Category Archives: Universities

Mathematicians on strike in Paris

maths-en-lutte

As a public service, I am copying the message that just arrived on my Jussieu account:

Pour les collègues présents à Jussieu qui souhaitent aller manifester (mes excuses pour les autres), il y a un rendez-vous :
Vendredi 24 janvier, 10h devant la tour 26.
And here are the minutes of a meeting between students and faculty on the ongoing strike, held on January 20:
CR_REUNION_UFRMATH_20_01_2020

The diversity statement controversy, III

demographics

Chad Topaz was scheduled to speak at 9:30 this morning at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver, at the AMS Special Session on the Mathematics of Social Justice.    His title was Diversity through a Data Science Lens, and you can read his abstract here.  His talk was cancelled, however, so I won’t be able to tell you whether or not he touched on the topic of the article excerpted above.   Since his name is out of alphabetical order I assume he was the lead author.  The article sheds a not entirely unexpected light on the controversy over diversity hiring statements to which I have already devoted three blog posts.  Here is the summary:

We report on a study of the signatories’ demographics, which we infer using a crowdsourcing approach. Letter A highlights diversity and social justice. The pool of signatories contains relatively more individuals inferred to be women and/or members of underrepresented ethnic groups. Moreover, this pool is diverse with respect to the levels of professional security and types of academic institutions represented. Letter B does not comment on diversity, but rather, asks for discussion and debate. This letter was signed by a strong majority of individuals inferred to be white men in professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities. Letter C speaks out specifically against diversity statements, calling them “a mistake,” and claiming that their usage during early stages of faculty hiring “diminishes mathematical achievement.” Individuals who signed both Letters B and C, that is, signatories who both privilege debate and oppose diversity statements, are overwhelmingly inferred to be tenured white men at highly research intensive universities.

There is a very interesting rhetorical move here.  It can be presumed that many of those who signed Letters B and C take their “professionally secure positions at highly research intensive universities” as license to speak out with authority on matters affecting the discipline.  Although the report by Topaz et al. does not say so explicitly, it seems to imply that it is precisely the “professionally secure position” that disqualifies its holder as an objective observer.   In other words, the article questions the legitimacy of the charismatic hierarchy that is the subject of chapter 2 of MWA:  to the hierarchy’s claim to be based on professional merit, the article replies with a reading that sees it as a self-sustaining system designed to maintain undeserved (disproportionately white male) privilege.

This is not a new perspective; it was commonplace during the period of the science wars, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when it became less noticeable in the aftermath of the Sokal affair.  Thirty years ago, however, this point of view was not widely shared among mathematicians.  Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there were regular sessions on Mathematics of Social Justice at Joint Mathematical Meetings in the 1980s and 1990s.

The starting point of the diversity statement controversy, I believe, is the undeniable fact that the community of professional mathematicians in the US is demographically extremely skewed relative to the country’s population.  “Underrepresented minorities,” in particular, are really underrepresented.  All the mathematicians I know see this as a real problem.   Some of the positions mentioned at the Mathematics of Social Justice session suggest that mathematics as currently constituted — in its pedagogy, its recruitment, and its charismatic hierarchy— is designed in such a way as (not necessarily intentionally) to exclude the underrepresented populations.  The solution would then be to replace the existing structures of mathematics by something new.

How might we imagine that something new?  Over the past few days in Denver I learned a great deal about a variety of inspiring initiatives at universities and schools around the country.  Some of them can be found at this list on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog (which certainly did not exist thirty years ago).   I will be studying them over the coming weeks — I encourage readers to do the same — and it’s likely I’ll be writing about some of them.

I am pretty sure, though, that none of the new initiatives has anything to do with diversity statements.  I strongly believe that in the controversy that (as Topaz et al indicates) has not yet died down, the diversity statement itself is serving as a proxy for some more substantial objective.  This is confirmed by a message I received from one of the signatories of Letter A:

At this point the fight seems to be about whether understanding and working with students’ different backgrounds should be treated as part of the professorial job description, with Thompson representing what is probably the majority default of something like “colorblind racism”. So I think there’s value in saying loudly that the colorblind position is no longer an acceptable starting point for a worthwhile contribution to diversity/equity/justice, with the emphasis being on using diversity frameworks as a stepping stone to what we really want, which is a justice-based framework.

