Skip to the Main Content

Note:These pages make extensive use of the latest XHTML and CSS Standards. They ought to look great in any standards-compliant modern browser. Unfortunately, they will probably look horrible in older browsers, like Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x. Moreover, many posts use MathML, which is, currently only supported in Mozilla. My best suggestion (and you will thank me when surfing an ever-increasing number of sites on the web which have been crafted to use the new standards) is to upgrade to the latest version of your browser. If that's not possible, consider moving to the Standards-compliant and open-source Mozilla browser.

April 9, 2008

Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Posted by David Corfield

If you haven’t heard already, Terry Tao outlines the dire situation facing Australian mathematics, and in particular the University of Southern Queensland.

He has set up a petition there too:

I believe that the proposed severe cuts to mathematics, statistics, and computing at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) will do severe and permanent damage to the quality of education in maths and the sciences for USQ students, at a time when the need to support such education is both urgent and widely accepted in Australia at all levels. Service teaching alone, especially at reduced staff levels, cannot deliver the level of mathematics education that the students of USQ deserve. I urge the university administration to negotiate with the Department of Mathematics and Computing to find a compromise solution that will preserve the proven capability of this department to train students and teachers in the maths and sciences at the highest levels of quality.

It currently has over 500 signatures.

Posted at April 9, 2008 9:35 AM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:   http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/cgi-bin/MT-3.0/dxy-tb.fcgi/1652

28 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

This is beginning to be worrying. Bangor was slaughtered a few years ago, so was Hull. A petition can help but the rot is further up in the mentality of administrating academics. Suggestions for action please … world wide!

Posted by: Tim Porter on April 9, 2008 5:00 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

How about establishing a charity fund that folks can donate money too, so that they can raise the money needed to keep the program active?

All the best,
cvj

Posted by: cvj on April 9, 2008 5:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

That sounds like a nice idea at first, but it has the potential to set a dangerous precedent. We don’t want administrators to decide that the only programs worth keeping are the ones that can support themselves from outside philanthropy. (Substitute “federal grants” for “outside philanthropy”, and many people will tell you that’s already the case in too many places.)

Posted by: Mark Meckes on April 9, 2008 10:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Given the state of things for the past years, the precedent has been established, at least that Mathematics isn’t important. I liked the approach of establishing a fund that would help insulate USQ from the administration - it seems ultimately that is what is needed. It isn’t the complete fix, but I argue such a step is part of the fix.

However, I’m not looking to cause trouble, or derail the focus from USQ and the sate of math in Australia. I’m disappointed to see this state of affairs.

All the best,
cvj

Posted by: cvj on April 10, 2008 3:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Perhaps along with the justified outrage there might be a moment or two’s reflection on whether mathematics as a discipline has done all it could to promote its own health. In this article, the USQ acting vice-chancellor Graham Barker is reported as saying that

the university’s hand had been forced because students were “not being encouraged to take on maths and science subjects while at school”.

“Professional associations and mathematicians need to recognise the role they have to play in promoting maths at primary school,” he said.

“To try and reverse the trend when students are applying for university courses is difficult.”

Not that I excuse philosophy. In the 1980s couldn’t we have found something more exciting to say about mathematics than that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is a fiction because it purports to be about numbers, and they don’t exist?

Posted by: David Corfield on April 9, 2008 7:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

“Professional associations and mathematicians need to recognise the role they have to play in promoting maths at primary school.”

Greg Kuperberg has an interesting take on that one over here:

What a way to pass up your own responsibility. He wants to let the mathematicians go, but he still expects them to promote math in grade school.

Posted by: Vishal Lama on April 10, 2008 7:51 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Maybe now isn’t the time to consider the matter, and quite likely Graham Barker shouldn’t be the initiator of the debate, but there are political issues worth discussing about the place of mathematics in the State.

I suggest that, rather than the words of Barker, we start out from those of Plato. Here in The Republic - Book VII we hear Socrates say

After plane geometry, I said, we proceeded at once to solids in revolution, instead of taking solids in themselves; whereas after the second dimension, the third, which is concerned with cubes and dimensions of depth, ought to have followed.

That is true, Socrates; but so little seems to be known as yet about these subjects.

