For A Black Mathematician, What It’s Like To Be The ‘Only One’

For A Black Mathematician, What It’s Like To Be The ‘Only One’

Black Mathematician
Edray Goins, Professor of Mathematics at Pomona College

Black Americans earn about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees awarded each year, but just 1 percent of those were in mathematics in the last 10 years, according to a New York Times report.

It wasn’t an overt act of racism that prompted Dr. Edray Goins, an African-American mathematician in the prime of his career at Purdue University, to quit his tenured position on the faculty.

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The hostilities were subtle and the signs of disrespect unspoken, Dr. Goins told NYT. His department wasn’t inclined to nominate him to the committee that controls hiring. A famous visiting scholar presumed Goins was another professor’s student. A senior colleague asked a question in Dr. Goins’ area of expertise, and the question was directed to someone else.

Black men who pursue advanced degrees do so knowing they will face challenges, but the barriers they described in a six-year study show that race was a greater obstacle than they expected, Phys.org reported.

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“These young men faced turbulent times as a result of structural inequalities and a lack of support from faculty and colleagues to weather the storm,” said Brian Burt, lead author and assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education. “Insight from the research is valuable in reversing the trend of underrepresented students and employees in all STEM fields,” he said.

Dr. Goins won two math prizes at Caltech, and in 1999 he earned a Ph.D. in math from Stanford University. In 2004, after being a visiting scholar at Princeton and Harvard universities, he joined the faculty of Purdue.

In 2018, in a move “almost unheard-of in the academic ecosystem”, he traded his full professorship at Purdue for one at Pomona, a liberal arts college outside Los Angeles that prioritizes undergraduate teaching.

A colleague told Dr. Goins he was throwing his career away, NYT reported. Goins explained himself in a widely circulated essay that discussed how lonely it is to be Black in a profession that’s racially imbalanced.

Goins wants to fix what is known as the “leaky pipeline.” Solve the racial disparities at every level of math education and racial diversity will follow among mathematicians — at least that’s how the logic goes.

Goins lectures underrepresented middle- and high-school math students, organizes summer research programs for underrepresented math undergrads, mentors underrepresented math grad students, and heads the National Association of Mathematicians, an advocacy group formed in 1969 after the American Mathematical Society rejected a proposal to address its dearth of black members.

Interviews with departing faculty of color suggested that “improving the climate” would be key to retaining them, according to a 2016 University of Michigan report. 

Columbia University has spent an almost-unbelievable $85 million since 2005 to increase faculty diversity and the results have been disappointing, according to NYT.

The presumption of competence and authority that seems to be automatically accorded other mathematicians is often not applied to Black mathematicians, Goins said at a recent  keynote address titled “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics.”