Where I come from, “colorblind racism” counts as fighting words.  The most obvious defect of Letter A is its inclusion of the expression “reverse racism” in quotes, when it appeared nowhere in Abigail Thompson’s letter.  For all I know, many people who signed Letter A sincerely believed that Thompson had accused the supporters of diversity statements of “reverse racism.”  But leaving misrepresentation aside, I have tried to argue that diversity frameworks are a particularly slippery stepping stone, since they were explicitly designed as an alternative to a “justice-based framework.”  The author of this comment believed as well that “[i]f you belong to the ‘fundamentally not fair’ camp, then you’re stuck with the unfortunate ‘diversity’ formulation, but at least from there the door can be wedged open.”  As far as I’m concerned this is magical thinking, as is the claim in the same comment that support for diversity statements is “an affirmative sign of where the institutional leadership stands” — as if the very institution targeted by the Bakke decision would make any effort to use the decision’s framework to undermine the decision.

Here, on the other hand, is a comment from a colleague who signed Letter B:

I thought the letters in support of Abigail were not about the diversity per se, but rather about the bullying that she became the subject of. Typical exclusion in the name of inclusion …
I objected to the use of the word “bullying.”
Has she been attacked by powerful people, or only by noisy but mainly powerless people?  I would reserve the term “bullying” for the former.
And my colleague replied:
Not sure who is powerful anymore, your allegedly powerless people can easily destroy people’s lives and, certainly, careers.
It seems to me that the threat to Abigail Thompson’s career — presumably from Chad Topaz’s initial reaction to her article — was no less exaggerated than her comparison of diversity statements to loyalty oaths, but it also seems to me likely that most of the people who signed Letters B and C were responding to this imagined threat — I didn’t sign any of the letters but I am no more inclined than they to trust “institutional leadership”  — and not to defend their privileged status of overrepresentation.  This is one reason the Topaz et al. article is so interesting; because it aims to undermine the presumption that privileged positions are awarded solely (better to say almost solely) on the basis of merit.
I would like to hear from the authors of that article how they imagine mathematics would look if the charismatic hierarchy were undermined.  But that’s a complicated issue, and I would like to end on an observation that Topaz et al. may have missed.  The article calculates that women made up 27.8% of the signatories of Letter C — making them underrepresented by some measure and within the representative range by others.  I went through the list and discovered that, of the 45 women who signed, exactly 4 were from the US (though a few may have acquired US citizenship).  I can attest that students in France are not taught to look to the US for good ideas about managing race relations, and I suspect something similar is true in the countries where most of these women grew up.

The diversity statement controversy, II

header

From AMS Notices, January 2020, online only, p. 1

One of the minor virtues of Goodwillie’s piece, quoted in the previous post, is its clarity regarding the meaning of “diversity” in the institutional setting.  The word appears only twice, neither time with an unambiguously positive valence:

Institutional diversity is all very well, but if the “different” people do not feel truly welcome, and if mismatches between the institution and the worlds that the students are coming from are ignored, then the institution has failed them.

I’d like to think that a job applicant who meditated on Goodwillie’s post would be well-prepared to write a genuinely meaningful diversity statement.  But it would be much more than a “cuddly, feel-good” sort of diversity statement;  it might even be seen as dangerously close to the kind of commitment to social justice that the 1978 Supreme Court ruled out as grounds for affirmative action.