Why, yes, I said, and for two reasons: in the first place, no government patronizes them; this leads to a want of energy in the pursuit of them, and they are difficult; in the second place, students cannot learn them unless they have a director. But then a director can hardly be found, and, even if he could, as matters now stand, the students, who are very conceited, would not attend to him. That, however, would be otherwise if the whole State became the director of these studies and gave honor to them; then disciples would want to come, and there would be continuous and earnest search, and discoveries would be made; since even now, disregarded as they are by the world, and maimed of their fair proportions, and although none of their votaries can tell the use of them, still these studies force their way by their natural charm, and very likely, if they had the help of the State, they would some day emerge into light.

While these views sound surprisingly contemporary, they occur in the context of a description of the perfect state, where future rulers are trained in mathematics for ten years, mathematics being a pursuit which guides the mind away from the everyday world, full of things which both are and are not, to things which wholly are:

…in every man there is an eye of the soul which, when by other pursuits lost and dimmed, is by these purified and reillumined; and is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen.

Mathematics is seen as a stepping stone to allow contemplation of Justice, Beauty and the Good.

Posted by: David Corfield on April 10, 2008 9:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

“contemplation of Justice, Beauty and the Good”? Here an exercise from a mathematical inclined ruler.

Posted by: Thomas Riepe on April 10, 2008 4:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

This sounds like reasons why one ought to like mathematics, in the same way that I feel I ought to like being in the countryside because it’s natural and gives one a sense of being at one with nature and so on, and yet I’ve now admitted to myself that (at least currently) I don’t really like the countryside. Given that AFAICS governments are not particularly concerned with what reputable universities provide courses in, providing they’re viable in terms of students applying and not obviously taking the liquid waste product, there’s a more direct question: what’s the most seductive/addictive facet of mathematics? This may not be the most “exciting” thing in the perspective of an older person but something students can identify with. Eg, students often choose to study psychology based on the idea of understanding the complications and mystery of human beings when the things that get academic psychologists excited are generally lower-level things.

Incidentally, there’s a comment somewhere on the site from John Baez where he says he first got interested in physics/maths as the secret of how to control the world, yet I would suspect that now he uses his maths skills to control the world quite rarely. (I can’t find it via search: all the keywords I think ought to bring it up don’t.) Indeed even experimental physicists don’t really use their knowledge to control the real-world (that’s engineers), but it’s a very understandable motivation for getting into the subject. So it needs to be borne in mind that the reasons that lead people into maths aren’t necessarily the ones that keep them there.

Posted by: bane on April 13, 2008 11:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Exist data about the motivations and thoughts (and their changes) which make students decide to study mathematics (and which parts of it)?

Posted by: Thomas Riepe on April 15, 2008 1:32 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Perhaps it is worth noting that India and China do not seem to (yet) have this problem! Perhaps there is the contentious question of student `choice’. As we saw in another thread, there are very conflicting views about aspects of that.

Posted by: Tim Porter on April 10, 2008 2:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

I wonder how influential texts like this (book promoted by the Financial Times as the most influential book on economy in 2006) have. One of the statements in it is that mathematicians don’t understand themself what they write. The author is mathematician, leading IBM researcher and complains it was intended as satire, but somehow one took it serious. This leads to wonder what decision makers in politics, economy and administration really think about math research(ers). Are you sure that they don’t estimate that as just one of the intellectualist rhetorics like e.g. postmodern philosophers? And even if not, could they perceive math research as academic analog to e.g. extremly exquisite (and expensive) lead products in car production, whose economic value is even negative, but they are usefull for advertizing the cheap things? Finally, I wonder if the sociology plays a role. E.g. here in Germany, math education and the valuation of mathematics by the average upper middle class member is determined by its negative role in transfering the educational and social status to the children (mathematics is the only real threat for that) and the opportunity it threats to give kids from lower status classes like imigrants to climb up the social ladder and become competitors.

Posted by: Thomas Riepe on April 10, 2008 9:15 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

We give away a substantial amount of our knowledge for free, and the rest of society does not value it.

WE cannot think of an aspect of common era society that does not depend intrinsically upon mathematical thought. Can THEY?

