Updates: Thompson/UC Davis/AMS Kerfuffle

Earlier this week

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. QSIDE’s original post about this incident (from Nov. 19) is here. QSIDE was among the first to notice the piece and alert the community, and we are heartened that our post has had a wide reach, having been read 2,400 times during the initial three days. Thank you for listening to what we have to say. The purpose of the present post is to bring you up to date on what has happened since since our initial post.

Response from UC Davis

The university posted this response which attempts to clarify the institution’s attitude towards diversity statements.

Response from the community

A group of mathematical scientists penned a letter in response to AMS which as of now has been signed by approximately 500 community members (and the list is growing). If you are a member of the mathematical sciences community, please consider signing.

Response from the american mathematical society leadership

The AMS Notices Editor-in-Chief posted a response on Twitter which stated:

Thank you to everyone who has responded to Abigail Thompson’s “A Word from…” in the Dec. 2019 Notices. Since Jan. 2019, I have invited AMS leadership (both governance and staff) to write “A Word From…” on a topic of their choice. In each case, I did not censor or try to change the context. While Prof. Thompson stated that the opinions expressed were those of her as an individual, I can see how her piece could be interpreted as representing the views of our professional society. I apologize to those who understood it as such and will try to make sure that the distinction is clearer in “A Word From…” I welcome all letters to the editor to continue our community’s collective conversation about this important topic.

This is a problematic response for two reasons.

First, it is a classic non-apology apology, i.e., “I am sorry if YOU misunderstood,” rather than “I am sorry for how our actions hurt the community.”

Second, it does not address the heart of the problem. The decision to publish something is not a neutral decision. I am not sure if the Notices truly don’t understand this, or if they are simply choosing this response as the most politically expedient one.

Allow me to flesh this idea out a little bit. On one hand, the AMS has an actual, official statement on the value of equity, diversity, and inclusion. And to be clear, the AMS does indeed do many wonderful things in support of those values, and I hope we recognize these and give due credit to AMS. On the other hand, it seems the Notices (part of AMS, obviously) holds a value something akin to “let all sides be heard.” It seems that these values have come into conflict. In the right corner of the ring, the Editor-in-Chief, whom I suspect does support social justice (though I certainly don’t have first hand knowledge) seems to have chosen “let all sides be heard” as the top priority. The same is true for a number of people on social media. Some of them seem to hold “diversity of opinion” as their guiding star, while other appear outright hostile to diversity. In the left corner of the ring are many people who want to see AMS live out its stated commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion by taking a stand on the issue. So far they have not.

Response from the AMS Blogs

The Inclusion/Exclusion blog has a very helpful update post of its own.

What can you do

This list modifies/expands the list in our original post.

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. Sign the community response letter.

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. Turn this whole debacle into something positive by participating in QSIDE’s pro bono consulting fundraiser. We have extended the fundraiser for one week and every penny you can donate makes a difference to our nonprofit organization. All of the details are here, but the basic idea is that for every $100 we raise, we will give an hour of pro bono consulting to graduate students / postdocs who need/want help thinking about diversity/equity/inclusion plans and job application statements.