In contrast, no one comes off well in this latest controversy.  I had prepared a point-by-point list of some of the problematic arguments made in each of the texts, starting with Thompson’s essay and continuing through the open letters written for and against, as well as Chad Topaz’s blog post at QSIDE.  But a friend made the following comment upon reading an earlier draft:

THINK THIS WHOLE SECTION BELOW IS CONFUSING AND DOESN’T REALLY FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR CRITIQUE OF DIVERSITY ABOVE.  THE POINT, IT SEEMS TO ME, IS THAT NO ONE IN THE THOMPSON CONTROVERSY (THOMPSON INCLUDED) TAKES THE COATES POINT.  HER SUPPORTERS OBJECT TO BEING ASKED TO MAKE A DIVERSITY STATEMENT AND HER CRITICS PROTECT DIVERSITY AS IF IT REALLY COULD ADDRESS INSTITUTIONAL RACISM.  ALL YOU DO BELOW IS QUIBBLE WITH EACH SIDE, BUT YOU DON’T NAIL YOUR CRITICISM IN TERMS OF WHAT YOU WROTE ABOVE.

My friend is absolutely right.  I enjoy a good quibble as much as anyone, but it’s best to keep it private.  Besides, the most serious of my points was the suggestion that the AMS Notices open its pages to an extended debate on the important topic of … inclusion and exclusion … including but not limited to the role of diversity statements.   It turns out that this debate already began in the January 2020 issue of the Notices, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday.  The for and against letters are included, and a second for letter again, with all the signatures; the total occupies a 21-page pdf file.  It’s therefore likely that more than 1400 people knew, as I did not, that my suggestion was superfluous.  This is a sign that I should perhaps be expressing myself with more humility.

I note, however, that nowhere in the 21 pages of the Notices file does anyone “take[s] the Coates point,” as my friend put it.  Lewis Powell is not identified as the author of the “diversity” opinion, and the Bakke case is only mentioned once, in passing, and in a way that, perhaps inadvertently, confirms “the Coates point.”  Xander Faber’s letter quotes this comment by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:

In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.

The context of Blackmun’s comment, however, was his Separate Opinion,  written to clarify his agreement with the minority position in the Bakke case.   This is the position that lost out to the “cuddly, feel-good” diversity that, thanks to Powell and four other Justices, has been the limit of what the law of the land protects since 1978.  To me it is counterintuitive to rely on Powell’s vocabulary to “uphold Blackmun’s words,” as Faber writes, when the continuation of the Blackmun comment — “We cannot – we dare not – let the Equal Protection Clause perpetrate racial supremacy.” — was written as an explicit rebuke to Powell’s reasoning.

Faber’s letter has the merit of appealing to evidence, in the form of “an extensive report” produced by UC Berkeley “that documents the effect of hiring with a diversity focus in mind.”  Here is what that report had to say (on p. 49) about the effectiveness of diversity statements:

Beyond the applicant stage … no clear and consistent patterns in the data emerged that would suggest a positive statistical correlation between this practice and diversity.  We suspect there may be considerable variation in how search committees implemented this practice, and we speculate that these differences may have obscured the potential value of some forms of implementation. In addition, different institutions may use information about candidates’ commitment to diversity in different ways, and when these can be studied separately, some may emerge as considerably more promising than others. Anecdotal evidence from other UC campuses suggests that much may depend on the extent to which strong or weak “diversity statements” are used as potential deciding factors during the search deliberations. On the basis of our data and analyses to date, however, we do not think we can conclude that this is a practice showing clear promise.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of diversity statements as a way to enhance even diversity of the “cuddly, feel-good” variety,  much less as a means of realizing the more ambitious aims of equity and inclusion to which Faber refers in his letter.  I wonder whether Faber disagrees.

Overall I have to assume that when people in this debate use the word “diversity” they have in mind something like “equity” or even “social justice” — the opposite of the meaning  Powell set out in his 1978 opinion.   Institutions like the Regents of the University of California may be confined to the legal straitjacket that Justice Powell designed for them more than 40 years ago, but there is no reason that a colleague who is genuinely committed to the values of equity or social justice should feel obliged to express their values in Powell’s vocabulary.