What if the mathematical scientists went on strike? What if all products goods and services that depend open mathematics were not functional for 1 day? Every thing from planting crops, to building buildings, to managing information would come to a grinding halt. It would indeed be a day of leisure, but we couldn’t spend the afternoon playing video games and watching movies could we?

Posted by: Scott Carter on April 11, 2008 2:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Surely there exist methods to investigate like who values what how for what reason etc. But I never saw such studies or discussions if that would be usefull in tha case of mathematics.

Posted by: Thomas Riepe on April 11, 2008 4:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

I hope the following remarks are not taken as lack of sympathy for USQ or for any of the deserving young people struggling to find employment. But for myself, it’s hard to avoid becoming occasionally detached from the process of justifying oneself. That is, I certainly would like to believe my work to be valuable, but I can easily imagine someone asking me: ‘Why do *you* need to be paid a salary to do number theory. Isn’t it sufficient that people like Gauss, Riemann, Weil, and Grothendieck do it?’

I suppose I could give some sort of a response, but only if I were not in a reflective mood.

On the other hand, plenty of *other* people who are not G or R or W or G seem to do very valuable work…

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on April 11, 2008 6:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

If I remember the facts correctly, both Gauss and Grothendieck can be taken to show how usefull the availability of higher math education is: Gauss reported about a cousin whom he described as a great genius, but whom lack of access to higher education made to become a wood cutter instead of scientist; Grothendieck’s sister is said to have been a mind of power comparable to her brother’s, but she could visit a university only as octogenarian.

Posted by: Thomas Riepe on April 15, 2008 2:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

This is one of the reasons instruction of the young is relatively easy to justify (even though many are obviously dissatisfied with the availability of it). The difficulty is with someone like me, who has already proven himself not to be Grothendieck or Gauss!

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on April 15, 2008 5:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Dr Kim:

This surely isn’t about the “worthiness” of any one mathematical professional. We could, in fact, slightly change the focus of your question and instead ask any one individual, “What is your worth really? After all, your not living on this planet will, in all probability, not affect people in general.” My point is if we press hard for a convincing answer from an individual mathematician as regards his/her “individual worthiness”, then probably such an answer may be hard to get. However, a collective of mathematicians - I hope I don’t sound like a communist now - does make a significant difference. And Dr Tao’s online petition, among other things, is trying to express this sentiment! Also, it seems that sufficient funds have been allocated by the government for the mathematics and statistics department in USQ; however, the administration, it seems, is channeling the allocated funds in other directions! The impression one gets is that the administration may be trying to run the university like a profit-making entity - perhaps I may be exaggerating things a little bit now. At the same time, USQ may also be trying to change its mission statement, in which case, we must ask, should it be doing so in the first place? In addition, from the (online) reactions of Australian mathematicians, it does look like mathematics and statistics departments in quite a few Australian universities are being cut down without thinking too much about the long term consequences of such actions. If this is a general trend, and not just an isolated incident in USQ, then Australians have plenty of reasons to worry about its long-term (negative) consequences. After all, the cost of undoing any harm in the future may be far higher than the current cost!


Posted by: Vishal Lama on April 11, 2008 8:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

My remark must have seemed a bit random. I’m not going to attempt a systematic reply now either because it would take more energy than I’ve been able to muster in a long time.

But here are some sample questions you might encounter:

`In your opinion, exactly how much support for mathematics is optimal?`

`What are the dire long-term consequences you speak of *in precise terms*?’

I think we can all acknowledge the difficulty of coming up with answers to such questions that sound really convincing, so and so task force’s report notwithstanding. But once that point is acknowledged, it’s hard to avoid admitting to a degree of partisanship when we decry decisions that affect mathematics in a practically adverse way.

Not that partisanship is all bad. But it does very little good to believe that disadvantageous administrative decisions are made because of someone’s simple stupidity. Tao’s page, like many similar academic discussions, does have an unfortunate quantity of this outlook.

As I believe even Marx (rest his soul) might have acknowledged, it’s not entirely obvious that a heavy emphasis on profit is all bad in university administrations. UCL, where I work, appears *very* profit-driven when the basic jargon related to university matters is examined. But it’s been pointed out to me many times that this is likely an important factor in the relative ease with which foreigners like me find employment. Needless to say, the whole picture here is horribly complicated as well.

