Challenges the math community faces in the future

These are the notes I prepared for the “Global panel” at the CARTOON conference on May 30, 2020.  There is only time to discuss a small fraction of this material, which itself is a minuscule selection of the massive literature inspired by thoughts about what our life, academic or otherwise, will be like if and when the pandemic is brought under control.

I expect to add resources and references as the summer progresses.


 

We have all been reading about the difference between “getting back to normal” and “adjusting to the new normal.”  There turns out to be fairly broad agreement that not only were some features of the “old normal” highly undesirable — like inequality, pollution, xenophobia, dependence on fossil fuels, austerity in public services, or the gig economy, or the for-profit health care system in the United States — but that the current crisis provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eliminate or at least to attenuate some of these undesirable features.

In the face of the coronavirus, a small window has opened in our societies to gain scope for action. It is important to keep this window open a bit.

(Bernd Scherer, Director, Haus der Kulturen der Welt)

Or, to quote Juliette Binoche, Iggy Pop, Vaughan Jones, Béla Tarr, Madonna, and Tim Gowers, among many other celebrities, it is time

to leave behind the unsustainable logic that still prevails and to undertake a profound overhaul of our goals, values, and economies.

In that spirit, I’m going to focus on the challenge to the mathematics community of using the current opportunity to address some aspects that need to be reconsidered of the system that makes our profession possible.  I will divide these artificially into four groups:  relations with the broader society, relations with universities and higher education, relations within the profession, and relations with ourselves.

 

Relations with broader society

The crisis has revealed something we already suspected:  that we are not essential workers.  This has two sides:  on the one hand, our mathematical activities are not necessary for the basic functions of civilized society; on the other hand, our material circumstances are safer and much more comfortable than those of nurses, sanitation workers, transport workers, food handlers, and so on.  What we owe in exchange for our comfort is a serious reflection on what is the “essence” of our work, with regard to the broader society.

Serious reflection on our essence requires in the first place speaking out about the ethical challenges posed by the many spectacularly problematic applications of mathematics — financial engineering, Cambridge Analytica, algorithmic weapons of math destruction, surveillance, as well as strictly military applications.  That doesn’t mean we necessarily have to refuse funding from the Heilbronn Institute, as Tom Leinster argued a few years ago; but it does mean owning up to what accepting such funding entails.

One direction I strongly advise avoiding is to reduce our essence to the market value of applications of mathematics, in scientific modeling or commercial innovations.  The argument can and should be made that these applications depend in multiple ways on a robust community of pure mathematicians, but promising spinoffs and startups in exchange for support of our profession is a toxic habit of concession to neoliberal thinking, and that habit clouds our thinking at every level.  For many reasons we should take advantage of the crisis to seal the collected thoughts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in a time capsule and bury them permanently in a toxic waste dump.

I will return to the essence of our work at the end.  In the meantime, avoiding the neoliberal reading of our essence as far as the broader society is concerned means taking on the neoliberal model of the university.  To quote the petition Refonder l’Université et la Recherche pour retrouver prise sur le monde et nos vies (more than 7000 signatures since March 20, including mine):

Le corollaire de l’autonomie du monde savant est son engagement sur un principe : sa responsabilité vis-à-vis de la société.  L’usage politique, technique et industriel des travaux scientifiques doit se décider dans un cadre pluraliste et démocratique, en accord avec l’intérêt commun.

 

Relations with universities  

In the neoliberal model the university provides the service of enhancing the student’s market value, and we, as teachers, are service workers.  This vision has the merit of relieving our fear of being seen as social parasites.  But the relief is short-lived, because the model of university education built on massive student debt is not sustainable, and other models are actively being discussed.  In March Stefan Collini wrote this in the Guardian:

The “marketisation” of universities in the past decade has changed their ethos as well as their funding. Older notions of an academic community, or a scholarly career, have been replaced by economic analyses that look to reduce unit costs per output. Replacing permanent staff with cheaper, disposable temporary ones reduces the power of academics and increases that of managers.

The rich Ivy league and similar universities have already announced hiring freezes; Johns Hopkins has gone even further, sending signals that even tenure may not guarantee the expected level of material comfort for much longer.