P.S.  I’m not sure I agree with Thompson’s judgment that “Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is … a political test,” [my emphasis] but it is certainly political. Assuming that the US approach to identity politics has universal political validity is a symptom of the provincialism — not to say cultural imperialism — that comes too naturally to people who live in this country, wherever their opinions fall on the political spectrum.  It is particularly unwelcome as the default position of the inclusion/exclusion blog with regard to decisions that affect the very international population of candidates for jobs in the United States.  Some of these candidates come from countries where treating people “differently according to their identity” is strictly illegal.  Depending on what is meant by “treat,” this is arguably also the case in the United States — the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is cited 31 times in the Bakke case that is at the origin of all this talk of diversity.   I sincerely regret that Blackmun’s position did not prevail in 1978, but it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that it did.

 

 

The diversity statement controversy, I

922px-US_Supreme_Court_Justice_Lewis_Powell_-_1976_official_portrait

Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, author of the legal definition of “diversity”; PD-USGov

Colleagues who are confused by the ongoing controversy surrounding Abigail Thompson’s article in the Notices of the AMS on mandatory diversity statements should reread what Ta-Nehisi Coates had to say about “diversity” in his article “The Case for Reparations“:

Affirmative action’s precise aims… have always proved elusive.  Is it meant to make amends for the crimes heaped upon black people? Not according to the Supreme Court. In its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court rejected “societal discrimination” as “an amorphous concept of injury that may be ageless in its reach into the past.” Is affirmative action meant to increase “diversity”? If so, it only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people— the problem of what America has taken from them over several centuries. …

America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.

Thompson, a Vice-President of the AMS and Chair of the mathematics department at UC Davis, wrote her essay to object to the UC system’s use of mandatory diversity statements to “screen out [job applicants] early in the search process.”  While she compares these statements to the “loyalty oaths” that the UC Regents required during the McCarthy period, and Melissa Lutz Blouin, speaking for the UC Davis administration, retorted that

Diversity, equity and inclusion statements foster productive discussions on how current and prospective faculty can shape and improve the learning and working environment in higher education…

neither Thompson’s original article nor the subsequent controversy makes it clear whether the UC Regents favor “cuddly, feel-good” diversity statements or are willing to consider statements that relate more than tangentially to the specific problems of the communities whose concerns they are meant to address.

Coates, unlike most of the mathematicians and bloggers who have weighed in on the topic since Thompson’s essay appeared, is deeply familiar with the history of the term “diversity” within the jurisprudence that underlies UC Davis’s approach to affirmative action.   When the Bakke case to which Coates refers was decided, it was considered a defeat by those who hoped to use affirmative action as a means to remedy historical discrimination.  Alan Bakke, the plaintiff, claimed that his constitutional rights had been violated when he was rejected — by UC Davis, of all places! — because the medical school had set aside 16% of its slots for minority students.  The California Supreme Court agreed with him, and the US Supreme Court followed suit — Bakke was admitted later that year.  The Court’s judgment, written by Justice Lewis Powell, did allow affirmative action, but only as a way of “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body”:

An otherwise qualified medical student with a particular background — whether it be ethnic, geographic, culturally advantaged or disadvantaged — may bring to a professional school of medicine experiences, outlooks, and ideas that enrich the training of its student body and better equip its graduates to render with understanding their vital service to humanity.

(Bakke, pp. 306, 314).  Translating Powell into plain English:  an ethnically diverse student body is desirable as a bonus benefit that can “enrich” the experience of the (presumably white) majority.  Or, to quote Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, as I already did three years ago in this post,

…in Powell’s diversity framework, diversity was the expression of an institution’s freedom to choose particularly attractive individuals, and was about ensuring this freedom for powerful institutions like… Harvard College.…Diversity acquired social influence not as a moderate mode in which to pursue racial equality but as an alternative to that pursuit.