I hope you don’t mind too much then if I hazard a bit of advice to young mathematicians with respect to many such matters:

Act, but with the appropriate degree of inner humility.

It will be better for your spiritual well-being. It may even be more effective.

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on April 11, 2008 10:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

We, at the college level, educate people at several other levels: professionals who build bridges, design computers, and develop algorithms to process information; high school teachers; elementary school teachers. In the last two categories, at least, higher mathematics is necessary so that their students will be mathematically trained.

The human animal does not need mathematics per se. We could hunt, gather, and survive. Neither do we need to read, write, compose and perform music, or paint on the walls of our caves. But our written language grew out of a mathematical need, our systems of music are understood and enhanced by mathematical analysis, and the logic of color, form, and perspective are consequences of our mathematical thought processes. Mathematical ability, above all else, seems to distinguish us from other earth species (unless whale songs are indeed proofs of the Riemann hypothesis).

Commerce, engineering, computing, construction, and all the trappings of modern society depend essentially on mathematical thought. So it is easy to be partisan, and it is easy to be chauvinistic. That the commercial applications of n-categories may appear in the future does not disuade me from mathematical studies.

The Academy should be laying laurels at our feet. Instead it seems tolerate a math department the way one tolerates a pet who chews the furniture but nonetheless entertains and warms the bed on winter nights. Or worse, USQ wants to put it to sleep because the cave master wants more wooly mammoth to eat.

Posted by: Scott Carter on April 11, 2008 11:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Dr Kim:

Please accept my apologies if I came across as not-so-humble in my arguments. And to be sure, the questions in my previous post weren’t directed at any single person, least of all you!

But, if professional mathematicians (like you) have a hard time presenting a convincing case for mathematics, then surely it would be well-nigh impossible for people like me!

Posted by: Vishal Lama on April 12, 2008 12:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

I should be the one to apologize, because I certainly didn’t mean that any of your remarks here were lacking in humility. I was speaking in quite general terms. And I do hope the USQ petition will be successful.

My post here was prompted by reading some of the comments attached to the petition. It seemed that most administrators would have heard already a tiresome number of pleas about the importance of mathematics. That likely state of affairs was the concern of the first post. I imagined some provost telling me: ‘Mathematics is very important, I know, I know. What I don’t know is why so many of you have to do it.’

To address that point requires considerably more than laying out generalities about the great applications or intrinsic beauty of mathematics, given the ϵ\epsilon-sum game we tend to be trapped inside. (My father is a professor of literature.)

By the way, I didn’t say I couldn’t make a convincing case for mathematics! But convincing to whom is the real question. If it’s to be anyone other than our colleagues, the arguments need to be presented with due respect. That (whew!) is what the bit about humility was alluding to.

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on April 12, 2008 1:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Dear Minhyong and others,

In discussing the USQ situation, it is important to remember the following realities regarding mathematics and statistics, and university eduation more generally, in Australia:

There is a shortage of mathematically trained professionals, and an extreme shortage of statistically trained professionals. (These shortages are documented in some of the materials linked to from Terry Tao’s blog. The various reports/task forces etc. documenting them included representatives from Australian industry, not just academia. In the online petition, one can similarly find such comments from people involved in Australian industry.)

These shortages are having a substantial affect on those (many) aspects of Australian economic life that rely on maths and stats. There is also a resulting severe shortage of competently trained maths teachers. (Somewhat comparable to the situation in the US, is my impression.)

Essentially all tertiary education in Australia is funded by the Federal government. Through this funding, the government can set priorities in education, for example. Recently, the government (in fact, both the previous conservative government and the recently elected labor government) have increased funding for maths and stats in Universities, in recognition of the grave shortages mentioned above. However, because of the details of the funding process (the money is paid to universities based on the number of students they have enrolled in various subjects), this money goes to University administrations as a lump-sum – it is up to the administration to decide where to actually allocate it. (If one reads Terry Tao’s editorial, and other material on his web-site, one will find that in the case of USQ, mathematics seems to be attracting more than its fair share of funding; the administration simply wants to spend that money elsewhere.)

Unlike the US, Australia does not have a tradition of people travelling away for university education. Essentially all students attend a local university. Thus, when a regional university like USQ cuts its maths/stats/physics/chem majors, this effectively prevents the majority of students in the region from studying these majors.

