Should the AMS have a Fellowship program?

Many professional societies (e.g. American Physical Society, American Chemical Society)  have “Fellows,” a smallish class of members who for whatever reason are denoted as being more distinguished than the rest.  The AMS doesn’t.  Should we?  The membership is asked to vote this year on creation of an AMS Fellows program.  Such a vote has failed once before; at the time, the Notices ran an interesting point-counterpoint in which Ron Stern argued for the fellowship program and David Eisenbud argued against.

Readers:  should there be AMS fellows or not?

Update:  I should make it clear that I myself haven’t decided how to vote, so this is not a rhetorical question.

Tagged , ,

58 thoughts on “Should the AMS have a Fellowship program?

  1. Deane says:

    At my school, the answer is a painfully obvious YES. The problem arises when a dean or provost has to compare the performance or quality of faculty across different departments. The other science and engineering departments are able to establish the quality of both individual faculty and the department as a whole by citing who are fellows of their respective professional organizations. When the math department says that there are no fellows, the absence of information is quite damaging, no matter what else we try to offer as evidence. The people who are against the program argue on the basis of egalitarianism. But this is a false egalitarianism, because people who are in top ranked departments or top ranked schools are already being treated better than people in lower ranked schools. It’s just a question of whether we should help single out the better mathematicians who happen to be in lower ranked departments or schools.

  2. I just abstained voting on this question (partly because I felt that since I am based outside the US, the question was not something I should really have an opinion on). But reading the Notices back-and-forth that you linked to, I think I would be more tempted now to vote against…

  3. jc says:

    There’s also a commentary in this month’s (Sep 2011) Notices: with Eric M. Friedlander writing for the proposed AMS Fellows Program, and Frank Morgan writing against.

  4. Deane says:


  5. Richard says:

    I strongly support a Fellows program. I believe the arguments against just don’t add up. They certainly don’t outweigh the clear argument for: that recognition within the community is some metric of quality that people (i.e. Deans, administrators) can understand. It is not that having a Fellows program will persuade Deans to have greater respect for mathematics *in general*, but rather that the Deans will have greater respect for one’s math department in particular. Besides, arguing that mathematics has a special culture just makes it seem even more isolated and strange to the outside academic world.

  6. Deane says:


  7. Jason Starr says:

    I also agree that there should be a Fellows program. Since junior faculty are more affected by this than senior faculty, maybe the AMS should give each junior member 2 votes. At least, as a community we should pay special attention to the opinions of junior colleagues (not just on this issue, in fact).

  8. amie says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Deane.

  9. Basically, I found the arguments against to be better and more convincing — but I repeat that this is personal opinion, and that the political aspects which argue in favor of the programme do not have the same weight for someone outside the US.

  10. D says:

    Are Junior faculty really more affected? It seems likely to me that a Fellows program is going to be a case of “The rich get richer” and leave the rest of us behind. I also worry about how it will affect funding — organizations like the NSF already seem to prefer to give grants to people who don’t need them as much and I see a Fellows program only exacerbating this problem — and hurt those of us at smaller schools.

  11. Terence Tao says:

    I have a somewhat conflicted opinion on this issue – given the demand for accreditation of some sort (particularly for promotion and tenure cases), if there is to be something of this sort, then an AMS fellowship program is less bad than, say, a reliance on impact factors. But I am still uneasy with it.

    I do know, though, that any debate to adopt the program is likely to be very heated in the short term at least…

  12. Dave says:

    I likewise voted for. The argument against, that it would create two classes of mathematicians, comes off as painfully naive and self-congratulatory to me. It’s possible that do better than some other professions at treating each other as equals in our interpersonal interactions, but a community of equals we certainly are not.

    By the way, it’s not as sexy a question, but I think it would be worth having some discussion of the relative merits of the two candidates for AMS president. It’s an important job, and there have occasionally been some (IMHO) shockingly poor choices for this office.

  13. Scott Armstrong says:

    I am inclined to vote no.

