Leicester mathematics under threat again

Four years ago I wrote a post about an awful plan by Leicester University to sack its entire mathematics department, invite them to reapply for their jobs, and rehire all but six “lowest performers”. Fortunately, after an outcry, the university backed down.

Alas, now there’s a new vice-chancellor who appears to have learned nothing from the previous debacle. This time, the plan, known by the nice fluffy name Shaping for Excellence, is to get rid of research in certain subjects of which pure mathematics is one (and medieval literature another). This would mean making all eight pure mathematicians at Leicester redundant. The story is spreading rapidly on social media (it’s attracted quite a bit of attention on Twitter, Reddit and Hacker News, for example), so I won’t write a long post. But just in case you haven’t heard about it, here’s a link to a petition you can sign if, like a lot of other people, you feel strongly that this is a bad decision. (At the time of writing, it has been signed by about 2,500 people, many of them very well known academics in the areas that Leicester University claims to be intending to promote, in well under 24 hours.)

8 Responses to “Leicester mathematics under threat again”

  1. Derek Jones Says:

    What is it that the new vice-chancellor has not learned?

    I would argue that it is you who have not learned that economic principles apply to everybody, that includes academics and the subset that is mathematicians. The world does not owe academics a living.

    It is an archaic form of employment contract that forces Leicester University to sack its entire mathematics department, and then rehire everybody minus six.

    I’m sure that mathematicians will point to the economic value of some work of earlier mathematicians, and use this to justify their view that they should be employed to do mathematical research. The fact that in earlier times there were many fewer mathematicians, and their funding was a lot less generous than it is today, never seems to get mentioned.

    I think the way forward is to go back to governments funding prizes for discoveries. People can still do mathematics to their hearts content, but the taxpayer gets a more direct say in what problems get the attention.

    • Douglas Renwick Says:

      Yeah well, you could also just fire the chancellor and replace them with someone that would work for much less money, universities could save money that way. Universities have far more administrators compared to the academic staff since they become corporatized under the justification of “efficiency”.

  2. Alexander Kurz Says:

    I am glad you bring up the larger question of “the way forward”. If we want human civilization to survive for, say, another 500 years, we need to think seriously about how to transition to a sustainable economy. This will require to shift human activities from unsustainable consumption of material resources to spending more on maintaining a stable environment, healthcare, and education. What we need is a debate on how much of our economic activity we want to devote to these sectors. Once we decided this, we can design a tax system that is fair to everybody. Personally, I think it is rather clear that we need to spend more on education and research if we want to stay inside planetary boundaries. It is a question of survival for all of us.

  3. Carnival of Mathematics 190 – Sophie the Mathmo Says:

    […] Like me, he has a blog (but unlike me, he has a Fields Medal). He has recently taken to his blog to inform people of how Leicester University is planning on making its Pure Mathematics department […]

  4. Douglas Renwick Says:

    The lesson to be learned is that academics didn’t resist the corporatization of the university strongly enough, and so this is the consequence of their inaction. Very few academics speak out against the injustices of other people. Yes, I signed the petition, because when you have people in our society with billions in wealth, there is no justification for getting rid of the mathematicians.

  5. Yiftach Says:

    See below a link to a legal fundraiser for Leicester’s maths department:

    https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-leicester-pure-maths-fund-legal-support?member=9937742&utm_medium=email&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_email%2Binvitesupporters

  6. Tony Gardiner Says:

    The letters of redundancy went out today.

    One problem seems to be that the guy wielding the axe and doing the VC’s bidding thinks of himself as a kind of mathematician, and is highly “cited” (e.g. applying algorithms to produce “rostering for nurses”). And the Head of Department is definitely a mathematician – if of the “applied” kind (fluids – which I am in no position to judge).

    So it looks from here as though Pure Mathematicians have been asleep at the wheel – politely and uncritically allowing “kinds of mathematics” to rise without comment, that have now shown their true colours.

    Time to wake up?

    • Richard Pinch Says:

      I don’t think it’s helpful, either to the mathematicians at Leicester who may be about to lose their jobs, to the health of mathematical research at Leicester, or to the mathematical community in the UK, to frame this as a “pure” versus “applied” conflict: it is not. I’m sure you’re aware that both the LMS and the IMA wrote to the VC at Leicester criticising this proposal, for example. There is certainly a perception outside the community that mathematics and mathematicians are split into these two incompatible areas, and that perception leads to the mistaken belief that one part can be removed without affecting the other, as is proposed at Leicester. Perpetuating that division reinforces the case that the Leicester VC is using. I think it would be more helpful, and more accurate, to emphasise the unity of mathematics and the damage done to mathematics and mathematicians by creating divisions, either from the outside as in the Leicester case, or from the inside.

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