In addition to a general teacher shortage, it is always more difficult to recruit teachers to isolated rural areas, such as that serviced by USQ. The most natural source of teachers in such areas are locals who choose teaching as a career. Thus if USQ carries out its planned cuts, it will kill one of the major sources of well-trained math/science teachers in the region it serves.

In light of all this, I hope that you can appreciate why the USQ decision is causing such outrage among those of us with connections to Australia. They are working *against* a bipartisanly agreed-upon plan to shore up maths/stats training in light of a nationwide severe shortage, and in particular, their plan will greatly exacerbate the local aspects of this shortage in the areas of rural Queensland that they service.

While the USQ administrators have lamented that they do not have enough adequately trained students entering to justify trying to teach them maths/stats, their decision will only strengthen the negative feedback loop that has lead to this situation, by making it a certainty that there will be a lack of skilled maths teachers in the area for the foreseeable future.

Given that they are a federally funded entity that is devoted to education, their decision to exacerbate, rather than work to relieve, the nationally identified crisis in the education of mathematicians/statisticians, is genuinely startling. Onewould expect that administrators in a publicly funded university system would have a greater sense of civic duty.

I do appreciate Minhyong’s point about the necessity of being humble about the absolute necessity of one’s research, and respectful of the positions of others. However, the USQ situation is *not* a (somewhat more typical) case of a battle between various departments in a cash-strapped university for limited resources. It issomething much more extreme, which will essentially destroy higher education in maths, stats, and the physical sciences in an entire region of rural Australia.

The comparison that has been made by some with the Rochester situation in the 90s is not unreasonable, but it seems to me that the situation at USQ is more dangerous. If Rochester had gone ahead and eliminated its maths department, this would have destroyed its reputation as a University, but (it seems to me) quite probably wouldn’t have dragged down a whole region of the US with it, since the US has so many universities, colleges, etc., and students travel all over the country for higher education.

On the other hand, Australia has only about forty universities in the whole country. Combined with the local nature of Australian university education, this means that if one of them gives up on teaching an entire discipline, it will not only have an impact on the university and its reputation, it will have a serious nation-wide impact. As already mentioned, if USQ goes ahead with its cuts, the residents of a large rural region will have no access to a solid university-level education in maths and stats.

This is something to be outraged by.

Posted by: Matthew Emerton on April 13, 2008 5:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

The situation in USQ is much more like that which killed maths at Bangor. Although the distances are much much smaller, the North of Wales has a relatively poor road network North-South although a good one to the east. To encourage higher education the Welsh Assembly agreed to provide extra funds for students domiciled in Wales who attended a Welsh university. There is no University in Wales nearer to Bangor than Aberystwyth (at about 2 and a half hours drive- train is infeasible) which has a Maths department or offers a maths degree. The area around Bangor has a high percentage of Welsh first language families whose children would prefer to stay in a Welsh speaking environment. Many of our graduates went into teaching locally since they wished to stay in the area and live and work in that Welsh speaking setting. Such students now have to move completely out of the area to Aberystyth or even Cardiff, to take a maths degree, or to pay considerable more (about £6000 over 3 years) by choosing a University outside Wales.

The so-called autonomy of universities in the name of academic freedom, means that a decision by a university to close down a key subject area such as Maths, or the Physical Sciences, cannot be blocked by central government. The result can be seen throughout the UK. Every so often the press talks about the dire situation with Maths departments, physics and chemistry departments etc closing, but little is done.

The situation is exacerbated by the so called RAE which ends up pitting universities against each other and encourages `mainstream’ single subject research rather than innovative or cross disciplinary areas. Even when the authorities in charge of the RAE try to combat such tendencies, the local university administrators try to maximise `success’ and so advise against areas that are considered less likely to give such `success’.

I could go on, but this would get away from USQ’s problem. It is important to realise that with USQ and previously with Bangor, we are seeing the extreme cases of a problem that can affect us all, so need concerted action on behalf of mathematicians everywhere, not only in universities.

Posted by: Tim Porter on April 14, 2008 10:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

What happened to Philosophy in Swansea?