    I don’t want to have to worry about being elected Fellow some day. It’s another thing to worry about, and I would distrust the selection process. It would be flawed, and probably come down to who is on the committee and which subfields are well-represented, etc. For example, my subfield of PDE is not well-represented in the US, in general, so I could imagine being at a disadvantage.

    If being elected Fellow is likely to become a prereq for getting tenure at certain places, them I’m really really against the idea.

    Generally speaking, I am in favor of decentralizing the evaluation process. This seems at first glance like it could be a step in the opposite direction.

  14. Jay says:

    Knowledge of this issue just gave me motivation to dig up the election email and vote at all (not knowing many of the candidates at my age). My opinion is against the proposal, because I personally fears it might have negative effects on “who we are”, especially when juxtaposed with other fields. To disclaim, my opinion reflects quite an amount of idealization and caricature, but here are a couple of the pictures I have in mind.

    A key feature of other academic fields, which allows such politics to take root, is that very (very, very) often matters of validity are solved by politics rather than quality/accuracy/etc. of the work. We mathematicians are mostly very intellectually honest, and we have something like a “gold standard” (that is, proof) of whether work is correct or not. The matter left to opinion is usually how important a given work is, but this is somewhat tempered by the specialization of mathematics: it is hard for people outside a given subfield of mathematics to say something meaningful about it. These aspects of our situation, and the lack of political charge, are a mind-blow for people in other fields. I fear that a Fellows program would corrupt this situation. It might lead to arguments over which subfields are to be represented, or even which methods within a subfield, in turn leading to people digging into camps. The arguments could degenerate into the equivalent of public relations wars. Next thing we know, we might find ourselves judging work relying more heavily on conventional wisdoms touted by camps, when we’re unqualified to do so.

    This also ties into the issue of outward communication, with the public. I personally dislike the relationship between science and the media, for the usual reasons that the media report on things they don’t understand, with ridiculous results. Science takes some advantage of this, increasing their presence using the media to push through unchecked PR. At some point, buzz becomes more important than the science itself. I’m afraid of us marketing ourselves too heavily upon anything other than the content of our work—and becoming like the scientists, in which the issues become ones of competition of personality, rather than of content. I see the marketing of Fellows being a key aspect of the program, and fear it could be a first step towards systemic mismarketing.

  15. Melissa Tacy says:

    I would be inclined to support this proposal. The only argument against that added up for me was that such a program would create extra work. It’s already been noted a couple of times in the comments that status and politics are already pervasive in mathematics. I doubt adding a fellowship program would be any real cultural change. I would however give stronger support if the appointment to Fellow came with some kind of firm commitment to the ‘public face’ role as this, to me, is one of the strongest points in favour.

  16. JSE says:

    My mom, a statistician, reports:

    “The American Statistical Association has a Fellows program. One thing it does is add to the responsibility of senior faculty–one more thing to do each year, consider which faculty members to support for Fellowship. In the ASA this is not a trivial task. A multipage document addressing several aspects of career activities is required, along with support letters from 5 people. D and I have developed many such packages and it takes a lot of time and effort. We find that there is also “Fellow-creep;” right now, although the ASA by-laws only permit election of at most one-half (or maybe even one-third, I can’t remember) of one percent of the membership in any one year, more than 10% of the current membership are now Fellows. The ASA has no incentive for reducing the numbers elected each year, as they do targeted fund-raising of Fellows, so that percentage is increasing. And of course, every academic department wants a high percentage of their faculty to be Fellows.

    Our other major organization, the International Biometric Society, has successfully fought off regular proposals to establish Fellowships. It does offer an Honorary Life Member award, which is given to at most two individuals every other year, so it’s really a big deal for those who get it and no dishonor to those who don’t.”

    On the other hand, a SIAM member I talked to today said that, after much controversy, SIAM launched a fellows program two years ago and that people are mostly happy with it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I think it helps to look at the group of people who stand to benefit/lose the most from fellowship status. By and large, the fellowships will matter most to young people looking for jobs or being considered for tenure. For the fellowships to serve a positive and useful role, we should not only have confidence that the best candidates will be recognized over the long run, but that the process will be able to efficiently identify (and essentially rank) young, emerging mathematicians in close to real time.

