New math research group reflects schism on the ground

A new organization called the Association for Mathematical Research (AMR) has sparked fierce debate in the mathematics research and education communities since its launch last October. Its declared mission is to “support research and scholarship in mathematics” – a goal similar to that proclaimed by two long-standing groups: the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). In recent years, the latter two have launched projects to combat racial, gender and other inequalities in the field. The AMR claims it has no position on social justice issues, and critics see its silence on these topics as part of a backlash against inclusion efforts. Some leaders of the new group have also spoken out in the past against some attempts to diversify mathematics. The controversy reflects a growing division between researchers who want to separate scientific and mathematical pursuits from social problems that they consider irrelevant to research and those who say that even pure mathematics cannot be considered separately from racism and sexism in his culture.

With prejudice, harassment and exclusion being widely recognized within the mathematical community, many find it doubtful that a professional organization can take a stand on inequity while claiming to meet the needs of mathematicians from all walks of life. “It’s a tough time being a mathematician,” says Piper H, a mathematician at the University of Toronto. In 2019, less than 1% of doctorates were awarded to black mathematicians and only 29% were awarded to women.

Joel Hass, mathematician at the University of California, Davis, and current president of AMR, describes the group as “resolutely focused on inclusion.” He adds that AMR “wishes everyone to join us in supporting research and scholarship in mathematics. In early 2022, we plan to open membership to anyone around the world who wishes to join us. There will be no fees or contributions. By removing financial barriers to entry, we will make it easier for anyone from around the world to participate. Mathematical research is a truly global endeavor that transcends nation, beliefs and culture.

AMR presented itself as neutral on social issues. An invitation letter sent to potential founding members of the organization states: “While individual members may be active in educational, social or political matters related to the profession, AMR intends to focus exclusively on questions of research and scholarship. “

Louigi Addario-Berry, mathematician at McGill University in Montreal, wrote about AMR on his blog. He said American scientist he speaks because “I think that it is an organization whose existence, development and blooming will harm many members of the mathematical community that I respect. It is founded by people who have publicly expressed opinions that I find harmful, both hurtful to me as an individual and detrimental to creating an inclusive and welcoming math community.

Hass responded in a statement to American scientist: “AMR focuses on supporting mathematical research and this objective benefits all members of the mathematics community. But Addario-Berry wonders how the AMR can be neutral on social justice issues when some of its leaders have already taken strong public positions on some of these issues.

Abigail Thompson is a mathematician at UC Davis and current secretary of AMR. In December 2019, nearly a year after starting her tenure as AMS Vice-President, which will end after this month, she wrote an opinion piece opposing the growing practice. Common practice of asking university faculty candidates to write diversity statements during the hiring process. . These statements are intended to demonstrate the experience and commitment of a potential hire to supporting a diverse and inclusive environment within a math department. Thompson compared them to the loyalty oaths of the McCarthy era.

His play was published in the American Mathematical Society Opinion, and created such a stir that the newspaper later published 25 pages of responses, a mixture of negative and positive. (Disclosure: The author of this American scientist article wrote two unrelated articles for the AMS Notice Last year.)

Among the responses in the AMS Notice were three open letters each signed by hundreds of people. One of those letters, which had more than 600 signatures, opposed Thompson’s position and the newspaper’s decision to publish his article.

Another, who had over 200 signatures, said: “We commend Abigail Thompson for her courageous leadership in bringing this issue to the attention of the mathematics community at large. And he described the mandatory diversity statements as one of the “mistakes to be avoided.” Several members of the current AMR Board of Directors have signed this letter.

The third letter, which had more than 800 signatures, including most of the current AMR board members, expressed concerns about the backlash for its article. Some researchers had advocated telling students not to apply to Thompson’s department at UC Davis because of his position, for example. The letter said: “Regardless of anyone’s position on whether diversity statements are a fair or effective way to promote diversity goals, we should agree that this attempt to silence opinions is detrimental. to the profession. “

Another founding member of AMR and member of its board of directors, Robion “Rob” Kirby, is a mathematician at the University of California at Berkeley. In an article titled “Sexism in Mathematics ??? On his website he wrote: “People who say that women cannot do math as well as men are often called sexist, but it is worth remembering that some evidence exists and that the subject is a legitimate subject. [sic] one, although Miss Manners may not approve of it.

Hass, Thompson, Kirby and other AMR members signed an open letter on July 13, 2021 opposing potential changes to the California State’s mathematics curriculum framework for public kindergarten schools in grade 12. The changes “are intended to address ways in which the program can meet the needs of as many students as possible, making math more accessible,” according to a statement posted on the California Department of Education website. But the letter signed by Hass, Thompson and Kirby argues that the new curriculum “distracts from real math by forcing teachers to insert ‘environmental and social justice’ into the math curriculum.” And he says: “We believe that imbibing mathematics with political rhetoric is foreign to mathematics as a discipline and will cause lasting damage, including making mathematics considerably more difficult for students whose first language is not English. English.

AMS and MAA have publicly recognized the need to work towards a more inclusive math community. Last year, an AMS task force released a 68-page report which, in the organization’s words, details “AMS’s historic role in racial discrimination; and recommends actions for AMS to rectify systemic inequalities in the math community. In 2020, an MAA committee said the math community must “actively work to become anti-racist” and “hold ourselves and our academic institutions accountable for the continued oppression of black students, staff, and faculty.” . He was also addressing black mathematicians specifically, saying, “We are actively failing you at every turn as a mathematical society and community. We kneel with you. #Black lives matter. “

In contrast, AMR has not issued any official statement on the injustice. “I am supposed to believe, in the year 2021, that this omission is not in itself an act of racism?” asks Piper H, who spoke to American scientist at the end of last year. “How am I, as a 40-year-old black American mathematician, parent and person who has paid some attention to American history and the American present, supposed to believe that AMR’s refusal to overcome real obstacles? that real mathematicians face doing mathematical research and scholarship is more than insult and mockery? “

Hass denies that AMR’s current silence on diversity, equity and inclusion on the ground is sending a message. “Our membership and our planned activities will be open to everyone,” he said. “AMR welcomes all who wish to join our mission to advance mathematical research and scholarship. We are expanding opportunities around the world for people to engage in mathematical research. “

“It is not just a coincidence that AMR was founded on the heels of a greater push for diversity within AMS,” wrote Lee Melvin Peralta, graduate student in mathematics at the Michigan State University, in the newsletter of November 16, 2021. Global Math Department, an organization of mathematics educators. AMR, Peralta added, “looks more like a separatist organization for people who strive for a sort of” purity “in mathematics, away from” impure “considerations of race, sex, class, ability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status (among others).

Hass denies that the founding of the AMR had anything to do with the anti-racist push of the AMS or the MAA. The changes in the research environment caused by the COVID pandemic have revealed new opportunities for the development and communication of mathematical research, allowing the incorporation of new technologies and international activities, ”he said. declared. “We felt there was room for a new organization that would explore these. Hass adds that “AMS and MAA are wonderful organizations that we hope to work with, as well as other organizations such as SIAM. [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics], ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] and many groups not based in the United States.

Some of AMR’s founding members left the organization amid controversy. “Creating an organization to do something positive requires the trust and goodwill of the community it wants to affect. And that’s something the AMR doesn’t have at this point, ”wrote Daniel Krashen, mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, in a Nov. 14, 2021, Twitter feed. “I have no desire to have a negative impact on the mathematics community through my actions and my words. I see that some people feel less safe and heard less by my actions, and I apologize for that. I have decided to withdraw my membership.