Math department criticized for lack of diversity and inclusion

Students and faculty share personal experiences and discuss departmental problems on Piazza

An ongoing discussion about diversity and inclusion in the math department began on the department’s Piazza page last week after several current and former math majors criticized the department’s lack of inclusivity. 

In response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality against black Americans, Michel Goemans PhD ’90, mathematics department head, wrote an email to the MIT Mathematics community opposing police brutality and expressed the “strong commitment in the Mathematics Department to diversity and inclusivity.”

Many current and former students of the MIT Math Department took issue with Goemans’ claim that diversity and inclusion are priorities for the department. A June 3 Piazza post criticizing the math department’s lack of inclusivity has gained over 400 views and hundreds of comments written by students, faculty, and staff. 

Shohini Stout ’21, a contributor to the discussion on Piazza and former math major, wrote in an email to The Tech that the sentiments expressed in the email Goemans sent came across as “superficial” and that a “citation is needed” for his claims.

Barbara Peskin PhD ’80, math department academic administrator, wrote in an email to The Tech that specific examples of the department’s actions in promoting diversity and inclusion included creating the MIT Math Piazza, hosting a Diversity Forum, providing Open Advising Hours for students to get advice from faculty, starting a mailing list for first-year students interested in math, expanding the Diversity and Community Building Committee, and supporting the Women in Math group.

The Piazza featured discussion on student and faculty diversity, as the math department has a large proportion of male and white or Asian undergraduates, graduates, and faculty.

Of the 312 undergraduate primary majors enrolled in the math department in the 2019-2020 academic year, 27 are black, seven are Native American, and 29 are Hispanic, according to the registrar website. Of the 125 graduate students in the department, one is black, one is Native American, and three are Hispanic.

There are 111 female undergraduate primary majors and 18 female graduate students in the department, according to the registrar website.

Of the 68 faculty in the math department, six are women. The mathematics faculty is mostly white or Asian with no black faculty members.

Peskin wrote that the pipeline problem, the issue of the pool of potential faculty members from underrepresented backgrounds being too small, is “a very serious problem,” and that MIT offers programs such as MathROOTS and PRIMES Circle to “help widen the pipeline.”

Goemans wrote in an email to The Tech that the department received the 2020 Award for an Exemplary Program by the American Mathematical Society for its outreach activities “with particular attention to increasing the representation of women and underrepresented minorities.”

Goemans wrote that the department “just hired three assistant professors, two of them women” but that “competition for women for faculty positions, postdoctoral positions, and graduate students is fierce, and the yield is considerably lower for women.”

Gigliola Staffilani, chair of the math department’s Committee on Diversity and Community Building, also commented on the Piazza thread. The committee is tasked with “fostering a community of learning that is welcoming, inclusive, engaging, and aimed at the highest academic accomplishments.”

Staffilani has also served on hiring committees and committees that select graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. 

Staffilani wrote in an email to The Tech that she has the “role of checking if the search for new hires is conducted fairly in terms of diversity” and that the department personally contacts strong candidates who are women or of underrepresented backgrounds if they have not applied to MIT.

Staffilani wrote that this year, the department “hired two new women assistant professors, and one of them had not applied.”

Despite the work of faculty and staff, Staffilani wrote that the ongoing discussion on Piazza revealed that math department initiatives “have gone unknown or have not been very effective.”

Professor Henry Cohn ’95 wrote in an email to The Tech that “it’s sad to reflect on how far society at large, MIT, and the math department still have to go.”  

Goemans wrote that “there is a lot of anguish and soul-searching in the department, and this is a time for listening and understanding.”

Professor Bjorn Poonen wrote in an email to The Tech that “the burden is not on undergraduates to solve the problems, but their advice has led to some positive developments.”

For instance, Poonen has scheduled weekly Zoom meetings until the end of August for members of the math undergraduate community to talk with faculty.

The first of these sessions took place Monday. Poonen wrote that “about 10 undergrads” were present and that there was discussion about curriculum, math UROPs, and ideas for helping math majors get to know each other.

Other ideas suggested on Piazza include adding a student feedback form on the math department website, publicizing a platform for students to meet problem set partners, creating student groups for minorities in the department, increasing recitations for math classes, creating more first-year advising seminars, and developing a first-year discovery class.

The Tech contacted several students who participated in the Piazza thread for comment.

John Urschel G, an African American PhD student, said in an interview with The Tech that “there is a true underrepresentation of African Americans” in mathematics and that “issues at all levels feed into each other.”

Urschel said of the inequities faced by people of color that “a lot of damage is done before a student even walks onto a college campus, and then when they walk onto a college campus, oftentimes there are not that many of them to the point where they can feel isolation because they do not necessarily feel like they belong.”

Nelson Niu ’21, a math major, said in an interview with The Tech that it saddens him that he cannot “look at an underrepresented first-year student in the eye and say that they should be a math major and will find a home in the math department.”

The culture of the math department has been another focus of the dialogue, and several students have claimed that the departmental culture is toxic, overly fixated on competitions, and exclusive.

Rona Wang ’21 wrote about her experiences as a math major on the Piazza thread. Wang recounted an instance of a Putnam fellow quizzing her on math concepts and then advising Wang against taking a certain math graduate class and an instance of participants of the Mathematical Olympiad Program suggesting Wang “was hooking up with certain Olympiad boys” after they helped her with psets.

Kelly Chen ’21, a math major, wrote in an email to The Tech that the math department's annual end-of-year celebration, although designed to be an opportunity for socialization and to honor graduating seniors, “mostly celebrated those who did extremely well in math competitions like the Putnam, as well as a handful of students who received departmental/MIT awards or distinguished fellowships.”

“Aside from one professor briefly congratulating all graduating seniors, there was no mention at all of any of the students who had not won an award. This seemed to be a pretty clear indication of what kind of students the department recognizes and values,” Chen wrote.

Andrew Lin ’21, a math major, wrote in an email to The Tech that he hopes that “the increased attention on these issues will make it easier for subsequent discussions about systemic improvements.”