  18. I voted yes, after having voted no the previous time round. I think Melissa is right that status and politics are already pervasive in mathematics, and if that’s to be the case, then it’s to our clear advantage to have the markers of success in that game be recognized when mathematics completes with other disciplines (e.g. within a university or a funding agency). I don’t think that the AMS fellow selection will be worse in these respects than, say, picking ICM speakers, but the former will be easier to sell to a dean than the latter (even though the latter is likely to be more selective).

    Also, my impression from the proposal is that the AMS fellows would be typically be fairly senior people (which I think is the norm for these programs), and so won’t be an issue when people are coming up for tenure.

    Disclaimer: I might be biased since if this passes I will automatically become a fellow, though that was also true last time when I voted against it.

  19. Deane says:

    My impression is the same at Nathan’s. I believe that other professional societies (IEEE, ACM, etc.) designate as fellows not junior people but people who either are just about to be or have just been promoted to full professor. The designation of Fellow is typically not a requirement or criterion for tenure, but can be a factor for promotion to full professor. I believe the proposed AMS Fellows program is expected to be the same.

  20. Richard Séguin says:

    First I have several comments about Stern’s arguments.

    “Articles will appear in every newspaper in the nation about mathematicians and mathematics. There will be discussions over coffee, over lunch, and at dinner tables about what we create and discover.” — Well, this did in fact happen to a small degree over Perelman and the Poincare Hypothesis largely because of the soap opera aspect, but in general, you’re kidding, right? The general public can become fascinated by astronomy, particle physics, or even elementary number theory because there’s at least something that the intuition can easily grasp, but algebraic geometry or topological dynamics?

    “Of course there are less desirable corollaries to an AMS Fellows Program. There is the extra effort involved in the administration of the program as well as the perception that the AMS membership will be split into first- and second-class citizenship. The first is a fact and the second is a perception.” — There is a lot to the adage “perception is reality.”

    “Mathematics has had difficulty here largely due to our refusal as a community of scholars to assume a public responsibility to recognize excellence beyond the extraordinary.” — The author does not address why this could not be corrected.

    Some uneasiness on my part about this proposal derives from my personal experience witnessing self-defined and undeserved chummy elitism within organizations. Mathematicians are people too. I also worry about unintended consequences such as decreased diversity of thought due to biases of the fellows who elect fellows …

    Although I am an AMS member, this vote will have no direct bearing on myself personally. I’m not sure how I’ll vote.

  21. I’m a little fuzzy on the exact number of fellows the AMS would be aiming for, but I suspect the closest analog to something we already have is the Sloan Fellowships. The main differences are that the AMS ones would be for more senior faculty and would lack the (fairly modest) monetary award that comes with a Sloan. So if you think Sloan’s are a good thing, it probably follows that you’ll like the AMS program…

  22. Anonymous Poster says:

    The argument that this would increase elitism in mathematics does not hold water. Mathematics is already elitist and in many ways painfully so: we have fewer awards than other fields, even taking into account number of mathematicians or number of members of the AMS. Those awards go to a very few people, with a small group of usual suspects for the awards. The Fellows program would increase the percentage honored by the AMS, and expand the “elite” group beyond this small number. Additionally most AMS awards, and more generally mathematics awards are of two types: early career awards or end of career awards.

    The nature of AMS fellowships is different: they are not meant for any particular age group and would probably mainly be awarded to mid and late career mathematicians. The seeding pool makes these differences clear, including (among others) all who have given invited addresses at sectional meetings. While not a perfect method, it is certainly not elitist.

  23. D says:

    The proposal itself says 5% of members would be the target, which would currently make for about 1500 Fellows.

