Category Archives: academic politics

Thanks, U of T Math

I’d like to thank the University of Toronto mathematics department (my doctoral alma mater) for the nice news item on its front page mentioning my ICM invitation. (It was posted a while ago, but I only saw it now.)

Being invited to speak at the ICM is often regarded as one of the highest honours that a mathematician can receive. It is a truly international recognition of the depth and ground breaking impact of their research.

UBC, meanwhile? Nope. It’s not that they don’t update their webpage, either – the page has been updated since the announcement.

This is of course the season for graduate and postdoctoral applications. Departments go out of their way to compete for the top candidates, and one part of it is showcasing the accomplishments of their faculty (to get the prospective students and postdocs interested in working with them) and their former postdocs and students (hey, this could be you). UBC Math has 3 session speakers at the 2014 ICM: Kai Behrend, Jun-cheng Wei, and myself. Additionally, Ben Green (who was a postdoc here for a year) is a plenary speaker. Is there some reason why UBC Math would not want to advertise it?

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Leaning back and smelling the roses

Now that the list of next year’s ICM invited speakers has been posted, I’m pleased to be able to say here that I will be speaking in Section 8: Analysis.

It gives me far less pleasure to say that the UBC mathematics department did not approve any graduate courses in harmonic analysis for this year. My proposal for a 600-level (topics) course was rejected. This is not an isolated incident: I have been at UBC since 2000 and I still have not taught a single 600-level course.

For comparison, the department had one ICM speaker in 2006, two in 2010, and there are two others (in addition to me) in 2014. One of those was only hired last year. Of the remaining 4, each taught at least one 600-level course in 2009 or later. They all boast large research groups, each with several full professors and at least 2-3 graduate courses each year in their research areas. Meanwhile, I’m still the only full professor in my group. As it happens, I’m also the only woman among the UBC ICM speakers. Make of that what you will.

In the past, I might have given lectures anyway on the same topics, or offered a working seminar instead that students could take for credit as a reading course, in addition to my assigned course load. I have in fact done that, back when my teaching load was reduced thanks to the UFA award. Not any more. If the university does not want my topics course, it will not have it.

When I see women being admonished to “lean in” to advance their careers, I think back on the time when I actually tried to do that. “Internalize the revolution.” Be ambitious. Take risks. Seek out opportunities. Don’t hold yourself back. Above all, accept the relentless and accelerating career demands, because that’s good for you, because of course it is. Except when it’s not.

I gave reading courses. I supervised 4-5 graduate students as early as 2005-06, back when I was still the only active harmonic analyst in the department. When the local PIMS institute offered no support, I organized a program at the Fields Institute instead. I accepted a good deal of administrative work at and beyond UBC. I served 3 years on the Putnam problem-setting committee.

Tenure-track and tenured positions tend to have no clear job description. Only the course teaching load is fixed, more or less. In popular imagination, this means just a few hours of work per week. In reality, tenure, promotion and pay increases depend on meeting the institution’s “standards,” which in turn are established via a rat race between faculty members. Two parallel rat races, actually: one to achieve more in science, one to ascend to a position of enough influence in departmental politics to push one’s own interpretations of the outcomes of the first race. Clearly, I’ve done better in one of those than in the other, as was my preference all along.

Of course achieving is easier when one’s work is supported by one’s institution, in a variety of ways that are never written into any contract but nonetheless make a world of difference. Some groups here (probability, number theory) have 6-8 faculty; of course it’s easier for them to attract graduate students and postdocs, or to offer several graduate courses each year with the department’s blessing. Of course it’s impossible to function in a similar manner when you’re isolated, as I was for many years. You try anyway, “leaning in” and hoping that it will get noticed, seeking external leverage when it doesn’t, as wise colleagues keep lecturing you on how everyone else’s needs are greater and priorities more important than your own.

But now? I have nothing left to prove here. I’m a known quantity and have been for some time. My research is going better than ever. There can be no doubt as to whether I’m capable of building a group or advising graduate students.

