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Mathematicians divided over faculty hiring practices that require proof of efforts to promote diversity


By Michael Price

When Abigail Thompson, chair of the math department at the University of California (UC), Davis, penned an essay in the December 2019 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society criticizing mandatory “diversity statements” in university hiring, simmering frictions in math boiled over. Researchers rushed to author op-eds and joint public letters both supporting and opposing Thompson. The reactions reflect a tension between mathematicians who see efforts to promote diversity as an intrusion of politics into research, and those who see opening their field to historically marginalized communities as the surest way to advance research. As befits the field, each side claims numerical data support their view.

Academic math skews overwhelmingly white and male. According to American Mathematical Society data, women made up 30% of new tenure-track hires in 2018. Data for ethnicity are harder to come by, but black and Hispanic faculty are rare. According to a 2017 National Science Foundation diversity report, black people are earning fewer degrees in math today than 20 years ago.

To improve diversity in all fields, eight of the 10 UC campuses as well as an increasing number of other universities across the country require faculty job applicants to submit a statement explaining steps they have taken to enhance diversity and equity, as well as how they will support students and colleagues from diverse backgrounds as a university employee. At UC, hiring committees consider these statements alongside teaching experience, research, and university and public service.

“This is a contentious issue whose discussion has been suppressed,” Thompson tells Science. Her essay applauds inclusivity efforts of recent decades, including encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to pursue a math career. But she calls diversity statements a “political litmus test” that she compares to the McCarthyist “loyalty oaths” faculty members were asked to sign in the 1950s disavowing association with communist thought. “Whatever our views on diversity and how it can be achieved, mandatory diversity statements are equally misguided,” she wrote.

Thompson says she has received “strong support” from colleagues at UC Davis and elsewhere. But to Chad Topaz, a mathematician at Williams College, requiring such diversity statements isn’t political; it’s a recognition that math generates better research when everyone can participate. “We want math to be the best it can be, so we have to make it accessible to everybody.”

Carrie Diaz Eaton, a computational scientist at Bates College, agrees. Building diversity, she says, requires “explicitly encouraging our junior colleagues and mentoring and cultivating their talents and enthusiasm for this work.”

Bands of mathematicians, including Topaz and Eaton, wrote and cosigned public letters responding to Thompson’s essay, 17 of which were published in December 2019 on the Notices website. Three of the letters each gained hundreds of signatures.

One heavily criticized Thompson’s essay and spoke in favor of diversity statements and other attempts to boost diversity. A second letter supported Thompson, calling her courageous and agreeing that making diversity statements mandatory is a mistake. A third struck a middle ground, supporting Thompson’s right to voice her opinion and calling for more research into the effectiveness of diversity statements.

Topaz, Eaton, and several other like-minded mathematicians then organized a quick research project, hiring contractors to look up publicly available information about the signatories. In a preprint on SocArXiv, they revealed that cosigners of the two pro-Thompson letters were overwhelmingly male (79% and 85%, respectively) and white (89% for both). The majority (88% and 60%) had tenure. By contrast, cosigners of the letter in favor of diversity statements were evenly split between men and women, and about 80% were white. And only one-quarter were tenured, with another 45% or so on the tenure track. In other words, Topaz says, the mathematicians who support mandating diversity statements “look a lot like the demographics of America” and represent math’s future.

Carina Pamela Curto, a mathematician at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, sees a different story in the numbers. She describes herself as pro-diversity, but she signed the letter calling required diversity statements a mistake. When hiring committees prioritize diversity, candidates’ other skills are necessarily devalued, she says. Especially for women and candidates from underrepresented races and ethnicities, she adds, spending time and effort developing diversity credentials can distract from doing research.

She and graduate student Joshua Paik reanalyzed Topaz’s data and found that 71% of the three letters’ female signatories who are tenured professors at research-intensive institutions signed one or both of the letters supporting Thompson. To her, the finding indicates that once women serve on hiring committees, their enthusiasm for diversity statements often cools.

However, Curto describes Thompson’s comparisons to McCarthyism as “totally counterproductive,” saying the piece “polarized the community in unfortunate ways.”

The community will have a chance to work things out face-to-face this week in Denver at the annual Joint Mathematics Meetings, which features dozens of sessions dedicated to diversity, equity, and social justice in math.

Source: Science Mag