I am suspicious of any attempt to ground a progressive approach to any question whatsoever in the ideas of the supremely sinister Powell, author of the notorious Powell Memorandum, which Wikipedia accurately calls “the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement.”  While the Regents of the University of California are legally bound by a jurisprudence that serves, as a friend wrote, as a means of “deflecting attention from the structural issues to the individual ones,” why is the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog so attached to the policy?  I suspect it is because its readers and authors, unlike Coates or Newfield, imagine that “diversity” can be translated into the aspirations expressed in Thomas Goodwillie’s post on that same blog.  Goodwillie’s text, which is extraordinary for its thoughtfulness and humility, should be studied before reading the second part of this post.



 

 

 

Mathematicians as beneficiaries, and their patrons

What follows are the uncorrected notes for a presentation by videolink at the first workshop on Ethics in Mathematics, held in Cambridge April 20-21, 2018.

It’s a humbling experience for me to be asked to speak at this meeting, alongside some authentically legendary figures. Maurice Chiodo and Piers Bursill-Hall have assembled a stellar lineup in a remarkably short time. This is certainly a tribute to their energy and initiative, but the fact that so many speakers have agreed to participate is also a sign that Maurice and Piers have identified a need whose urgency is increasingly recognized across the profession. I do hope this week’s meeting will be remembered as the start of a genuine international movement to place ethics at the center of our work as mathematicians.

It’s a special honor to be invited to participate in a conference on mathematics and ethics that is taking place in Cambridge, home of G. H. Hardy, a mathematician whose commitment to pacifism and social justice is well-known even beyond the profession. Since mathematicians are constantly being asked why our work is useful, it’s appropriate to recall that Hardy once wrote that

A science is said to be useful if its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life.

Hardy was thinking particularly of military applications of science, as well as of the mathematical economics of his time. Had he lived a few years longer he would have witnessed the growth of mathematical game theory, whose destructive consequences in both domains have been developed assiduously by the RAND Corporation, which figures prominently in the biography of John Nash, among other mathematical heroes.

I consider Hardy a precursor of current proposals for mathematicians working on various applications to adopt “Hippocratic Oaths,” the ethics of abstaining from doing harm. In an article published last year entitled Do Mathematicians Have Responsibilities?, I mention some of the more recent applications of mathematics that are “useful” in Hardy’s sense, but my focus is different.

While pure mathematicians in particular may have wondered whether much of their work would ever be socially useful, it was generally believed that at least it caused no harm. Events of recent years have called that belief into question.  The sophisticated and often opaque derivatives developed by financial mathematics magnified the effects of a downturn in sectors of the US housing market into a global financial crisis whose consequences are still with us. Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 served as a reminder that contemporary cryptographic techniques based on number theory can also be used to facilitate general surveillance by governments. The rapid growth of Big Data has made it possible for commercial as well as public actors to track individual behavior with increasing precision, with grave implications for privacy.

In each of these applications of mathematics one finds the same three features: an approach to human activity that is purely instrumental; a disdain for democratic decision-making; and the empowerment of experts on the basis of their mathematical training. And in each case, a few mathematical scientists have pointed out that the power of mathematical technology imposes social responsibility on those who develop it, beyond putting trust in experts.

In this brief presentation I want to stress the second and third features, because they make it clear that the call to “do no harm,” important though it is, does not fully discharge our social responsibilities as mathematicians. The fact is that our very expertise, as academics and researchers, contributes to the reproduction of the social order that makes the abuses not only possible but often inevitable. We perceive the universities and research institutes in which we work as protected spaces and spaces to be protected, and this is true as far as it goes. But the primary function of the university is to reproduce existing relations of power and influence. In this sense, Hardy’s refuge in pure mathematics is itself part of the problem. Indeed, A Mathematician’s Apology fairly reeks of the elitism that, even in its current attenuated form, is an essential aspect of the image, or the brand, that distinguishes universities like Cambridge and Oxford and Harvard and Columbia and endows their professors with the expert status that so often serves to undermine the democratic process.