My employers are more than welcome to lean in and take advantage of that. Even just with the current faculty, we could have an excellent graduate training program in harmonic analysis here, one of the best in the world. Just give us one or two guaranteed graduate courses each year. Stop insisting on the false alternative where we either have to teach the same syllabus every 1-2 years in our graduate courses or give them up altogether, because smaller groups really need more flexibility than that. Cut back on those degree requirements that serve no purpose I can think of, or that prop up the largest groups but are not relevant to the thesis work of everyone else’s students. And please please cut down on the bureaucracy, both within the department and at the university level, because I’m tired already of having to deal with that.

But if not, then, well, not. Or nought, if that’s your fancy. Life is too short to be spent on a hamster wheel, even as colleagues throw wrenches in it and the only reward is more time on the same hamster wheel back again. That stretch of my career is over and done with.

I’ll lean back in when you do. Make of that what you will.

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Submission to the LRP steering committee

Below (under the cut) is the text of the submission I am about to send to the Long Range Plan steering committee. I missed the April 18 deadline for submission of discussion papers, basically because I was too busy and exhausted at the end of the semester, but the committee web page states that “comments and ideas are welcome at any time”, so here are mine. There’s very little here that I haven’t already said on this blog in much more detail (the relevant posts are linked below) and it’s possible that some of the committee members have seen those posts already; this is just a short summary. (A PDF version is also available.)

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It’s 2 am, where is my long term strategy?

The September issue of the CMS Notices has a front page article on the long-range strategic planning exercise. We learn that the NSERC Major Resources Support program is being shut down; the mathematics institutes, which have been supported through MRS in recent years, will have to find some other funding mechanism.

Our community is thus being asked to develop a long range plan for mathematics and statistics in Canada. The plan should examine our discipline, identify scientific trends, and propose the right structure of resources to develop the mathematics and the statistics. It should not, however, deal with individual allocations. [...] It has worked well for the astronomers and the physicists, so why not for us?

Because we’re neither astronomers nor physicists, perhaps?

There are of course many issues. First some scientific ones: where is our discipline going? Getting some sense of this is important for explaining what we then want to do, not in the sense of only deciding to fund, say, number theory or geometry (mathematics in its own organic way has been doing very well on its own), but in giving the right structures. For example, a question of proportion: the mainstream (80% or so) individual funding of research is complemented by collective vehicles (the Institutes, BIRS), which have had a transformative effect (think of the increase in the number of post-doctoral fellows) and which have a remarkable record of leveraging additional resources from provinces, universities, and private sources, as well as foreign granting agencies.

Well…

There are worse ways to start that discussion than pointing out that the two most important “structural” new ideas in mathematics in recent years had nothing to do with leveraging funds from provincial governments, international cooperation agreements, or with institutes for that matter. Continue reading

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Can you see the pattern?

Since we talked about logical puzzles recently, here’s one for you to try. The International Mathematical Union has recently announced that its permanent office will be based at the Weierstrass Institute in Berlin. Two clicks from the front page, and you get to The Mathematical Community in Berlin, featuring photographs of 12 of the distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid.

Look at these photographs. Can you see a pattern?

For comparison, here’s a photo of the IMU Executive Committee.

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Letter to NSERC: Canadian mathematics does not need “priority areas”

The latest NSERC newsletter informs us:


At NSERC’s request, the Canadian mathematics and statistics communities will conduct a collaborative long-range planning (LRP) exercise over the next 15-18 months. The exercise will include broad consultation, identify areas of strength and establish a unified vision of priorities and directions for mathematics and statistics research in Canada. The resulting plan will inform the Mathematics and Statistics Evaluation Group of the priorities for current and emerging areas, thereby allowing for the best use of resources to advance the work of the communities as a whole.

Key partners in this process include the Canadian Mathematical Society, the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society and the Statistical Society of Canada, as well as the three Mathematical Institutes (the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, the Centre de recherches mathématiques and the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences) and the Banff International Research Station.

