HMMT reorganizes in response to cultural concerns

Committee created to address elitism, lack of racial and gender diversity

The Harvard-MIT Math Tournament (HMMT) student group is undergoing an internal reorganization in response to members’ cultural concerns about elitism and diversity. The reorganization includes changes in the staff selection process and the creation of a committee on diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

HMMT members will vote on the proposed changes at a general meeting in late January. 

HMMT is a group of Harvard and MIT students who organize a biannual high school math competition of the same name. The November tournament is held at Harvard, and the February tournament is held at MIT. 

The HMMT tournament directors for the 2019-2020 school year are Jeffery Yu ’22 and William Ho, a junior at Harvard. Ho wrote in an email to The Tech that the tournament directors oversee about 300 undergraduate members, including about 70 staff and 23 officers.

HMMT members are responsible for writing problems and staffing the competition. A majority of members are MIT students, Ho wrote.

Ho wrote in an email to the HMMT community Dec. 6 that he had recently received feedback depicting “HMMT’s culture and presence at Harvard in an extremely dissatisfying light.”

Ho wrote that HMMT members outside the predominant demographic of “male-identifying, highly-talented at competitive math, East Asian MIT students” face an “inequitable” barrier to inclusion in the organization. 

In addition, Ho wrote that the recruiting practices and geographic accessibility of HMMT events are “skewed towards MIT,” making it difficult for Harvard students to become involved. Ho also acknowledged a lack of inclusivity for general members who are not HMMT officers or staff.

“Every one of you is important to HMMT and should be treated with respect and dignity irrespective of how much competition math you have done or whether you are a straight Asian male from MIT,” Ho wrote.

In the email, Ho proposed increasing the accessibility of the November competition to students “from historically disadvantaged backgrounds on the basis of gender identity, ethnicity, or socio-economic class.” 

Specific proposals included “selecting participants for HMNT who are in greater need of the opportunity” and “eliminating the top 40 rule for November” because it “can be abused by certain privileged schools.” The rule states that the top 40 teams from the HMMT Sweepstakes competition are automatically admitted to the next year’s competition.

In a follow-up email Dec. 12, Ho wrote that to “ensure fairness” in HMMT’s organizational structure, some members had been “dismissed” from officer status. In addition, the former MIT Social Chair and Harvard Membership Coordinator officer roles were consolidated into new “Community Coordinator” roles.

To gather feedback from the HMMT community, Ho held an HMMT Open Forum at Harvard Dec. 14. Members of HMMT were also given the opportunity to voice their opinions through individual appointments with Ho. 

Ho released an “Official Statement on Response to Cultural Concerns” in an email to the HMMT community Dec. 20. In the statement, Ho wrote that HMMT leadership is “committed to improving the climate of HMMT so that all students, especially those who do not fall within the existing predominant demographic, feel accepted and valuable.” 

The statement lists several concerns about HMMT culture, including “school disparities within culture,” “lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity,” “elitism,” “nepotism,” and the “heavy bias” of Problem Committee promotion toward students who participated in the Mathematical Olympiad Program and “other proven elite mathletes.”

“Inclusion in HMMT is highly contingent on already being friends with involved members,” Ho wrote, adding that some members felt unfairly excluded from “HMMT’s inner circle.”

In the statement, Ho and Yu proposed several changes to HMMT’s organizational structure. 

These changes include allowing non-officers to vote on certain decisions at general membership meetings, holding officers accountable through “votes of no confidence,” forming general membership committees, restructuring the staff selection process, improving meeting accessibility through video conferencing, and increasing contact between members and officers through monthly “office hours.” 

“HMMT is a group of more than 200 members, and it’s truly disheartening that only 30 have been making the decisions for the last decade,” Ho wrote. Currently, HMMT officers make the majority of decisions within the organization.

Members may also provide feedback to HMMT leadership via an anonymous form.

According to the statement, HMMT Chief Advisor William Qian ’16 created the HMMT Special Task Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. 

The mission statement linked in the email states that the committee’s goal is to “review and advise the HMMT leadership on making HMMT a welcoming and vibrant community.” The committee will operate independently of the tournament directors.

The committee’s 11-week investigation includes a “discovery phase” to “identify key areas in need of improvement” and “produce an initial draft of actions” (Dec. 8 to Jan. 4), an “execution phase” to enact immediate recommendations (Jan. 5 to Feb. 8), and a final “report phase” (Feb. 9 to Feb. 22). The initial drafts from the discovery and execution phases, along with the final report, will be available for comment by the HMMT community-at-large.

Andrew Lin ’22, an officer on the committee, wrote in an email to The Tech that the committee will “start off with some simple solutions and initiate a discussion” about problems with HMMT’s “organizational structure and values.” 

“HMMT is taking a closer look at how it operates, and that's something I appreciate both on principle and as a person doing work for the organization,” Lin wrote.

HMMT Finance Chair Aileen Ma ’22, also an officer on the committee, wrote in an email to The Tech that she hopes to “establish good precedents and fix the root of the problem,” especially by “looking into how the current means of staff or officer selection may implicitly involve elitism” or have a “lack of racial and gender diversity.”

HMMT Community Coordinator Assel Ismoldayeva ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech that she plans to promote “engagement with the HMMT community by having more frequent general meetings and social events at both schools.”

In an email to The Tech, Ho wrote that he has been aware of the “insular nature” of HMMT culture since his freshman year, when he “felt outside of the core HMMT base” because he was not a math major and did not have a pre-existing friend group in the organization. 

“I suspect that there are qualified, capable students who want to contribute to HMMT but are barred by an apparently isolationist, homogeneous demographic,” Ho wrote.

Ho emphasized that he does not “want HMMT to diversify for the sake of diversity on paper” and opposes “affirmative action” in staff selection based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. 

Instead, Ho hopes to “expand [HMMT’s] outreach and devote time and energy into getting to know these people and make them feel welcome and valued,” so that “diversity will follow over time.”

Editor’s Note: Assel Ismoldayeva is an associate photo editor for The Tech.