Tilman Bauer writes:

Dear colleagues,

I would like to ask you for your support in a difficult political situation at the VU University Amsterdam. They intend to close down pure mathematics and fire everybody in that section, i.e. Dietrich Notbohm, the algebraic K-theorist Rob de Jeu, the general/geometric topologist Jan Dijkstra and myself (a couple of other mathematicians will retire and their positions will disappear as well). That’s four tenured positions. We are trying to rally for support against this plan, as we think that only strong opposition from the mathematical community has any chance of averting this disaster. We have set up an online petition at

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-pure-mathematics-at-the-vu-university-amsterdam.html

and if you support our cause, it would be a great help if you joined it. Here’s the text of the petition, which has some more details about the plan. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you want more information about what’s going on.

Background:

As with most universities in the Netherlands, the VU University Amsterdam suffers from financial underfunding. All faculties and all departments at the VU are asked to take measures to deal with this problem. For the Department of Mathematics a committee of applied mathematicians has put forward a proposal to close the Geometry Section, which consists of six tenured positions and focuses on algebraic K theory, algebraic topology, and general/geometric topology. At the same time, some of the funds freed up by the abolition of the Geometry Section are to be used for the creation of two additional positions in the Analysis Section. This proposal has received the endorsement of the Dean of the Faculty of Sciences and of the Executive Board of the university. Two members of the Geometry Section will retire in the next two years and closure of the section will allow for termination of the other four tenured positions. Thus, the proposal’s drastic measures will merely cut the total

number of positions by two.Of the four positions slated for termination, one is in general/geometric topology and has been held since 2001 by Jan Dijkstra. The other three people were appointed less than four years ago: Dietrich Notbohm, Rob de Jeu, and Tilman Bauer. This introduced algebraic K-theory and algebraic topology as new research subjects at the VU. In 2010, a research evaluation of all Dutch mathematics departments by an international committee took place. The committee welcomed these changes very much, stating that strong young people provided new impetus to the group in mainstream mathematics and offered promise for the future.

What are the consequences of the closure of the Geometry Section for the university? Algebra, algebraic topology, and general/geometric topology will vanish. Algebraic K-theory and general/geometric topology will cease to exist in the Netherlands, and only Utrecht will be left with research in algebraic topology. No pure mathematicians will be on the staff anymore. The university will give up central areas of mathematics and adopt a narrow research profile. The education of students offered at the VU will also become much narrower, which may lead to a drop in the yearly intake of students, and will certainly compromise the academic chances for VU graduates.

This petition asks for a reconsideration of this plan. By signing it you will help to save the Geometry Section at the Department of Mathematics at the VU!

Petition:

I appeal to the Department of Mathematics, the Faculty of Sciences, and the Executive Board of the VU University Amsterdam to repeal the plan to close the Geometry Section. Proceeding with the proposal as it stands would severely damage the quality of research and teaching in mathematics at the VU. Laying off capable tenured faculty and hiring new faculty at the same time is intolerable.

I’m generally pretty skeptical of the value of petitions, but I’ll say, I signed this one.

I do not mean to bother but correctness of the language has its importance in such statements so:

“the VU University Amsterdam” should be replaced by “VU University Amsterdam” as is done on the university’s website -appropriately, I think.

http://www.vu.nl/en/about-vu-amsterdam/mission-and-profile/index.asp

PS: Thank you Ben for the post.

Well I realize I should email Tilman Bauer about that. I’ll do this right now.

This petition has a fair chance of success. Firing several tenured professors as part of policy-change in the academic direction of an academic unit is so damaging, to the fine department of mathematics at VU and its members, to the entire university, and to science in the Netherlands (and, in particular, the prospects of attracting excellent young researchers), so it is reasonable to assume that some reconsideration will take place on all the necessary levels. Of course, it is a great injustise to the scientists involved whose positions are threatens.

The financial crisis finally gets real.

@Eric: The shocking part is not only that some people need to be fired (one might argue that this is just a matter of financial necessity). The shocking parts are:

1- Those fired were hired only 4 yeas ago (roughly).

2- There is a simultaneous proposal of hiring new people.

3- Pure math is deemed superfluous.

@Andre

Pure math is superfluous to the extent it is unable to independently raise funds to support itself. The new positions are much more likely to be able to receive external funding.

Instead of a hapless and hopeless petition to save the group, you should instead be making appeals to raise funds. That is the only way the group can be saved.

I watch in happy amazement the way mathematicians seem to be completely obvlivious to the stark economic realities swirling around them.

I hope this is a wake up call all of you. You must find ways to fund yourself no matter how secure you think you are. Countries are on the verge of defaulting on their obligations. Do you think tenure will hold water when every institution is insolvent?

I wish you my best.

Eric, your third paragraph suggests that you are happy to see misfortune befall mathematicians. Is this an accurate interpretation of that part of your message?

The rest of your comment seems to be made of bold advice and declarations, but with little evidence to back them up. Why should we trust the judgment of a random internet person?