Let me add right away that I am fully aware of the dangers of this kind of talk in the face of climate denial and right-wing populism more generally. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the primary role of the expert in public policy is to be mobilized in support of dominant interests, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s There is no alternative. The article I just quoted has a good illustration of this in connection with the current massive growth of artificial intelligence, and the feverish promotion of the Internet of Things as a technological inevitability and a promising investment opportunity. The ethical implications of these developments seem to have been entrusted, in particular by the EU, to the AI industry itself:

In connection with [the risks of AI], it was announced that Facebook, IBM, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft had just formed the “Partnership on AI” for the purpose of “conducting research and promoting best practices.”

Since then Apple has joined (the big five + IBM) and there are now representatives of civil society (ACLU, EFF, and Center for Democracy and Technology, among others). Of course the relative weight of the corporate and civil partners in defining “best practices” remains to be seen.   My point, however, is that the vision of democratic decision-making still places the expert at the center.

By the way, I have not come to you today with an alternative and more democratic model. The problem is a profound democratic deficit in the society at large. That’s not a problem for this gathering to solve; but in my opinion it is inseparable from any serious reflection on the ethical obligations of mathematicians or any of our fellows in the elite sphere we inhabit.

My aim was rather to make a few remarks about research funding, and I will quote from my article in the Times Higher Education Supplement to indicate how difficult it is to avoid tainted sources.

[Tom Leinster’s] question hasn’t gone away: should we cooperate with GCHQ? The problem is that research funds have to come from somewhere; the survival of number theory depends on it. One veteran colleague likens mathematical research to a kidney; no matter where it gets its funding, the output is always pure and sweet, and any impurities are buried in the paperwork. Our cultural institutions have long since grown accustomed to this excretory function, and that includes our great universities. Henry VIII was a morally ambiguous character, to say the least, and a pioneer in eavesdropping as well as cryptography; but neither Hardy nor his friend Bertrand Russell refused his fellowship at Trinity on that account.  

It would be nice if the State could provide its own kidneys and impose an impermeable barrier between the budgets for research that is socially progressive, or at least innocuous, and the military and surveillance functions about which the less we know, the better. But States don’t work that way, and for the most part they never have. The only alternative to public funding, from whatever the source, is private philanthropy. America’s great private universities are monuments to the past and present generosity of some of our wealthiest citizens. That is not, however, what is most appealing about them. I find it demeaning to have to express gratitude for my research funding to practices of which I otherwise heartily disapprove — like hedge fund management, for example, or data mining — but that have given a few people the status of Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals … and thus in the position of being able to function publicly as philanthropists. Or to despots like the Emir of Kuwait, whose Foundation used to sponsor a generous lecture series at Cambridge.

It seems that anywhere you turn, you’re going to be someone’s kidney. But feeling demeaned is beside the point. As …Cathy O’Neil… put it in January 2014, “We lose something when we consistently take money from rich people, which has nothing to with any specific rich person who might have great ideas and great intentions.…” One of the things we lose: control of how decisions are made: “…the entire system depends on the generosity of someone who could change his mind at any moment.”

The more basic problem is that the very existence of UHNWI entails the concentration of power beyond the control of democratic oversight. Among billionaire patrons, Jim Simons stands out for his commitment to the values of working mathematicians — which is natural, given that he was a distinguished geometer before his management of the wildly successful hedge fund Renaissance Technologies made him an UHNWI. But the same high-frequency trading algorithms that fueled Simons’s philanthropy gave us Breitbart, courtesy of Robert Mercer, Simons’s former colleague at Renaissance. Mercer was much in the news earlier this year after it was revealed that, through his connection to Cambridge Analytica, he used psychologically targeted advertising on social media to intervene in the Brexit and Trump elections, possibly tipping the balance in both cases. Mercer has come to personify the sinister side of the UHNWI phenomenon, but even outspoken liberal billionaires like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergei Brin, who have been subsidizing pure mathematics indirectly through their cosponsorship of the extravagant Breakthrough Prizes, have built their fortunes on mathematical techniques that are no less threatening to privacy than GCHQ surveillance.