Currently, the Mathematics and Statistics-NSERC Liaison Committee is working with the communities to establish a steering committee, which will develop Terms of Reference that reflect how the communities at large will be consulted and discuss how their input will be incorporated into the final LRP report.

My opinion is not exactly being solicited at this point, and it may well get filtered five times through the fine cloth of poll aggregators when it is formally solicited, to remove my name and any identifying details that might add weight to my story. I do, however, have enough experience with “priority areas”, and especially with falling through the cracks between them, to want to speak up now.

I also would really like NSERC to hear directly from the individual mathematicians, not just from institute directors and those in positions of power. Institutes are designed to support group-based research and prioritize areas; individual mathematicians need to develop their research programs according to their own best judgement. We do not always see eye to eye. It makes no sense for the institutes to control the prioritization of our individual grants.

Here, then, is my story.

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Right back at ya

If you’re female and you’re reading this, stop whatever else you’re doing for a moment and go read these three posts at Women in Wetlands, now also on my blogroll. (Found in the comments here.) They offer sensible and practical advice on how to respond to situations such as this one:

Imagine you are in a meeting among colleagues, post-docs, support staff, and clients. You are part of a group who has received a $1.2 million grant from BP (British Petroleum) to do environmental impact assessments at some of their drill sites. You have just given an overview of your research project (to assess the effects of oil exploration activities on wetlands in Kookamoonga, BP’s newest drill site). When you finish and look to the group for some positive feedback, a senior male scientist (known for being loud and opinionated) states that:

“The research proposed by Mary involves a large amount of fieldwork in a VERY remote location, and in my opinion is too difficult for a woman to lead or conduct. I think it would be best assigned to Bob (his protege’) to head up; maybe Mary can be responsible for the sample processing and data analysis back here at BIU.”

What do you do?

I’ve been in some variant of every single one of these situations, including the one just described, and I wish I had been better prepared to deal with them.

It’s tempting to think of the Senior Male Scientist as some old guy that you don’t know well and never talk to anyway. In real life, though, it could be your friend or mentor, someone you trust, someone whose opinions you value. He might not say explicitly that a woman can’t lead – he’ll just suggest a male candidate to replace you – and, mind you, it’s not sexist at all, he just wants the best possible person to direct the project, and in any case this is a matter of professional judgement and you should not be so sensitive about it.

The beauty of the responses suggested in the WiW posts is that they’re civil enough to be used on a friend and that they let you make the statement you need to make without getting dragged into unnecessary discussions. There’s no point in analyzing the Senior Male Scientist’s possible intentions. You just need to respond to the words you’ve heard.

There’s another reason to avoid protracted discussions of this sort: verbal sparring can only get you so far. I’ve seen enough situations where Dr. X was universally praised by colleagues for his excellent arguments and professional demeanor in the debate with Dr. Y, it was just so very unfortunate that the department would have to side with Dr. Y anyway. The debate would be a spectator sport, as opposed to something that could actually affect the outcome of the case. The lesson for you is that, instead of spending your time debating Senior Male Scientists with regard to their choice of wording, it could be more worthwhile to figure out why exactly the department sided with Dr. Y and how this might be applicable in your case. (That could be money, prestige, any number of things.) Making good headway in that direction is far more likely to convince Senior Male Scientists that they should take you seriously.

Which is not to say that you should not argue with Senior Male Scientists. You absolutely should, if only because having a good response will make you feel in control of the situation and that’s good for your morale, or because these things do make a difference in the long run. But short responses work better than long ones, and don’t give the Senior Male Scientist an opening to bring up the ever looming topic of your sensitivity if you can help it. That’s of course easier said than done. I haven’t always been good at it. I wish I had read posts such as these many years ago and taken some time to practice the responses in question. Then again – if you can’t come up with a good response, keep in mind that it’s only words…

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