Posted by: Scott Carter on April 14, 2008 4:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

I remember hearing something about this. (Perhaps David as a philosopher knows more). The Swansea webpage does say:


Philosophy at Swansea has a long tradition. At present there is no BA in Philosophy, but elective philosophy modules open to Level 1 students are
PI-101 Introduction to Philosophy (Plato)
in the School of Humanities and
MS-130 Film and Philosophy
in the School of Arts.

The situation has similarities to ours except at Bangor there are NO mathematicians left on the staff and almost none of the service teaching in mathematics is taught by mathematically active members of staff. (A good job is done by some of the staff in various disciplines who have a reasonable background in maths, but I do not think it is quite the same.) The university actually has said that maths had not been shut down, but there are no members of staff! To many people, that has seemed a bizarre use of language.

Posted by: Tim Porter on April 15, 2008 11:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

No BA, but you can do an MA in Wittgensteinian Studies. From the biography of a former lecturer:

The Swansea Department was large. It had grown as a result of the closure of two other Welsh departments, and besides DZ Phillips there were several other Wittgensteinian philosophers, such as H.O. Mounce, Ilham Dilman, and R.W. Beardsmore. It was probably the strongest Wittgensteinian department in the UK, and was to expand further over the next few years, recruiting a number of young lecturers from the same tradition. Unfortunately, not all the Wittgensteinians in Swansea agreed on philosophical or academic values, and the department was racked by bitter and often tragic internal strife throughout the nineties. It was eventually destroyed by its own forces of self-destruction. Nevertheless, in its heyday it was an inspirational School, and changed my life and my philosophical outlook for good.

Does that just leave Cardiff and Lampeter for BAs?

Posted by: David Corfield on April 15, 2008 11:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Petitition to Save USQ Mathematics

Dear Matt,

Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. The situation in Australia must be different from that in the US, and certainly different from, say Korea, where there is a veritable glut of colleges and universities (over 300 in a small country). On the other hand, perhaps it’s not so different from the UK.

I repeat again that all my best wishes go to the efforts surrounding USQ and that my thoughts dwell only on some general points that may be relevant to longer term prospects.

At the risk of boring everyone, perhaps I will attempt to contribute to one more point. I also see that a rather important difference between between USQ and Rochester is that at USQ it is the *undergraduate* major that’s in danger of being abolished. If I recall correctly, at Rochester, it was mainly the Ph.D. program that was under threat.

To the ‘general public’ a reasonable topical distribution of resources in mathematics must inevitably have the structure of a pyramid, with the teaching of arithmetic operations at the base, applied mathematics occurring somewhere in the middle, and research in arithmetic geometry near the tip. (I hope no one takes this image to be insinuating a hierarchy of mathematical subjects. You can imagine the inverted pyramid at the Louvre if you wish.)

The underlying geometry seems foolish to contradict for the foreseeable future. Granting that, useful discussion then often concerns the total volume and the slope of the sides. As far as a university is concerned, it’s important to acknowledge high priorities in undergraduate education, for example. Now people have argued, I think very convincingly sometimes, that research activities and graduate education is critically linked to undergraduate education. More generally, there is something of an ongoing dialectic necessary to fend off sterile stereotypes of good education. But since global action has been called for, we have to acknowledge the importance of *global geographical distribution* in the geometry of the pyramid as well. For example, the link can’t really be used to justify a large Ph.D. program at every university in Korea. Although this is not a carefully considered opinion, it’s not unreasonable there to concentrate efforts into a small number of high quality Ph.D. programs, a larger number of vigorous master’s programs, and then also to ship off talented students to central institutions somewhere in the world. For destructive/constructive movement of a different sort, I sometimes tell members of the Soviet diaspora that the dismantling of the mathematical community there had some very positive consequences from a global perspective, since talented people ended up as emissaries to many dark regions of the world.

Regarding the situation at USQ, of course the effort around the petition is very justifiable even from a global perspective, and the current momentum might indeed be the best thing for it. But among ourselves, I hoped we could take advantage of the unusually global scope of the mathematical community to develop a more nuanced language for discussing priorities, and to give each other some insight on issues of rational global distribution. If we do this properly, we might even come up with viable strategies for making *use* of capitalist energy in universities.

Posted by: Minhyong Kim on April 15, 2008 11:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Post a New Comment