I could continue for quite a long time expressing my regret that the need to sustain our research places us in the uncomfortable position of dependence on ethically dubious sources of funding. In the interest of full disclosure, and to highlight the paradoxes of my own position, I ought to mention that this afternoon I will be heading to a conference in the Bavarian Alps, sponsored by the Simons Foundation! The first part of today’s presentation, however, was meant as a reminder that as researchers and academics our very salaries are being paid by institutions whose primary function is the preservation of the status quo. Insofar as the possibility of the most visible aberrations (Cambridge Analytica, NSA undermining of encryption standards, credit default swaps, drone guidance systems and so on) are built into the normal functioning of the status quo, and are justified by an ideology of expertise that is maintained by our universities and research institutes, our very existence as experts guarantees that our profession provides no refuge of ethical purity.

Interjection: How, by the way, did Trinity get to be so rich? I don’t know the answer; instead, I offer this bit of information as an ironic metaphor for our defense of ethics from our perches within the power structure:

At what is today Columbia University, there was a medal issued at graduation every year by the Manumission Society — many of whose members were slaveowners — for the best essay each year that opposed the slave trade (from a report by Eric Foner on Columbia’s website, as quoted in The Trinity Tripod of Trinity College, Connecticut, dated February 11, 2014)

(Of course, Columbia was hardly alone; Harvard, Penn, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and other leading universities of the time had interests in the slave trade.)

As I wrote in the THES piece:

[T]he immense privilege of devoting our lives to the research projects we have chosen freely imposes on us the obligation to speak out when our work is used for destructive ends, or when the sources of our funding do not share our values.

By “speaking out” I don’t mean simply reacting to abuses. I mean actively anticipating possible uses of our work, including our teaching of students, for purposes of which we do not approve. Here I would add that we are no less obligated to acknowledge the role of our institutions, and of our expert status within and through these institutions, in preserving existing power relations that are incompatible with democratic ideals.

The privilege of devoting our lives to our freely chosen profession makes us beneficiaries in the sense described in a recent book by my Columbia colleague Bruce Robbins. A great many people need to perform less rewarding work, or are rewarded less well for what they do, in order to provide us the means to pursue our professional goals.

Nevertheless, I want to conclude by stressing the importance of defending these benefits. I’m sure that each of you has been asked at one time or another some version of “how is what you do useful?” And if you are a pure mathematician you might have resorted not to Hardy’s definition of “useful” but rather to Hardy’s argument that mathematics is an art form, and therefore deserves to be pursued for its own sake. I suspect such an answer provides little defense against accusations of self-indulgence, irresponsibility, and a lack of due regard for the taxpayer’s money. Faced with such accusations — usually by individuals whose own position within the power structure leaves them open to challenge — I like to reverse the terms of the question: if mathematics is not to be pursued for its own sake, then for the sake of what? For profits, or Facebook “likes,” or to give Britain a leg up in the international marketplace? This should immediately pose the question of democracy, which in the present context includes the right to adhere to values that are not determined by the market and its ideologues and functionaries. All work should ideally be for its own sake. But this is an idea I am struggling to articulate, and I hope to have made some progress if and when we meet again.

 

Urgent news from Leicester

Tim Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics department.  More like a double decimation:  of the department’s 23 full-time staff, 5 are slated to lose their jobs, with the research staff shrinking by close to 30%.  Rather than repeat the details, which you can find presented with Gowers’s customary clarity on his blog, I am using this space to encourage readers and their friends to sign the protest petition.  The petition already has over 2500 signatures, many of them alerted to the situation (as I was) by reading Gowers’s account.

Leicester is being cut back across the board, but the cuts in mathematics are particularly severe.  For a crash course in the neo-liberal conception of the university, you can read the relevant chapter in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos, featured in an entry on this blog last year.

This blog has been suspended but it will be revived occasionally for urgent news items like this one.

UPDATE:  Vladimir Tasić points out that this sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency in Canada as well.

 

Four scientific societies react to the resignation of French experts

I am told that the previous post on the resignation of the ANR evaluation committee for mathematics and computer science was widely shared on Facebook, notably by researchers in the social sciences.  Today the Société Mathématique de France published a joint statement signed by the presidents of four professional organizations, as well as the text of a motion in support of the resignation, voted by the SMF at their national meeting last week.

