Edray Goins on being an African-American mathematician

We reproduce below a version of the article For a Black Mathematician, What It's Like to Be the 'Only One' which was published in The New York Times on 18 February 2019.

For a Black Mathematician, What It's Like to Be the 'Only One'

Fewer than 1 per cent of doctorates in mathematics are awarded to African-Americans. Edray Goins, who earned one of them, found the upper reaches of the mathematical world a challenging place.

By Amy Harmon


It was not an overt incident of racism that prompted Edray Goins, an African-American mathematician in the prime of his career, to abandon his tenured position on the faculty of a major research university last year.

The hostilities he perceived were subtle, the signs of disrespect unspoken.

There was the time he was brushed aside by the leaders of his field when he approached with a math question at a conference. There were the reports from students in his department at Purdue University that a white professor had warned them not to work with him.

One of only perhaps a dozen black mathematicians among nearly 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation's top 50 math departments, Dr Goins frequently asked himself whether he was right to factor race into the challenges he faced.

That question from a senior colleague on his area of expertise, directed to someone else? His department's disinclination to nominate him to the committee that controls hiring? The presumption, by a famous visiting scholar, that he was another professor's student?

What about the chorus of chortling that erupted at a lunch with white and Asian colleagues when, in response to his suggestion that they invite underrepresented minorities as seminar speakers, one feigned confusion and asked if Australians qualified.

"I can give you instance after instance," Dr Goins, 46, said as he navigated the annual meeting of the nation's mathematicians in Baltimore last month. "But even for myself I question, 'Did it really happen that way, or am I blowing it out of proportion? Is this really about race?'"

The 'leaky pipeline'

Black Americans receive about 7 per cent of the doctoral degrees awarded each year across all disciplines, but they have received just 1 per cent of those granted over the last decade in mathematics. Like many who see in that disparity a large pool of untapped talent, Dr Goins has long been preoccupied with fixing what is known as the "leaky pipeline."

Redress the racial disparities that exist at every level of math education, the logic goes, and racial diversity among those who grapple with math's biggest problems will follow.

To that end, Dr Goins delivers guest lectures to underrepresented middle and high school math students, organizes summer research programs for underrepresented math undergraduates, mentors underrepresented math graduate students, and heads an advocacy group that was formed in 1969 after the American Mathematical Society, the professional association for research mathematicians, rejected a proposal to address the dearth of black and Hispanic members.

Dr Goins's own journey through the pipeline was propelled by a magnet program that offered Advanced Placement calculus for the first time at his majority-black south Los Angeles high school. In 1990, having aced the A.P. calculus BC exam, he became the first student from the school ever to gain admission to the prestigious California Institute of Technology, just 20 miles away.

The 10 black students in his incoming class were the largest group Caltech had ever enrolled, he learned when he wrote a paper on the little-known history of being black at Caltech for a summer research project. Only three of the others graduated with him four years later.

Most of his classmates, Dr Goins quickly realized, had arrived with math training that went far beyond his own. In his freshman year, he sometimes called his high school calculus teacher for help with the homework. In his sophomore year, he watched from his dormitory television as the 1992 Los Angeles riots erupted a few blocks from his mother's home. But he also came to excel in applied math, which traffics in real-world problems, and, later, to immerse himself in "pure math," which seeks to elucidate the questions intrinsic to mathematics itself.

Dr Goins won two math prizes at Caltech, and in 1999 he received a Ph.D. from Stanford's math department - one of three African-Americans that have ever done so, according to an informal count by William Massey, a Princeton professor who received the second. In 2004, after holding a visiting scholar position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and another at Harvard, Dr Goins joined the faculty of Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.

"You are such an inspiration to us all," Talitha Washington, a black mathematician who is now a tenured professor at Howard University, wrote on his Facebook page when he received tenure in the spring of 2010.

Yet having emerged at the far end of the pipeline, Dr Goins found himself unwilling to stay. Last fall, in a move almost unheard-of in the academic ecosystem, he traded his full professor post at Purdue, where federal resources are directed at tackling science's unsolved problems and training a new generation of Ph.D.'s, for a full professorship at Pomona, a liberal arts college outside Los Angeles that prioritizes undergraduate teaching.

"Edray," he recalled one colleague telling him, "you are throwing your career away."

"Who do they make eye contact with?"

In an essay that has been widely shared over the last year, Dr Goins sought to explain himself. He extolled the virtues of teaching undergraduates and vowed to continue his research. But he also gave voice to a lament about the loneliness of being black in a profession marked by extraordinary racial imbalance.

"I am an African-American male," Dr Goins wrote in a blog published by the American Mathematical Society. "I have been the only one in most of the universities I've been to - the only student or faculty in the mathematics department."

"To say that I feel isolated," he continued, "is an understatement."

