Survey reveals strong feelings of exclusion among marginalized groups in Yale’s math department
A soon-to-be-released report shows that many in the math department are dissatisfied with departmental diversity. Interviews with members of the climate committee demonstrated the difficulties of diversifying the sciences, as well as the hopeful bright spots for progress.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Diversity concerns within Yale’s math department run deep, according to a departmental survey conducted last spring. According to the soon-to-be-released report, just 18 percent of the almost 200 respondents — which included both students and employees — indicated at least some level of satisfaction with departmental diversity. Members of marginalized communities were more than twice as likely to report feeling ostracized and five times more likely to have considered leaving the department altogether due to such concerns.
About a year ago, the Department of Mathematics’ climate committee conducted an anonymized survey of staff, faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, undergraduate majors and undergraduate non-majors. According to a draft version of the report that the News obtained from an anonymous source, one-third, or 33 percent, of the 196 respondents — 137 of which were undergraduates — reported having at least one experience within the department that they “found uncomfortable, discouraging, or alienating.” 14 percent of all respondents reported facing prejudice in the department because of their identity and an additional 13 percent said they had observed such encounters, with 21 percent having considered leaving the department altogether due to those experiences.
Within this data there was some variation by role. 55 percent of all respondents, not including undergraduates, reported they had experiences that made them feel uncomfortable, discouraged or alienated, while only 26 percent of undergraduates reported they had these experiences.
Ian Adelstein — a lecturer in the department and co-chair of the committee that designed the survey — told the News that a summary report and departmental statement should be published within the next two weeks.
In conversations with the News, students and staff on the climate committee discussed both recent and ongoing efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, as well as continued disparities within the department as a whole and the committee itself.
“Regarding the report, there was a diverse set of responses: it was not all positive,” committee co-chair Richard Kenyon wrote in an email to the News. “We (the whole department) are working on finding ways to improve the climate in these respects.”
Kenyon further described various supplementary departmental initiatives, such as organizing social events, various DEIB-related talks and conferences and a reading club. Students also praised the department’s revamp of its undergraduate curriculum in the spring of 2021, and expressed optimism about upcoming changes to graduate and undergraduate advising processes. Both these initiatives are intended to increase academic accessibility. Additionally, the co-chairs noted that the department intends to issue these surveys every two years moving forward, with the next survey scheduled for spring 2023.
In creating this survey, the climate committee sought to assess inclusivity and belonging within the department, which has been historically dominated by white men. It also asked respondents to comment on existing professional and personal engagement and sought specific recommendations for the department’s future.
For many of the questions, participants were asked to select from a five-point sliding scale whether the department exhibited a certain trait “not at all,” “a little,” “moderately,” “mostly” or “completely.” The survey methodology explained that when a scale-based question was left blank, the response was interpreted as an answer of “moderately” — which is a potential source of error.
Presently, according to committee member Supriya Weiss ’23, the committee is working with the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning to remove any identifying details and ensure that anonymity is preserved prior to widely sharing the document. The report and accompanying statement will be published after anonymity is secured.
As an undergraduate majoring in math, Weiss described how some of these trends have played out over her own time at Yale.
“I can probably count on one hand the number of women that are in the room in some of my classes. In that sense, it can be really tough when you look around the room, and you’re like, ‘I don’t look like everyone else here. It doesn’t look like I belong in this space,’” Weiss said. “So I think that it takes a large amount of confidence to even stay in that environment because I really have to be confident in myself that, ‘No, I love math, I’m capable of doing math and I want to do math,’ because just looking at the room itself doesn’t tell me that.”
Weiss also said she thinks that there are “large racial issues” in Yale’s math department, as well as within the broader cultures of math and academia. She noted, though, that she does not feel that Asians are underrepresented in the math department and thus has found her own experiences to be “much more affected” by gender than by race.
But the data showed that some had more positive experiences in the department. According to the report draft, 62 percent of participants feel the math department is mostly to completely welcoming, 70 percent feel it is mostly to completely respectful and 55 percent feel it is mostly to completely supportive. A little less than half, 47 percent, responded that they feel comfortable speaking up and asking questions.
However, Jonas Katona, a second-year graduate student on the committee, described the survey results as “abysmal” compared to his undergraduate alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. He further noted the disparity between the responses from marginalized and non-marginalized groups as significant — for example, the report cites that nearly 50 percent of those who self-identified as part of a marginalized group reported negative experiences in the department, compared to less than 20 percent of those who did not identify as marginalized. Additionally, about 35 percent of those who identified as marginalized said they considered leaving the department, while about 7 percent of those who did not identify as marginalized did the same.
The survey’s executive summary states that respondents who self-identified as part of a “marginalized population” generally described “feeling less included and supported” across various categories surveyed.
Katona continued that although the survey results are indicators of the change that must be made in the department, he thinks the survey alone is not enough to understand or to address the reasons why students feel like they do not belong.
“We need an actual space for conversation,” Katona said. “Because if you look at the survey results, and you see things are negative, you don’t know necessarily how to fix it because you don’t know exactly what are the issues that people are facing.”