The joint statement is reproduced below (in French).

Déclaration des sociétés savantes françaises de mathématiques et d’informatique

Société Française de Statistique (SFdS),

Société de Mathématiques Appliquées et Industrielles (SMAI),

Société Mathématique de France (SMF),

Société Informatique de France (SIF).

Mise  en  garde  sur  l’inadéquation  du  modèle  de  sélection  de  l’ANR  pour  les mathématiques et l’informatique.

Les sociétés savantes de mathématiques, statistique et informatique (SFdS, SMAI, SMF, SIF) alertent  les  pouvoirs  publics,  l’Agence  Nationale de  la  Recherche  (ANR)  et  la  communauté scientifique  sur  la  démobilisation  massive  des  mathématiciens  et  informaticiens  constaté  ces dernières années dans les appels à projets de l’ANR.

Cette démobilisation  apparaît comme une conséquence  du choix de l’ANR de ne pas tenir  compte  des  spécificités  disciplinaires  et  de  ne  pas  impulser  une  dynamique  qui soit réellement au service du développement de la science et de l’innovation en France.

Les  mathématiques,  les  statistiques  et  l’informatique  sont  fortement  moteurs  et  vont l’être  de  plus  en  plus  de  façon  directe,  transversale  et  interdisciplinaire  dans  tous  les changements  en  cours  concernant  le  développement  technologique,  les  enjeux  du numérique  et  la  capacité  d’innovation  en  France  et  à  l’international.  Pourtant,  le conseil  de  prospective  de  l’ANR  n’intègre  aucun  mathématicien  ni  informaticien  en son sein.

Le  Comité  d’Evaluation  Scientifique  de  l’ANR  en  mathématiques  et  informatique (CES 40) a  constaté  une  forte  baisse  du  nombre  de  projets  soumis  en  2016, conséquence immédiate d’une perte de la motivation des  collègues face au très faible  taux  d’acceptation  des  années  précédentes.  Il  souligne    également  la difficulté  de  mobiliser  les  collègues  pour  expertiser  des  projets  trop  souvent rejetés.

Or le nombre de projets soutenus est calculé par l’ANR proportionnellement au nombre de projets soumis. Cette année, nos deux disciplines auront donc encore moins  de  projets  acceptés,  amorçant  un cercle  vicieux  qui  met  en  danger  la vitalité de nos communautés.

En outre, les modalités d’élaboration du taux d’acceptation de l’ANR ne sont pas discutées  de  façon  ouverte  ni  diffusées  à  la  communauté  scientifique  (toutes disciplines  confondues).  Ce  taux est  déterminé  par  l’ANR,  de  façon  opaque  et  sans   aucune   concertation   avec   les   comités   après   leur   travail   d’évaluation scientifique. Il est fixé pour chaque défi, sans aucune considération disciplinaire qui permettrait  de  dégager  une  vision  pour  le  développement  de  la  science  et leur impact économique et sociétal. Les comités doivent aujourd’hui travailler en «aveugle», sans aucune information sur la politique de répartition des moyens, et sans prise en compte des critères scientifiques pour le classement final.

Les quatre sociétés savantes signataires  demandent donc que les comités scientifiques soient pleinement associés aux modalités d’élaboration des taux d’acceptation, qu’une enveloppe budgétaire soit décidée en amont du travail des comités et que le conseil de prospective de l’ANR soit plus représentatif pour les mathématiques et l’informatique. Porteuses  des  attentes  de  leur  communauté,  elles  souhaitent  rencontrer  le  ministère dans les plus brefs délais.

GÉRARD    BIAU,    Président    de    la    SFdS,

FATIHA    ALABAU,    Présidente    de    la    SMAI,

MARC    PEIGNE,    Président    de    la    SMF,

JEAN-­MARC    PETIT,    Président    de    la    SIF.