  24. Last time I voted “no”, although I do have some sympathy for some of the arguments on the other side. This time I won’t be voting, as I didn’t renew my AMS membership this year because I was going to be away for the whole year and seemed easier than asking them not to send me mail. Not sure how I’d vote this time. I’ll add a couple of related anecdotes.

    The bulk of new fellows would come initially from past plenary speakers at AMS meetings. I was never invited to give such a talk but I have once served in an AMS committee to select speakers for a regional meeting of the central section. The AMS person could not tell me what the “central section” consisted of, despite the fact that we had to select speakers located in the central section. I took the assignment as selecting speakers for a conference but at least one member of the committee was very combative and seemed to be looking out for his buddies’ careers. I’d hope the selection of fellows would be done more seriously than the selection of speakers. Also, apparently for the first time in living memory, someone turned down an invitation to speak at that meeting. Ironically, it was someone from a place I would not think was part of the central section.

    SIAM recently instituted a fellows program and extended fellowship status to SIAM members who were also members of foreign academies of sciences. Had I been a member of SIAM, I would have been made a SIAM fellow, as I am a member of the Brazilian academy of sciences. I am not sure what my applied math colleagues would have made of that.

  25. Melissa Tacy says:

    Of course it is hard for the general public to break into mathematics. This is really the primary difficulty we have in promoting our subject. We could stick our heads in the sand and refuse to promote ourselves citing this reason but overall such behaviour would hurt us the most. The advantage in this respect of a fellows program is it doesn’t promote mathematics but mathematicians. While the public may not be able to understand the details of a fellow’s work they do undertand and value the concept of recognition by peers. Within university communities there is often a great deal of pride in the achievments of the faculty and for that reason I believe there would be local interest in new fellows. Even better if fellows use the opportunity to throw in some neat mathematics or personal stories of how they came to the discipline.

    Yes of course there will be elitism and cronyism but no more than what is already present. I also doubt the whole first/second class perception issue. Having other people appointed as fellows would not make me feel like a second class member of AMS. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who does personally feel like such appointments would relegate them to second class (rather than worrying intellectually about such a perception).

  26. Deane says:

    AMS Fellows are quite different from Sloan Fellows. A Sloan Fellowship is meant to reward and encourage younger mathematicians demonstrating a promising future; an AMS Fellow is meant to reward senior mathematicians with a track record of accomplishment. There are also much fewer Sloans. I counted 933 Sloan Fellows in mathematics awarded since 1955.

  27. Harald Helfgott says:

    I will not be voting, as I am not working in the US. Nevertheless, I must say I am uneasy with the proposal. Some people above have expressed concerns about its influence on the tenure process – to which other people have replied that only relatively senior people (associate professors? full professors?) would become fellows. It is actually this latter situation that bothers me the most.

    If people being considered for election are relatively “senior” (notice the word being used; it almost implies a certain degree of conformism with hierarchies that do not necessarily rest on competence) then, with fair regularity, some of them will already have some weight in academic politics. How could this not play a role, then? And how would membership not become yet another chip in favour of more firmly ensconced, but not necessarily able, faculty members?

  28. David Fisher says:

    I just voted yes. Currently the main way in which the AMS honors mathematicians it considers distinguished is by having them give invited addresses at AMS meetings. This is an honor that is widely recognized as such in the mathematical community, but which I think is very hard to translate into something that administrators understand.

    I understand that the selection of invited addresses is political and sometimes flawed. And that many very talented mathematicians have been overlooked for this honor. The selection of Fellows, at least after the initial batch, seems likely to be more rigorous.

    I have a hard time objecting to an innovation in the way we honor people that 1) is more rigorous than the old way and 2) is more comprehensible to outsiders than the old way.

    I do like the fact that many mathematicians are very egalitarian in their behavior. But I don’t think this particular program will change that, any
    more than the existence of AMS Invited Addresses, ICM talks, etc have
    changed it.

