Public Comment

Commentary: Bias Against Minorities in Math and Science Continues

By Jonathan David Farley
Friday November 10, 2006

It was a Cold War love story. Julia Robinson had never met the man she was writing. He was from Leningrad; she was from Berkeley. And yet they did one of the most precious things a man and a woman can do together. They did mathematics. And they did that beautifully, solving one of the twentieth century’s greatest conundrums, Hilbert’s “Tenth Problem.” 

This puzzle had to do with how you tell if you can solve a “Diophantine equation,” an equation exactly like the kind you dreaded in high school, like “xy-x2=0.” 

And yet when the message went round the world—“Hilbert’s Tenth Problem has been solved by Julia Robinson of Berkeley!”—and reporters flocked to the University of California to interview Professor Robinson, they couldn’t find her. 

She was not Professor Robinson. The University of California would not give Julia Robinson a job. 

While this story, like most stories, is more complex than it first appears (just watch the new documentary by Oakland filmmaker George Csicsery), the general situation for women in math and science is not. Robinson died in 1985, but the National Academies have just released a report reaffirming that the bias continues. “Compared with men,” the report says, “women faculty members are generally paid less and promoted more slowly, receive fewer honors, and hold fewer leadership positions.” Moreover, as the Robinson story suggests, “These discrepancies do not appear to be based on productivity, the significance of their work or any other performance measures.” 

The situation is not entirely bleak, fortunately, but it is not the “elite” institutions leading the way. Among the top 50 chemistry departments, Rutgers has the highest percentage and number of women faculty (26 percent; the average is 13 percent).  

The situation is worse, however, for minorities, according to the report, and another recent National Academies report concludes that university presidents need to “publicly state the institution’s commitment to diversity.” The authors buy in to the idea that the universities they studied really did support the goal of inclusiveness, because they said they did. 

In reality, though affirmative action has been a conservative vote-getter for three decades, in academia it exists in name only: Every university today pledges its commitment to diversity—even Bob Jones University, which, until recently, banned interracial dating, features African-Americans on its website—but few honor that commitment. 

For example, Stanford president John Hennessy in May declared that he was “worried to death” over the dearth of black faculty. Yet, when the Silicon Valley NAACP presented Hennessy with a list of award-winning black scientists, some of them Stanford alumni, he did not even meet to discuss the issue. A small controversy erupted when, to defuse student agitation on behalf of Edray Goins, a black Stanford and Caltech alumnus who works with the man who helped prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, Stanford’s Faculty Diversity Recruitment officer announced that Stanford had made Goins an offer, when they had not. 

Individuals who have followed higher education in California assert that Stanford has had only one black physicist (now deceased), and no blacks in mathematics. It is reported that, in 10 campuses of the University of California system, only 2 blacks have been hired in mathematics from 1990-2000, including tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure track lecturers. On the east coast, Harvard’s math department has never had a woman faculty member. 

In 2003, then-MIT president Chuck Vest won an award given by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. In 1991, Vest even created a much-heralded fund for instantly hiring qualified minority faculty, should they be discovered. And yet, Woodward and Bernstein would be unable to determine how many times this fund has ever been used. Similar stories apply to other top universities, such as the California Institute of Technology (“Caltech will aggressively and proactively recruit women and underrepresented minorities for faculty positions”); the president has a Special Assistant who deals with issues related to women and minoritie—although, since Caltech had one black freshman in 2005, the Special Assistant must spend a lot of her day playing solitaire. 

What the elite universities prefer is “the Harvard Shuffle.” “Get me Nelson Mandela,” the joke goes in African-American academic circles, a mimicry of a university president looking to recruit a new black faculty member. High-profile or already established black academics move from Harvard to Princeton to Stanford, and, each time they move, their new institution trumpets its diversity, even though the same people are being counted two or three times. (Last year, Stanford hired 5 African-Americans, and lost 4.) American universities hire just enough minorities to keep from being accused of racism, although happily the façade is now peeling away. 

The situation for women is improving, fortunately. Julia Robinson did get her day in the sun. After she solved Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, she was given a lectureship at the University of California, part-time. 


Professor Jonathan David Farley is a mathematician at the University of the West Indies (Jamaica). Seed Magazine has named him one of “15 people who have shaped the global conversation about science in 2005” (