I know that most of you reading this are or will be teaching this fall and that probably means in-person for the first time in a while (and all the academic and emotional implications this carries), and with mask and vaccine guidance changing (perhaps even often) and with controversy. You have a lot on your plate and I am eternally grateful for all educators who are doing this hard work. Thank you.
This column will begin with policy updates that could especially affect students and institutes of higher education—including Title IX and immigration news—and concludes with a very brief update on the Census and redistricting.
Education Policy News
The various large Biden-agenda bills working their way through Congress include education provisions, including the notable free community college provision. There is just too much going on, and changing too quickly, for me to provide any kind of timely reporting here. September promises to be very busy in Congress not only working on these bills (infrastructure, etc.) but also on the “regular” annual appropriations. The latter must be completed by the end of the month or else the government will shut down or a continuing resolution will be put in place. It would be an excellent moment for you to Take Action and urge Congress to provide increased funds to the NSF for fiscal year 2022. Thank you for doing that!
Immediately before I wrote Part 1, civil rights champion Bob Moses passed away. I want the United States to offer quality education to all so that we can be our best nation self. As Moses argued, education is a civil right that so many in this country, in practice, do not have. It is also argued that we should improve the quality of our (math) education simply to compete with China. Data recently released by the National Science Board shows that the United States ranked 25 out of 37 countries in mathematical literacy and United States performance on these tests has remained stagnant for over a decade. Arguably, these (number of PhDs awarded, math contests, standardized tests, etc.) are not the best metrics one could use to determine the quality of our education.
And, while I am on it, a brief digression—I find two facts in the NSB report Executive Summary (just mentioned) especially interesting:
- Less experienced STEM teachers (as measured by years of teaching) are more prevalent in schools with high-minority enrollment or high-poverty enrollment.
- Data collected on U.S. remote learning in spring 2020 (during the COVID-19 pandemic) revealed differences in access to technology based on household income: 57% of households with income below \$25,000 did not always have a computer available for educational purposes, whereas 90% of households with an income of \$200,000 or more did.
Neither of these are, sadly, surprising.
As you know, Title IX refers to the part of a law that makes nondiscrimination on the basis of sex a condition for receiving federal financial assistance, including for funding to colleges and universities. Title IX first appeared in 1972 as an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. In 2020, the Trump administration put in place new regulations for implementing Title IX and these marked a major change from previous guidance issued. At the time, the AMS joined many other professional societies urging that the proposed changes not be made. Our central concerns were that (1) the proposed rules gave a definition of sexual harassment that was too narrow; (2) the circumstances under which Title IX would apply were being made too restrictive; and (3) the new notice requirements were to become too restrictive. The Biden administration has begun the work to review and—in part or in full—reverse these DeVos-led regulations. This work has continued this summer. In July, the Department of Education published a Q&A about how the 2020 regulations will be implemented until their review is complete and new regulations are in place.
On August 6, the Biden administration announced another extension of student loan repayments through January 31, 2022. Also on August 6, the Department of Education announced that it will work this fall to make changes to a variety of regulations overseeing student loans. More information on the latter is found in this press release.
It can be argued that these issues and policies in education do not affect mathematicians doing their research. However, changes to how we pay for college and who has access have potential to dramatically change our jobs in the classroom.
Of course, student visas—the ease and ability to get them—as well as the overall international climate impact the demographic of the mathematics student body, especially at the graduate level. The Trump years were very tough on international students and visiting faculty, and that administration’s policy implications for foreign students and scholars were greatly compounded by the difficulties of international travel brought on by the pandemic.
We’ve been pretty active on this front, trying to assure the United States is a welcoming place for all who want to come and study mathematics, do research here, or attend a conference or workshop. My post from October 16, 2020 details a few concerning maneuvers proposed by the Trump administration. Of particular concern for us was one targeting “duration of status” guidelines that allow some international students (typically F and J visa holders) to remain in the country for the time it takes to finish their degrees. Good news—on July 6, the Department of Homeland Security withdrew this proposed rule. Mathematics graduate students acted, and I am grateful for their advocacy efforts; it made a difference!