Suddenly anticipating losses of over $350 million in the next 15 months, the university imposed a hiring freeze, canceled all raises, and warned about impending furloughs and layoffs. Most extraordinarily of all, it suspended contributions to its employees’ retirement accounts.

(François Furstenburg, Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Times Higher Education Supplement has this headline story:

            Mergers and ‘FE future’ predicted for some English universities 

While many universities would need “pretty big cuts in teaching and research staff” as a result of the coronavirus crisis, such action would not be enough to save some institutions, which would be forced to merge as a condition of receiving extra funding…

Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, adds

The future prosperity of the UK depends on having a strong university research base, which is subsidised by international student income.

Lurking in the background in this and similar articles is the prospect that the existing system of higher education will be replaced by one where universities become content providers to fit the respective business models of leading national industries — Silicon Valley in the US, for example.

The promise of freedom of subjective development and the democratization of knowledge was, however, increasingly functionalized through business models that use the orientation of citizens on the internet to collect data and sell them as goods for digital capitalism.

(Bernd Scherer, loc. cit)

 

WCET

A few of the sponsors of the 2020 WICHE Conference on Educational Technology

Some of the initiatives to preserve what we see as the values embodied by universities focus on protecting the most precarious university workers.  Among them are colleagues who have undergone the full academic apprenticeship process but who have not acquired the professional stability that is one of the chief attractions of the academic life.   I am one of 2800 signatories, including only 25 mathematicians, of the Covid-19 Academic Solidarity Statement, which

calls on universities to protect the lives and livelihoods of its contingent academic workers, including non-tenure track (NTT) teachers and graduate students. … Signatories to the statement further pledge not to accept speaking invitations during the 2020-21 academic year at institutions that have extended tenure clocks for their tenure-track faculty, but have not similarly extended contracts for all currently employed NTT teachers and graduate students.

(All eight Ivy League universities, including my own, are on the list of institutions whose invitations are to be refused, along with many others, public as well as private.  See also the long list of Related Campaigns, mainly by graduate workers and non-tenure-track faculty.)

It usually comes as a surprise to our colleagues in the humanities that mathematicians can be uniquely effective in campaigns in defense of progressive values.  A good example is Tim Gowers’s pledge in 2012 to boycott Elsevier, which inspired the Cost of Knowledge statement that quickly collected over 10000 signatures (17000 by 2018).

 

Relations with the profession

And with inevitable pressure on the job market as a result of the collapse of public budgets as well as the economy more generally, the priorities of the profession will come into question in a way that has not been seen since the 1950s — except in Russia, where mathematics has not recovered and may never recover from the collapse of the USSR.  Even before the financial crisis of 2008 the internal contradictions of the model of the reproduction of the humanities through graduate programs were widely recognized (as early as 1970, according to Christopher Newfield).  In mathematics, the imbalance between entering graduate classes and the job market (but why do we accept the “job market” as a fact of nature?) has been mitigated by the possibility of employment in the toxic “old normal” industries I already mentioned.

A recent Intercept article by Naomi Klein spells out how the tech industry, in partnership with local governments, plans to cash in on installing “smart” technology in the wake of the crisis.  She quotes Eric Schmidt:

Congress should meet the president’s request for the highest level of defense R & D funding in over 70 years, and the Defense Department should capitalize on that resource surge to build breakthrough capabilities in A.I., quantum, hypersonics and other priority technology areas.

Jobs in these sectors may well help PhDs in mathematics and the sciences survive the loss of stable university positions.  And this need not be a social and political disaster — if these developments are placed under democratic control, so that the benefits do not all accrue to Silicon Valley billionaires and the power is not designed to favor autocracy.  To quote Klein again:

Will that technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions like, for instance: If we are indeed seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks, and our data, really be in the hands of private players like Google, Amazon, and Apple? If public funds are paying for so much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the internet is essential for so much in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a nonprofit public utility?

However, even if one’s conscience is willing to forget that the expansion of employment opportunities for mathematicians to develop the tools of speculative finance and monetization of personal data that are at least partially responsible for the conditions that made the present crisis much worse than it had to be, there’s no guarantee that these industries will be able to absorb the surplus of mathematics PhDs when the crisis is over.