  29. Richard Séguin says:

    “The advantage in this respect of a fellows program is it doesn’t promote mathematics but mathematicians.” I heartedly support this goal and think that it is in fact possible. I also think that the fellows program is probably inevitable, if not now, in the near future. As is usual with most plans though, the devil is in the execution, and I think that is what worries many people. Mostly we are presented with a skeleton of a plan, and I hope that someone is already actively planning on how to take best advantage of that structure to everyone’s advantage. If not, I’m sure there will be many complaints, and hopefully that would right the ship, but not without a very rocky start.

    An interesting analogy just occurred to me. The dog I brought over from Europe is rather rare in the US, so I joined an email group for the breed. The national club has an interest in promoting the breed here, and people often brag about their dog as a “wonderful ambassador of the breed,” due usually to their athletic skills, their intelligence, or their charming personalities. Note that there isn’t a single characteristic that grabs everyone’s attention. In the case of mathematics, we also have to present a diverse front.

  30. If about 900 Sloan Fellows have been awarded in the last 50 years, I’d guess that about 450 are current math faculty. So if the AMS is aiming for 1500 Fellows, that would roughly three times as many. Which is a lot more, but not so many that a typical Type I department would have more than, say, maybe 1/3 of its faculty being AMS fellows. (Though some smaller private universities would certainly have the vast majority of their faculty be fellows.) There also are other early career awards besides Sloans (e.g. NSF CAREER grants), but, as you say, we don’t really have many awards in this middle age range, which is the main reason I favor the AMS proposal.

    Here at Illinois, we have 9 ex Sloan fellows, and I’d estimate between 12 and 15 initial AMS fellows. Interestingly the overlap between the groups would only be 3 people, though I suspect the overlap would increase over time as more AMS fellows were elected.

  31. Another back of the envelope calculation gives more or less the same answer. If there are 1500 AMS fellows and the title is held for life, then I’d guess your typical fellowhood lasts 35 years, or something like 45 new fellows appointed per year. Recently, the Sloan foundation has been awarding 20 fellowships per year, so that’s a ratio 2.5.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Well, I guess if this passes, I will finally pony up some cash and become a member of the AMS

  33. plm says:

    Why mathematicians who propose a fellows program have not carried out careful modeling of its utility? And those who oppose it?

    Is it more efficient to have deciders at all levels believe in such a simple measure or work more on each evaluation case?

    Will criteria for election evolve over time? Will the early fellows be favored a little like postwar scholars who have had their position ensured for the rest of their life after little competition compared to the present?

    Do mathematicians really look awkward for not having fellows? Don’t they represent a certain wisdom-despite-appearances that they would give away by introducing the program?

    It does not seem to have been so dramatic letting the program “mijoter” for -all- those years. Would it not be good to wait a little more? What would reversing the decision mean -would it be possible?

    What does mechanism design theory say about this? What do Maskin, Myers, economists and social scientists specialist say about it in general? And then what parameters are specific to mathematics?

    Where are the opinions of experts on that type of issues -in the current discussion and in other media, like opinion pieces in the Notices of the AMS?

    How do we decide as mathematicians -using models, more rigorously than nonscientists? Who abstains from voting? Who feels justified enough to express his/her opinion? What games are we playing here? How important is this for society? Have we worked enough to decide? Or have we waited too long already to have the program already, or just decide definitively not to?

    I voted no all the times it was proposed. I think I will vote no again, feel that I have to learn more social science, and hope I am wiser next time, or rather make my peace with the looming yes.

    PS: Thank you Jordan for the nice forum, though shouldn’t we have a central place for such discussions -like mathoverflow for research?
    And thanks to commenters for their insights.

  34. dc says:

    I voted “no”. If the main argument for “yes” it that a fellows program boosts our prestige, then frankly, I don’t give a hoot.

  35. Anonymous poster says:

    It is narrow minded to just say you don’t give a hoot about the prestige. For many universities, external recognition is absolutely necessary for Deans to increas funding. While this might not effect elite universities, it certainly does effect the rest. This program is not about individuals, but about the field.