Experiences similar to Dr Goins's are reflected in recent studies by academic institutions on attrition among underrepresented minorities and women across many disciplines. Interviews with departing faculty of color indicated that "improving the climate" would be key to retaining them, according to a 2016 University of Michigan report.Officials at Columbia, which has spent over $85 million since 2005 to increase faculty diversity, with disappointing results, suggested last fall that progress would hinge partly on majority-group faculty members adjusting their personal behavior.

"In most cases, faculty are not consciously or purposely trying to make colleagues feel unwelcome or excluded," said Maya Tolstoy, dean of Columbia's arts and science faculty. "But it happens."

And at the recent math meeting, where Dr Goins delivered a keynote address titled "A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics," his presence kindled conversations about racial slights in the mathematical world. The presumption of competence and authority that seems to be automatically accorded other mathematicians, for instance, is often not applied to them, several black mathematicians said.

"Who do they make eye contact with? Not you," said Nathaniel Whitaker, an African-American who heads the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Michael Young, a mathematician at Iowa State University, said he almost gave up on graph theory a few years ago after an encounter with some of the leaders of the field at a math institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"A couple of them were at a board writing something," he recalled. "I went over and asked, 'What are you guys working on?'"

"We're too far in to catch you up," he said he was told.

The ethos characterized as meritocracy, some said, is often wielded as a seemingly unassailable excuse for screening out promising minority job candidates who lack a name-brand alma mater or an illustrious mentor. Hiring committees that reflect the mostly white and Asian makeup of most math departments say they are compelled to "choose the 'best,'" said Ryan Hynd, a black mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, "even though there's no guideline about what 'best' is."

And Ken Ono, a prominent mathematician in Dr Goins's field, number theory, and a vice president of the mathematical society, said that a part of Dr Goins was always likely to be wondering, "'Do they see me as the token African-American, or do they see me as a number theorist?'"

"And honestly, to tell the truth, I think that answer would vary from individual to individual," Dr Ono said.

Most tenured math faculty members at research institutions do not leave, regardless of their race. "I've done well and am really enjoying myself," wrote Chelsea Walton, a black mathematician at the University of Illinois, in a comment on Dr Goins's blog post.

But because role models of the same race are seen as critical to luring talented students from underrepresented minorities into a Ph.D. program, it is a blow to lose even one, Dr Ono said. For the representation of African-Americans in math departments to reach parity with their 13-percent share of the country's adult population, their ranks would have to increase more than tenfold. (The number of women, also notoriously low among math faculty, would need to triple.) "It's a loss to our mathematical community that Edray may never advise graduate students again," said Dr Ono, who is Japanese-American.

An ambitious gambit

Dr Goins's isolation, he himself was the first to note, was also forged by an early career failure. Near the end of his graduate studies at Stanford, he set out to prove a conjecture using techniques suggested by the solution to a 350-year-old problem, Fermat's last theorem, which had rocked the mathematical world a few years earlier.

It was an ambitious undertaking whose success would probably have snagged him job offers from the most elite math departments in the country. But the conjecture was grounded in a highly technical area populated by the field's top talent. And despite guidance from Richard Taylor, a white mathematician then at Harvard who had assisted in solving Fermat's theorem, Dr Goins was unable to publish the paper he produced four years later.

Several mathematicians familiar with Dr Goins's efforts said they did not see racial discrimination as playing a role. It is not all that unusual, they said, for such an ambitious undertaking to end in an unsatisfying result. But it also can require deep reserves of self-confidence and a professional network to bounce back.

Dr Goins's colleagues at Purdue said his receipt of tenure and subsequent promotion to full professor signaled the university's willingness to overlook a sparse research portfolio in light of his extraordinary work with undergraduates, as well as the summer programs he organized for minority students.

"While these areas are not necessarily 'traditional' markers for excellence at major research universities, they were valued," Greg Buzzard, the head of Purdue's math department, who is white, said in a statement.

But Dr Goins said he was looking for something else.

"I just never really felt respected," he said.

At the math meeting last month, Dr Goins's essay was not immune from criticism.

Some black mathematicians questioned the utility of dwelling on perceived slights, many of which are unconscious or made out of ignorance.

Some who know Dr Goins noted his sensitivity. Insults that others might shrug off, they said, might stick with him.

For Bobby Wilson, a mathematician at the University of Washington, offenses related to race "just start to wash over you." He added: "That doesn't mean it's right or good."

Over dinner one evening, another black mathematician told Dr Goins that he was worried that his blog account of the difficulties he faced might discourage black graduate students who hope to pursue careers in academic research.

Maybe, it was suggested, he should have kept it to himself.

Dr Goins, taking that in, was silent. His reply came only the next day.

"I didn't write it to tell people what should happen," he said. "I wrote it to tell people what could happen."

18 February 2019, The New York Times

Last Updated November 2019