how her piece could be interpreted as representing the views of our professional society. I apologize to those who understood it as such and will try to make sure that the distinction is clearer in “A Word From…” I welcome all letters to the editor to continue our community’s collective conversation about this important topic.
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:
Thank you very much for your leadership on this matter. This has been a humbling experience for me personally and I am still processing, as I am sure you and many of the people cc’d on this message are. Here is a heads-up on what will appear in the January issue of the Notices — which was headed to the printer last week, but that we held back in order to get some communication out in response to this issue.
A note from the Editor of the Notices
The monthly “A Word from…” opinion piece in the December 2019 issue of the Notices has kindled controversy, including a great deal of attention on social media. The Notices has received a number of letters to the Editor sent by members of our community. Unfortunately, we are unable to print all of them in the Notices. We have (we have not done this yet — this work is being done now) arranged for letters to be posted online at https://www.ams.org/notices. Additionally, a representative selection of letters will appear in the April issue of the Notices. We encourage diverse viewpoints, and as always require civility and accuracy in the content that we publish.
A note from the Executive Director of the AMS
The Notices has a long history of publishing opinions that are of general interest to mathematicians, even when the opinions are controversial. I support the editorial independence of AMS publications. The AMS supports lively exchange of ideas when presented with civility. With differing norms on social media, and in light of the current nature of discourse in the United States, this ideal only becomes more challenging for us as a community.
The AMS is committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion. I recognize that several members of our community were deeply hurt by opinions expressed in these pages. It is never my intention that our readers or contributors feel threatened or unheard, and I am sorry if some people felt that way. The AMS is committed to building a diverse community of mathematicians and we support discussion on how we might achieve this. I welcome your thoughts and hope that we can continue this important dialog.
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:
Hi [AMS Fancy Person #1, #2, and #3],
So sorry to be playing the role, inevitably, of me. But… I just learned that the ICM 2022 is in Russia. This is a dangerous and exclusionary choice when it comes to participation of LGBTQ+ mathematicians, for whom travel to Russia is very unsafe. Russia is well-known to be one of the worst human rights abusers when it comes to this group. In any case, I am wondering if AMS will please speak up about this.
I got a friendly response from AMS Fancy Person #1, but it didn’t address my concerns:
Thank you for bringing this forward. As you know, I always appreciate it when you and other AMS members bring forward concerns of any sort. At least this time around, we’re a few steps ahead of you.
Members of Spectra contacted the executive directors of the four JPBM societies on this issue last year. We communicated our concerns to the organizing committee of the ICM 2022, both in person and in writing. [AMS Fancy Person #2] committed the AMS to provide trained staff and mathematicians attending ICM 2022 who can address any issues that are perceived as possible violations of our Welcoming Environment Policy. The organizing committee of the ICM 2022 welcomes this.
To prepare, the AMS will offer a free online training session for staff and volunteers in 2021. We’ll also deploy this service permanently into our AMS sectional meetings and the reimagined JMM, starting in 2022. For years, we have one trained ombudsperson at each of our conferences, but going forward, we’ll have several people trained up and ready to help. This will be widely communicated to conference attendees.
I’ve already identified the trainer and have reviewed their materials. This trainer was recommended by the American Geophysical Union and the training served as the basis for their Safe AGU program. Any extra capacity available for this training has already been offered to staff at the MAA, SIAM, and the ASA. So, the entire JPBM group of professional math societies is taking this seriously.
Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns. Always glad to hear from you!
[AMS Fancy Person #1]
I wrote back:
Thanks for this, and I should say, BTW, that I know I am late to the game on this one.
I am sure I know where you all stand, personally, on this issue, and also, I appreciate that you are doing something, as described by [AMS Fancy Person #1]. But that said, maybe I can ask you to try a thought experiment. According to many metrics, Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world in terms of violence against women. While it would be an unlikely scenario, let’s suppose that the ICM were taking place in Afghanistan and women were told that staff would be trained on “harassment, bullying, discrimination, retaliation or other misconduct” and that an ombudsperson would be available. Would you feel your professional society was acting in a manner that indicated that it understood the dangers to you? Would you feel safe going? Would you feel the society was acting to look after your interests? I can only tell you how it feels to me, but as so often happens, LGBTQ+ people are thrown under the bus. Our physical safety is deemed an acceptable risk in pursuit of other goals.
Now AMS Fancy Person #2 chimed in:
I think [AMS Fancy Person #1’s] reply to your email was very comprehensive but I will add one more point. There are members of the LGBTQ+ community, and of Spectra, who do not share your point of view. I spoke to several people when this issue arose who did not feel that it was unsafe for them to go to St. Petersburg and who also felt that it was very important to support the Russian mathematical community with this ICM.
[AMS Fancy Person #2]
This reply left me speechless (at least for a while) which is an accomplishment for AMS Fancy Person #2. Eventually, I found some words:
Hi [AMS Fancy Person #2],
Thanks for the response. Let me offer a response to your response. First, I’d recommend checking the Canadian Department of State, since our own U.S. government is quite homophobic in its affect and its policies. See:
You’ll note that Canada advises:
“Discrimination against LGBTQ2 individuals is common. LGBTQ2 travellers, as well as their friends and families, have been targets of harassment and violence, particularly outside of Moscow.”
“Russian federal law prohibits public actions that are described as promoting homosexuality and “non-traditional sexual relations.” Public actions that contravene or appear to contravene this law may lead to arrest, a fine and deportation. Examples of such actions include dissemination of information (for example, through public statements) and public displays of affection. Same sex marriage is not recognized in Russia. Homosexuality isn’t socially accepted.”
I myself would trust the expertise of the Canadian government more than the feelings of any individual mathematicians.
Additionally, I would like to respectfully ask that we take a moment to think about structural oppression. The relevant question to ask is “does policy X result in an inequitable outcome for group Y?” Whether or not people in group Y support policy X is irrelevant. See, for example, Kendi’s writings. In short, the fact that some LGBTQ+ people thought it is important to support the Russian mathematical community does nothing to mitigate the disparate impact of the venue choice on the LGBTQ+ community.
I would welcome more dialog on this. Again, I know (or assume) that you are sympathetic, but the AMS as an organization has a very long way to go on these issues.
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:
Unfortunately, the UAE perpetrates human rights offenses against gay, lesbian, and transgender people. There are no anti-discrimination laws, no recognition of the family structure of same sex couples… and worse things, including gay foreigners sometimes being jailed during travels there. As an out gay man who is married and has a child, traveling to this location would be unsafe for me and would endanger my ability to reunite with my family.
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:
The Council of the American Mathematical Society wishes to reaffirm the commitment of the Society to the human rights of mathematicians. The Society bears a particular responsibility to provide the participants at meetings of the Society with an environment which is supportive of these rights.
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.