  36. Henry Cohn says:

    I can sympathize with the argument in favor of the fellows program, but I don’t like it and I’m not even convinced it will actually help improve the standing of mathematics among other fields.

    My experience with these issues comes from working in an environment that’s full of computer scientists. They are definitely supportive of mathematicians, but we sometimes have to explain various cultural differences. One issue is that computer science has a lot more awards and distinctions than math does, especially at the more accessible level (for example, best paper awards at conferences).

    If you’re trying to justify the lack of awards on a mathematician’s CV, it’s not enough just to say that math has fewer awards than other fields, without explaining why. It sounds really wishy washy: are you the first person to have noticed this? If not, why doesn’t someone solve the problem by instituting some more awards? It just doesn’t make sense to people who come from a field with lots of awards. Maybe the mathematics community is open to having more awards but is too disorganized or apathetic to do anything about it? Or maybe there really are plenty of awards and distinctions out there, despite what you’re saying, and the candidate under discussion just didn’t get any of them?

    The only way to convey the real situation is to explain that mathematicians are well aware of the lack of awards but have deliberately chosen a different path from most other fields. I was delighted when the previous AMS fellow proposal was voted down, since that really strengthened this argument.

    In general, I find the idea of AMS fellows somewhat distasteful. I admit there’s no great harm in it, especially in comparison to some other programs. (For example, in IEEE journals the author lists indicate the membership grade of each author, which is just dreadful.) However, I firmly believe the AMS should represent all of its members on an equal footing, rather than singling out first and second class members, and I think having a fellows program will ultimately weaken the AMS.

    Unfortunately, I bet we’re eventually going to end up with a fellows program. It seems that this program is going to be proposed repeatedly until it’s accepted, and once we have a fellows program we will never be able to get rid of it. After all, ending the program would require either stripping the honor from existing fellows or declaring that no new fellows will ever join them, and neither approach seems palatable. I hope the current proposal will be defeated, but I suspect it will pass, and in any case I’d be shocked if it were so decisively defeated that the program’s supporters gave up. Incidentally, I’m rather irritated that the system was gamed by changing the threshold for passing from 2/3 to 1/2. It’s a contentious enough issue that requiring a supermajority seems entirely reasonable.

    If we do end up with a fellows program, we need to avoid getting caught between two extremes. The worst case scenario is giving up the moral high ground and declaring that we do want more awards and distinctions, without actually creating enough of them to reach parity with other fields. I have a bad feeling that that’s where we’re headed, in which case we’ll be worse off than we are now.

  37. Richard Séguin says:

    “If not, why doesn’t someone solve the problem by instituting some more awards?”

    I pointed out above that those arguing for the fellows program bemoan the lack of awards and propose the fellows program as the solution to that problem while asserting that more awards (the obvious approach) are impossible without explaining why. This is the sort of persuasive tactic used by politicians.

  38. Melissa Tacy says:

    “The worst case scenario is giving up the moral high ground and declaring that we do want more awards and distinctions”

    Exactly how is only recognising exceptional work and megatheorems the high moral ground. It is certainly the high elitist ground but why is it less moral to recognise that there are many ways that mathematicians contribute to our community. What is wrong with for example recognising a career dedicated to slowly pushing back the bounds of knowledge or someone who has put in that extra effort to communicate their research in an understanble fashion?

    The fellows program isn’t of course a one stop solution but it is a step towards such multifaceted recognition.

  39. Deane says:

    I agree with Melissa.

  40. valuevar says:

    Er, well, a people must know its heroes. Does it follow it must have an aristocracy? I do not think so. So, what Henry said.

  41. Henry Cohn says:

    OK, maybe “moral high ground” was overstating things, but I really like the math community’s resistance to making artificial distinctions between mathematicians. I see this as an arms race, where people feel pressure to make more awards out of fear of falling behind other fields. There’s no net gain to anyone except the people in whichever field has temporarily taken the lead in giving out titles, but there’s a net loss for everyone in time spent competing for these awards and selecting the winners, as well as to the extent politics distorts the outcome. It’s better to object than to play the game, and much better than to play the game poorly.

