Gotta catch ’em all, URM!

By Carrie Diaz Eaton and Pamela E. Harris

We received the same email: Tuesday, Dec 17, 1:37 PM and Tuesday, Dec 17, 1:42 PM. No time to personalize the email. Simply change last names. After all, any one will do, but only if they are underrepresented minorities (URM).

Aren’t underrepresented mathematicians interchangeable?

We have been on search committees, we have chaired searches. We have organized sessions and conferences, we have sent lots of templated letters inviting people to participate in numerous things. Here are some patterns we noticed.

  1. If it is someone we know REALLY well – we can simply ask if they are free to do a thing without the gallantry.
  2. If it is someone we know and respect, but don’t know well enough, we take the time to position why we need their expertise and connect that to the goals, and hopefully they agree that this invitation/request is legitimate and worth their time.
  3. If this is a standard thing to ask of a person, a workshop or dinner for many people, or a standard paper review, then we just write the same templated letter and change the title and name of the person.

These are the unspoken rules in academia. Maybe, we are opening up the black box for those that don’t know. But note that none of those template letters have ever been to invite an underrepresented mathematician to apply an open position for an Associate/Full professor tenured position.

The email read as if it was a personal invitation. As if, this person knew us and it was our track records which helped identify us as the perfect candidate for the job. It clearly states “We are searching for a new colleague with a deep interest in teaching and mentoring undergraduate students and a track record of advancing equity and inclusion in STEM. Our search committee identified you as someone who might be uniquely qualified for our position, and I’m reaching out to invite you to apply.”

The email made us feel needed, valued, but most importantly seen.

We are unique and we have a track record in addressing challenges of being underrepresented within academia and in particular in mathematics. Yet this email was received by the two of us and three others we know. The five of us are coauthors, colleagues, and friends. And it is very likely that many more of our peers received this email. The only requirement was to be a visible person of color.

Like Pokémon – we are interchangeable. It did not matter that some of us are pure mathematicians and others applied mathematicians. What mattered was the box we check: minority mathematician.

This is not a standard way to recruit anyone, let alone minority mathematicians. For example, Carrie’s math-adjacent department is hiring at the Associate/Full rank right now. She has thought a lot about colleagues she knows that might consider this a move up, are committed to anti-racist, decolonizing work, and can teach programming. And if she does not know a particular person really well, she has been shy to reach out. Why? Because as a Latina who has the experience of being actively oppressed by leaders in direct and indirect power over her, she is terrified that she might invite the wrong tenured person into her small department. And yet there are others for which any underrepresented person will do; There is no fear, because they still hold power and privilege. It must be nice.

Pam reached out to a student at the culprit institution and mentioned that we knew others who received the email verbatim. The student is also a URM and disappointment in their voice was clear as they heard how their institution reached out to try and hire diverse mathematicians. Against Pam’s advice they reached out to the author of the email, who said that they “[took] care to personalize the emails to some extent.” Yes, they did. They changed Harris to Eaton (not even Diaz Eaton) within a 5 minute span. Maybe even to other names in between.

But this is not about the particular person or institution. This is about power and privilege. The privilege that comes from not having to think of oneself as representative of a group of people. The privilege that comes from being in a position of power and seeing minority mathematicians as others and not as individuals – as visible and yet invisible.

So what does successful recruiting look like? We can tell you, because Carrie was recruited to Bates College just last year. There are some of the same elements. There might be an identified need to diversify the faculty. There might be a personalized email. But there were relationships built at Bates long before she was asked to interview there. These relationships were made in some ways because she is a URM. But these relationships were made by mutual respect, mentoring, and lifting up of each other’s mathematical work. There was an institutional acknowledgement that there was work to be done to create an inclusive learning environment and a commitment to do the hard work for their underrepresented students. There was also the kind of recognition and compensation for the experience and emotional sweat equity she would bring to the table.

So next time, because we know there will be a next time, before those “personalized” recruitment emails are sent, we ask chairs of departments and of search committees to answer, and discuss with their department, the following questions:

  1. What has the department/institution done to make the environment one in which everyone, specifically underrepresented minorities, can thrive?
  2. What anti-racist, anti-discrimination, implicit bias training has taken place and how long ago was this? What plans are there to continue this work?
  3. Does the demographics of students in the major(s) of the department match the demographics of the student body? If it doesn’t, why is that and what has been done to remedy this? Whose job is it to do address this? The new faculty member you are planning to hire?
  4. What resources are there to address challenges faced within the department by both underrepresented students and faculty?
  5. How will the department value the perspective and lived experience of a person of color within the department?
  6. Does the department’s evaluation process mention how the invisible work of underrepresented faculty will be valued and how it will be weighed at time of promotion and tenure?
  7. Will merit raises take into account this invisible work, or will “research” be the main evidence of academic excellence?
  8. Are you looking everywhere you should be looking, or do you only want a visible URM?
  9. Are you looking for someone to do the work, or look the part?
  10. Will you pay for all that an underrepresented mathematician will do? Whatever invisible labor you think you know of, multiply by 100, and it will still underestimate what marginalized faculty do for students, peers/colleagues, departments, institutions, and our community. Will you pay them adequately and/or give them committed workload reassignment time for all of their labor?

Lastly, to the naysayers. Contrary to what you may believe, minority mathematicians are not just handed academic jobs at the completion of a Ph.D. Nor are they only recruited simply because they are underrepresented. Even when recruited, the research and teaching background are often evaluated against a higher enough bar before anything else is considered. How we get to that initial recruitment stage is the issue here.

This entry was posted in career advancement, General, Leadership, Negotiating faculty / post doc positions, Outreach, postdocs, Tenure, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gotta catch ’em all, URM!

  1. Concha Gomez says:

    I received that same email, around the same time. We’re all on the same list. I’ve been getting similarly-worded emails every single year, since finishing my PhD almost twenty years ago. I haven’t responded to a single one, but somehow they never got the message. Thank you for explaining it to them.

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