 

Relations with self

If you want to continue in this profession, your main task is to ask yourselves what you find important and valuable about the mathematical vocation, and then to acknowledge that much of this is likely to come under attack, precisely for the reasons that you find it appealing, and that preserving what is important and valuable is really up to you.  Ultimately this means placing the economic model and political justifications that sustain higher education, including those discussed above, under scrutiny; drawing the appropriate conclusions; and then doing whatever is necessary, as indicated by these conclusions, in order to preserve whatever drew you to the mathematical life in the first place.

In other words, if the values of mathematics are important to you, you will have to become activists.  If you have been reading or rereading Camus’ The Plague, you will have seen that there was “no great merit” in doing what Tarrou chose to do, “because they knew it was the only thing to do and not to have decided to do it would have been incredible.”

Humanistic scholars are much more skillful than we are in finding the language to justify their activism.

In a time in which public education must struggle to establish itself as a public good, it is incumbent upon faculty to clarify in what senses higher education is a value in our public worlds and why it should be supported. The answer provided by the recent AAUP statement …  relies on a notion of progress that is hardly explained, and given that experts have surely led us astray (experts in neoliberalism, technologies of indefinite detention, nuclear war), we would have to know which version of expert knowledge is advanced and judge whether its advancement is really a public good. Since we need to know and evaluate the direction and aim of such an “advancement,” we would have to rely on those humanistic disciplines explicitly devoted to critically interrogating the problem of value, justification, and the various senses of the public good.

(Judith Butler, Academe)

 

This text predates the COVID-19 crisis but the conclusions remain valid, and they challenge us to explain how the values that motivate us as mathematicians — the values that arise authentically from our practice, not those that are assigned to our work by the market — contribute meaningfully to “various senses of the public good.”  I think we can meet the challenge, but more of us will have to put more effort into our explanations than most of us have done so far.

Mathematicians have made considerable progress in recognizing ethical challenges within the profession.   The AMS has gone so far as to institutionalize the language of inclusion and exclusion in its publications.  But the scope for inclusion will be severely diminished if we don’t  find the language to address the challenges to the profession within the broader society.


 

1-minute summary

Forget everything you think you know, look for allies outside of mathematics, figure out what is most precious and hold on to it, and be prepared to fight to preserve it, because I guarantee there are political and economic forces that will take it away from you if left unopposed.


 

 

SOME CHOICE QUOTATIONS (some behind paywalls)

Once hard decisions have been made about academic offerings, high-level estimates of required faculty can be calculated with existing load levels, class sizes, and student-to- faculty ratios. Each of these items should next be analyzed as part of the second key question: How productive can our faculty be?

…Many argue that the traditional professorial model of tenure, lighter teaching loads, long vacations, and sabbaticals was formed when salaries were lower in higher ed but has been maintained even though salaries have risen.

(Chronicle of Higher Education, How to Address the Elephant in the Room: Academic Costs)

 

Faced with an education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has been bypassed by events, teachers have themselves invented new practices, working school by school and class by class. Away from the education authorities and the school inspectorates, the great majority of teachers have taken it upon themselves to choose and organise the details of the return to school.

…what this flurry of initiatives and mobilisation, and this capacity for self-organisation and innovation, have also shown is the extent to which a health crisis has ended up revealing the dangerously archaic nature of our political system.

(MediapartHow virus crisis is changing the face – and politics – of French society)

 

This crisis affords a rare chance to make personnel changes that have historically been resisted by strong campus cultures of inertia or by union agreements.

…Be prepared for big-change efforts and major cost-cutting (both administrative and academic), and invest in strategic differentiation to advance your college’s long-term health as well as survive this short-term crisis. In general, you will want to strive to cut more rather than less, and if things turn positive, you will be in a position to re-invest according to your strategy.

(Chronicle, Under Covid-19, University Budgets Like We’ve Never Seen Before )

 

2 thoughts on “Challenges the math community faces in the future

  1. Pingback: What would we build instead? | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on #ShutDownSTEM day | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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