Indeed, international enrollments (across all fields and levels of higher education) are seeing a bounce back—rebounding from COVID and perhaps Trump-era policies that created a less welcoming environment for non-US citizens. In May and June, about 117,000 F-1 student visas were approved, which is about 93% of the number issued the same two months of 2019. According to the AMS annual survey, the majority of international PhD math students are now from China. Nearly 57,000 visas were granted in May and June to Chinese students (again across all fields and all levels), compared with about 55,000 in 2019. At the same time, we do read about some graduate students in China reporting visa denials. At least some of these rejections are thought to be related to a presidential order that blocks visas to students in STEM fields who have studied at universities alleged to have ties to the Chinese military; this order was issued by Trump and has not been reversed by Biden.
Congress is also considering student and scholar visas. On July 13, a hearing was held by the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee that focused on our outdated immigration policies for recruiting talent—including mathematicians—to the United States. There is momentum in Congress for making it easier for (STEM field) students who do their PhD work here to stay to work. A letter from the Carnegie Mellon Graduate Student Assembly (submitted for the record) mentions a recommendation made to Congress by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence that,
“Congress should amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to grant lawful permanent residence to any vetted (not posing a national security risk) foreign national who graduates from an accredited United States institution of higher education with a doctoral degree in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics in a residential or mixed residential and distance program; and has a job offer in a field related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. They should not be counted towards permanent residency caps.”
During the hearing, arguments worth merit were made on both sides. Witness Jennifer Grundy Young told the story of a scientist who was educated in the United States (with graduate degrees from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon), worked on a temporary visa for 18 years here, but ultimately gave up trying to secure permanent residency (i.e., a “green card”) and is now employed in Canada after completing their immigration process within months and without an attorney. Subcommittee Ranking Member Tom McClintock (CA, 4) argued that US workers are displaced by participants in the H-1B skilled visa program and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.
Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (CA, 19) is committed to fixing our immigration system in broad terms and including by phasing out the per-country caps on employment-based (EB) visas, and strengthening the H-1B visa program. The AMS has sent, together with other professional scientific societies, a letter to Congress urging them to increase the number of EB visas thereby smoothing the path for more mathematicians to obtain permanent resident status. [Interesting to read the CBC take on this hearing.]
Census and Redistricting
On August 12, the Census Bureau released redistricting data to the states, months late. New maps will roll out one state at a time; state deadlines for new maps vary between September and the first few months of 2022.
Because I find it interesting: The share of the nation’s population that is white declined by nearly 9% since 2010, while the population in metro areas grew by 9%, according to the data, which was collected last year during the coronavirus pandemic. The number of White people fell for the first time since 1790, and for the first time (non-Hispanic) White people now account for less than 60% of the people in the U.S. The Two or More Races category increased 276% since 2010. Other highlights can be found at the Census website.
Techniques from mathematics and statistics are used in the Census, in apportionment, and in redistricting. The 2020 redistricting data are the first to use differential privacy. In 2018, the AMS issued a joint statement with the American Statistical Association about redistricting and partisan gerrymandering in particular. In it, we urge that mathematics and statistical science be employed to evaluate the fairness of district plans. The good news is that several states—from Virginia to Illinois to Arizona to Wisconsin—are in fact bringing in mathematical scientists to help, typically by creating ensembles of maps for redistricting groups to use to assess their own proposed maps (but in other ways as well). And, this is making national news, as in this Washington Post article.
I expect future legal challenges to proposed and adopted maps to focus on partisan gerrymandering and to be considered at the state level; the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision that federal courts should have no role in deciding partisan gerrymandering claims will guide cases to state courts. I expect mathematical and statistical arguments and tools be employed regularly in these legal arguments, and an increased number of mathematical scientists who are involved at the map drawing phase and in the court cases writing amicus briefs and serving as witnesses.