Weiss expressed similar thoughts about the need for more widespread DEIB-related discourse within the department, and said she hopes the survey will be used to open these dialogues.
Committee formation and existing efforts
In the summer of 2020, FAS Dean of Science and Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Jeffrey Brock called upon all STEM departments to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion action plan.
Professor Yair Minsky served as the department chair when these efforts began. In an email to the News, Minsky explained that the department formed a “DEI committee” — a precursor to the existing climate committee — that conducted a self-evaluation of the department. The report’s suggestions included undergraduate curriculum changes, structural changes to the graduate program, improvements in hiring practices and overall changes to department culture.
This initial DEI report also urged the creation of three new, separate committees in the fall of 2020: departmental climate, graduate student advisory and outreach. The climate committee’s primary role was to evaluate the culture of the department and strive to make it a more welcoming place, Adelstein told the News.
“I’m pretty optimistic about all this,” Minsky wrote in an email. “I think it’s helping to make the department a more welcoming place, and to enable more people to do good mathematics together. It’s easy for changes like this to peak and then fade away, so one of the purposes of this committee is to keep us focused. The plan to repeat the climate survey every couple of years, for example, is part of that.”
While many climate committee members expressed optimism at the prospect of the department’s initiatives, several also described feelings of being disregarded or disrespected within the committee itself.
A few members recounted instances of their ideas being shut down or facing marginalization.
“I realized it wasn’t sustainable for me to continue channeling my energy in this direction because certain power dynamics described in the report were replicating themselves within the committee,” said Mirilla Zhu ’23, who left the committee.
Katona told the News he felt “invalidat[ed]” when he tried to present his own experiences to the climate committee in a meeting last September. Katona said he came to the meeting frustrated and feeling disconnected from his peers.
When he expressed his grievances and ideas for increasing inclusivity – such as hosting more events along with holding spaces for “actual” conversation where students can express their concerns more directly – he said his ideas were shut down, and the rest of the committee appeared to grow “defensive” and “uncomfortable.”
“To be told immediately ‘I don’t think that’s going to work,’ and like we should continue doing what we’re doing because ‘I think this is fine,’ felt a bit invalidating,” Katona said.
Katona specifically noted his appreciation for Adelstein, who approached him afterward and encouraged him to continue to come to committee meetings and express his thoughts, ideas and concerns.
Next steps to address the problems
The math department’s next steps will be laid out in a statement which Adelstein said will be made publicly available in the next two weeks. These steps will likely include actions related to faculty hiring, the undergraduate program and the graduate program, according to Adelstein.
The survey asked respondents to suggest areas for improvement. Popular suggestions included improvements to the advising process, particularly for first years, and increased mentorship for career support. Several respondents also advocated for administrative changes such as increasing peer tutoring, improving onboarding processes and hiring more faculty.
According to Adelstein, “significant” curricular revisions to the introductory math major sequence were implemented in spring 2021, with the main goal of increasing access to the math major for all students – no matter their previous mathematical background or preparation. He told the News they plan to adjust the curriculum based on student, instructor and tutor feedback.
To further bolster inclusion initiatives within the department, Weiss discussed a need for greater representation in both the student body and faculty.
“Something as simple as seeing more women on the undergraduate level, on the faculty level, at the graduate level,” Weiss said. “So many women who come into Yale feel like STEM is not for them or that they can’t do that. The simple visibility of it makes it seem like something so much more attainable.”
For graduate students, in line with Weiss’s comments on the importance of representation and visibility, Adelstein said a department focus has been on outreach to prospective graduate school applicants. As a part of this outreach, he cited sending posters to over a hundred U.S. institutions, including HBCUs and other “minority-serving universities,” and holding a webinar for prospective applicants in November.
Minsky told the News that in recent years, the department has experienced “a lot of success” in diversifying faculty and in diversifying the graduate program. In February, the University announced a major wave of investments across SEAS and the FAS, especially in STEM, with a stated focus on further diversifying Yale’s faculty.
Weiss also detailed the benefits of peer-to-peer support groups for people of marginalized backgrounds.
“A lot of the strength and support that I have found in the department has been in my fellow female math majors,” Weiss said. “I’m also on the board of Dimensions, which is the group for women and gender minorities in math at Yale. And I think that organizations like that are so important because we understand each other’s experience.”
In his email to the News, Adelstein wrote that the department supports student groups with the goal of promoting inclusivity, such as Dimensions, and that the department is committing to providing a faculty advisor for each of these groups. Summer Undergraduate Math Research at Yale has also been changed into a national program to engage a diverse array of undergraduate students in math research.
The department has taken several steps to improve the experiences of graduate students already enrolled in the program. These measures included developing new advising guidelines to help students navigate the program, creating the student-run Graduate Student Advisory Committee, organizing lunches for students and faculty and instituting temporary advisors for students who do not yet have a thesis advisor.
Several respondents also noted potential access barriers for those with disabilities, with some respondents noting that the elevator in Leet Oliver Memorial Hall — where many math courses are held — is often broken. Most, however, did not express views on the department’s accommodation of disabilities.
Yale’s Department of Mathematics is located at 10 Hillhouse Ave.