Hi Scott,

That third paragraph is not meant to imply I’m happy to see the misfortunes of mathematicians. Not in the least. I’m not happy to see the misfortunes of anyone. Quite the opposite. As someone working in the finance industry who has been something of a Cassandra for the past 5 years or so, I see the Eurozone and the US in a slow motion train wreck. Reading maths blogs is a refreshing escape from the battlefield. It’s almost as if, in the midst of crumpled buildings and ash strewn streets, there is one small oasis containing a whiteboard and a small group of mathematicians huddled around it debating the relevance of cohomology in the characterization of entropy. It feels oddly refreshing, but you know casualties are inevitable. This was the first casualty in mathematics I’ve seen where the financial crisis gets real to them.

But I assure you, the financial crisis is real and will get worse. There will be more casualties like this in the mathematics communities. Many countries are effectively insolvent if not technically. The euro is unlikely to survive in it’s current form for another 5 years. The US dollar will not fair much better with the rise of Asia, China in particular. China is clearly on a path of internationalizing it’s currency. I would not be surprised to see the Eurozone, and the US for that matter, issue bonds denominated in RMB within 10 years.

Aside from my general plea for the mathematics community to start managing for the new economic realities, one thing I would HIGHLY recommend to any mathematics department is to develop a relationship with a sister university in China. This may ultimately end up being your most secure form of future financing.

I am not exactly a random Internet person. One way this community might know me is as an old friend of John Baez and friend of the nCafe/nLab.

I started a blog back in 2007, before many people even realized the crisis was already well underway. You may be interested in the several initial posts as the crisis was unfolding:

http://phorgyphynance.wordpress.com/2007/07/10/the-end-is-near/

Best regards

This was the first casualty in mathematics I’ve seen where the financial crisis gets real to them.I take it you’ve been outside of academia for a while?

Hi AJ,

I take it you’ve been outside of academia for a while?You can definitely say that. I completed my dissertation at UIUC back in 2002. I spent a couple years at MIT Lincoln Lab before moving to Wall Street in 2005.

Partly out of frustration with disastrous fiscal and monetary policy in the US, I moved to Hong Kong in 2009.

Something that might do more good than petitions would be to start recording horror stories. If anyone’s department has not been affected yet, it probably will be, and seeing what has happened elsewhere might help prepare.

I know that John’s campus was seeing some serious budget cuts, but wasn’t aware of any downsizing of the department faculty yet. I am also aware that my alma mater is suffering due to poor state (Illinois) budgets. I don’t think any of my former classmates (now professors) have yet been affected.

Best regards

Hi Eric,

I think you might be a little bit underinformed about the impact of the financial crisis on mathematics departments. I’m glad to hear, however, you get some joy out of imagining that there’s a place where people are pleasantly insulated from economic reality.

There are different standards of what it means to be “affected” by the economy. In business, the telltale sign of rough times is firing. By that standard academia *has* been largely immune. It’s certainly difficult to fire people with tenure, but that’s beside the point. It’s rare for academics to be fired for *any* reason, let alone budget reasons. You could make this into a thing about how academics live in a dream, but it’s using an arbitrary standard, “firing for the bottom line,” as what makes a job real. I could say a job isn’t real if you don’t interacting face-to-face with tons of people every day, so working at McDonalds is real and working in a cubicle isn’t. Totally arbitrary. If you know anybody who lifts heavy things in their job, ask them what they think of people who don’t.

Academia downsizes without firing. Departments use adjuncts with course-long contracts: when the course is over, off they go (same with postdocs/visitors on a longer time frame). If you want to save money you don’t replace them. Grad students, same deal: don’t admit as many, or stop admitting them entirely. If there aren’t enough TA jobs, the ones who can’t find outside funding/work to afford full tuition will leave on their own, without being “fired.” Encourage tenured people to retire— or just let baby boom demographics do their thing— and replace them with adjuncts, or nobody. You get the same out of fewer people by increasing teaching loads: if increasing the number of classes will violate a contract, increase the class size. Cut contributions to benefits, if you were making them in the first place, if there *were* benefits in the first place (outside the tenure track, not as common as you might think). Jobs disappear all over, yet you can’t often point at a particular person and say “he is losing his job.” Some dream world.

You might say, “that’s life, academia has been poorly managed, the economy is just churning its way to a more productive future.” But think: it’s only an accident of time that you aren’t in school now. Maybe you, in today’s world, would not get into grad school— or you’d take twice as long to finish, or you wouldn’t finish— because now is not then. (Did anyone ever grade your math and science homework? Did you ever have a job grading math or science homework? Lots of places, that is gone now.) We tend to hear terms like “tuition increase” and “cut” and imagine them to mean whatever they meant when we were in school. But academia is *always* changing. This is why some academics may bristle at being told how to adapt to the current academic reality, by somebody whose experience with academia is not current.

For me it comes down to: is anything that happens as a result of terrible economic times automatically right? Economic realities do force institutions to restructure in ways that are more productive— but I can say “economic realities force me to do X,” where X is anything I want. The issue is, is that really true? Are there other options? What are the terms of the discussion? It is it possible to question these terms without being caricatured as rearranger of deckchairs on the Titanic?

So? Was the petition a success?