Why the Admissions Scandal Matters to MAA

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

This week’s indictments of prominent, wealthy individuals for illegal actions as they sought admission for their children to elite colleges and universities brings national attention to inequity in access to higher education. While the extreme (and illegal) acts at the center of these stories are outliers, the underlying narratives, and the ways in which these particular acts occurred at the fringes of the (legal) college admissions counseling industry, serve as reminders that wealth, power, and privilege are still key drivers of the makeup of freshman classes across the U.S.

It’s a fortuitous circumstance that the current (Feb/March 2019) issue of MAA FOCUS is devoted to issues of equity and inclusion in the mathematical sciences community. I hope that you will read the issue carefully, and consider how the questions our colleagues wrestle with there are related to the admissions scandal.

The theme that came to me across numerous articles is the need to challenge norms and biases within the mathematical profession that serve to maintain power structures across society more broadly. Mathematical knowledge and the ability to deploy quantitative skills in varied settings privileges those who have that knowledge and skills. How do we, then, carry out our professional responsibilities in ways that serve to facilitate growth in knowledge and skills? Mathematics courses are often viewed as barriers to students succeeding in higher education, but what about our responsibility to encourage students to develop mathematical capacity to succeed in their lives?

The recent completion of the MAA Instructional Practices Guide makes a strong case for our responsibilities. In their introduction, the authors write:

Inequity exists in many facets of our society, including within the teaching and learning of mathematics. Because access to success in mathematics is not distributed fairly, the opportunities that accompany success in mathematics are also not distributed fairly. We in the mathematical sciences community should not affirm this inequitable situation as an acceptable status quo. We owe it to our discipline, to ourselves, and to society to disseminate mathematical knowledge in ways that increase individuals’ access to the opportunities that come with mathematical understanding.

I’m going to go out on a limb and extend this call for change. To be sure, our educational system is built on a framework of assessment that has many influences. But it’s not hard to make a case that the eugenics movement, and subsequent efforts to measure human intelligence, have had profound influences on the way our society thinks about competence, how we reward performance, and ultimately the values we place on different populations. Mathematics has been used as a tool to implement, and even to justify, these efforts.

We’re now living in a world where artificial intelligence, which depends entirely on mathematics for its implementation, looms as a key driver of change in the daily lives of our citizens. Perhaps it’s time we reflect on not only how we teach, but what we teach, and how we assess our students, to ensure that as we move towards an uncertain future, we can more effectively contribute towards reaching our vision of a society that values the power and beauty of mathematics and fully realizes its potential to promote human flourishing.