Diversity statements in hiring, the American Mathematical Society, and UC Davis

QSIDE brings quantitative expertise together with expertise from the social sciences, humanities, and arts to discover the impact and scope of injustices and to build solutions to remedy them. When those injustices are themselves within the world of quantitative expertise, it hits painfully close to home.

What happened

The most widely-read mathematics publication in the world is Notices of the American Mathematical Society. The most recent issue of the Notices contains an essay by Prof. Abigail Thompson, who is both a Vice President of the American Mathematical Society and Chair of the Department of Mathematics at UC Davis. The essay speaks against the use of diversity statements in college and university faculty hiring, and equates the practice to McCarthyism. Really – read the piece yourself, if you like. QSIDE prefers not to re-hash it here.

What is a diversity statement?

In a typical faculty search process, candidates submit a cover letter, a cv, a research statement (describing their research experience and future plans) and a teaching statement (describing their teaching experience and philosophy). Additionally, many faculty searches now require candidates to submit a diversity statement. The purpose of the statement is to identify candidates who have skills, experiences, and/or plans that would support inclusion, diversity, and equity on campus. This is reasonable. Some people will equate the use of a diversity statement with “politics” or “affirmative action.” Not so. A straight white cisgender man can write a stupendously effective diversity statement if he learns about the issues and thinks about how to address them in his professional life. And as for politics, diversity statements are not politics, at least, not in the partisan sense. They are policy. Some institutions of learning, to their credit, have decided that they would like to address inclusion, diversity, and equity issues. Seeking faculty who can teach in inclusive ways, for example, is a perfectly reasonable job requirement, just as we expect to hire faculty who can perform research.

What is going on at the American Mathematical Society?

Why would the Notices choose to publish Thompson’s piece? The opening sentence, “This essay contains my opinions as an individual,” is no consolation. The Notices has a choice in what it publishes, and it uses its editorial discretion all the time. By amplifying Thompson’s views to a large audience, the American Mathematical Society lends legitimacy to them, and in doing so, engages in both-sides-ism. It’s ok to use diversity statements, on one hand, and diversity statements are like McCarthyism, on the other hand. This raises the unavoidable question: AMS, what are your own actual views on diversity statements?

What is going on at UC Davis?

The Department of Mathematics at UC Davis is, in many ways, not diverse. Recognizing the problems and limitations of assessing demographics based on names and pictures, we nonetheless have done so because we do not have any other available data on the department. We have limited ourselves here to some quick gender statistics. We infer the tenure-stream faculty in the department to be 18% women. While this is dreadfully low, it is also right around the national average. That said, the national distribution does have spread, so there are many departments doing much better than UC Davis. The situation with graduate students in much more concerning. According to AMS statistics, at the national level, women comprise just shy of 30% of Ph.D. recipients in the mathematical sciences. As for UC Davis’ Department of Mathematics, we infer the pool of graduate students to be 14% or 15% women. Department leadership and/or culture being hostile to the idea of asking faculty candidates to articulate diversity and inclusion plans could certainly be linked to the department’s abysmal gender representation. This raises questions for UC Davis: Are you concerned about the diversity issues in the Department of Mathematics? Are you concerned that you have a department chair who publicly opposes your institution’s requirement of using diversity statements? Regardless of her personal views, have you now looked into whether she is abiding by your institution’s rules around these statements?

What can you do in response

Here is a list I have come up with so far. I will edit this post as more ideas surface.

1. Email AMS Executive Directory Catherine Roberts (exdir@ams.org), AMS President Jill Pipher (jill_pipher@brown.edu), and Notices Editor-in-Chief Erica Flapan (ELF04747@pomona.edu). You are welcome to use this text I wrote:

Dear AMS,

I am truly dismayed by the AMS’s decision to publish Abigail Thompson’s piece in the December Notices. 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.

The “personal opinion” disclaimer at the start of the essay is no consolation. Your editorial choices carry weight and they convey values. Why did you devote page space to Thompson’s piece? Do you find it legitimate? What are you own views around the use of diversity statements in hiring? If I asked to publish a personal opinion piece that said “Women are better mathematicians than men” would you let me?

I believe you have made a grave and very damaging mistake by publishing Thompson’s essay.


2. Stop doing favors for the Notices. Full disclosure: QSIDE already has one piece that will soon appear in the Notices and it is past the point where we have the capability of pulling it. However, I was asked to write another piece for the Notices a few months down the road and I have now written them to cancel my anticipated submission. Please consider not working with the Notices until they reckon with their decision to publish Thompson’s piece.

3. Spread the word about this debacle on social media and in your workplaces.

4. Contact UC Davis, Thompson’s institution, to express your concerns about diversity in the Department of Mathematics and about Thompson’s role as Chair. If she has gone on record in a very public way as being opposed to diversity statements, and if UC Davis requires them, the school must look into whether or not she has been abiding by institutional policy.

5. For those of you who are in mathematics, advise grad-school-bound undergraduate students – especially students who are minoritized along some axis – not to apply to UC Davis. Advise your graduate student and postdoc colleagues not to apply there for jobs. I can already hear some people saying “if we are advising minorities not to go there, how will their abysmal diversity situation ever get better?” In response, I would say that it is not the job of minoritized people to go into bad situations in order to diversify them. The department and the university must lead, and must demonstrate proactively that they have created policies and practices that promote a healthy and inclusive environment.

6. Please donate to QSIDE. We are a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization and we need your support. Every single penny you donate goes towards quantitative work on social justice issues.

A quick note to Ephblog: If you’re reading this… hi folks! 😘


  1. Jessica Ellis Hagman says:

    Hi – Thank you for posting this! I am working on a piece for the Notices now about fostering discussions related to diversity among math department chairs and course coordinators and giving some examples from a big discussion we hosted of about 60 math department folks. We are now reconsidering the Notices as our venue, but think we could also have an impact by publishing there and calling out this position as problematic. What do you think?

    1. chadtopaz says:

      I am never sure of the right answer to these hard questions. What I can say is that I feel the writing assignment I was going to do (which was something very distant from direct topics of equity/diversity/inclusion) is substantively different from what you are doing, which could rebut Thompson’s problematic piece quite directly. But I guess I would say, then, don’t squander the opportunity. If I were in your shoes and had decided to go with the Notices, I would use it as an opportunity to call out that piece.

      1. Jessica Ellis Hagman says:

        Thank you! Also hey! Didn’t realize I was writing to you (we met at CSU sometime last year).

      2. chadtopaz says:

        I remember! Hope you are well!

  2. F. Patricia Medina says:

    Thanks for this post!

  3. Shanon Rubin says:

    UC Davis math grad student here. Reading this is even more concerning in context, as our department is in the throws of discussions about the ethics and impact of a recent invited lecture by a mathematician who is a known sexual predator.

    This on top of our awareness of our poor demographic diversity, especially in grad student gender. All three of these things are really not what I expected upon moving to California! However, a consolation to potential applicants: despite these recent choices by a few faculty members, many in our community remain dedicated to the ideals of diversity and inclusion.

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