    I don’t see the AMS fellows program as primarily rewarding people who slowly push back the bounds of knowledge or put in extra effort to communicate their research. Instead, I think the burden of selecting new fellows each year will lead to a superficial, somewhat political process. All the AMS fellows will deserve recognition, but many equally (or more) deserving people won’t get it, and I doubt the results will reflect anything like a consensus as to who the leading mathematicians are. Even if it did reflect such a consensus, I wouldn’t think it wise for the AMS to endorse this hierarchy, but it’s even worse if there is no consensus.

    All of my objections apply in part to the currently existing prizes and honors, but the scale and outcomes are different. Some deserving people get overlooked for prizes, but I’m not as concerned by their troubles. (If your worst professional complaint is that you didn’t get a major prize, then your career is going rather well.) The process of selecting speakers for AMS meetings, ICMs, etc. is presumably somewhat political, which is too bad, but that’s different from selecting a distinguished class of fellows.

    Overall, I don’t think the AMS has any business sorting its members into different grades. Why not create an American Academy of Mathematics instead? I can’t say I’d like it, but it would be much better than doing this through the AMS.

  42. valuevar says:

    Henry, wouldn’t such an academy be at least as bad as the proposal? My opposition to this comes in part from seeing the bizarre ways in which Royal Society membership works in the UK. As you say:

    >Instead, I think the burden of selecting new fellows each year will lead to >a superficial, somewhat political process. All the AMS fellows will deserve >recognition, but many equally (or more) deserving people won’t get it, and >I doubt the results will reflect anything like a consensus as to who the >leading mathematicians are.

  43. Henry Cohn says:

    I agree that it wouldn’t be good, but it feels different. The AMS is the closest thing we have to an organization representing the whole US math research community, and I don’t think it should be speaking for the community in creating a class of fellows. By contrast, if a group of mathematicians want to form an organization and spend their time voting on who else to let in, they’re entitled to do that. I’d encourage people not to take it too seriously, and I’d be worried if membership started to really matter, but I imagine it would never be that important.

  44. Melancholia says:

    This proposal was voted down already not once, but twice, in 2006 and 2008. My hope was that AMS political elite will give up the idea. Instead, they lowered the standards. While 2/3 of votes were required in the two first attempts, now it is only 1/2. As Henry Cohn noted above, this will be proposed and proposed again till it passes.

    A lot of good arguments against the proposal were published in the Notices. I agree with all of them as well as with all arguments against stated in the comments here. It seems to me that almost no serious discussion is possible because the people who argue for and the people who argue against the proposal have different worldviews and different systems of values.

    Quite cynically, I will vote for the proposal. I will vote for it in the hope that it passes and the issue will cease to be a permanent headache. Of course, we all will look at the lists of fellows selected in the current year, but I personally hardly can pay much attention to long lists of new fellows.

    The proper reaction for me would be to leave the AMS. Unfortunately, such an action would be completely futile. The mathematical life goes on without any significant changes even after rejection by Grisha Perelman of all prizes awarded to him. I cannot boast any comparable achievements and therefore cannot hope for any significant attention.

    So, I will keep my membership by the above reason, because of sentimental feelings towards AMS (it was the first mathematical society I joined, and this was many years ago), and because leaving it without leaving mathematics would be a little bit expensive for me.

  45. […] about aspects of the research community could be found at Quomodocumque regarding the  proposed AMS Fellowships and Computational Complexity regarding the massive online […]

  46. Frank says:

    For the young and naive cohort (including myself), could you or someone else please further elaborate on the reasons for? The absence of information is quite damaging how?

    Not trying to pick an argument, I just don’t want to rely on guesswork to fill in the dots. Are particularly good professors not getting raises that they deserve (and then, perhaps, being poached by wealthier departments)? Are math departments as a whole not getting enough money, or enough clout? Anything else?

  47. Bobito the payaso says:

    The argument for a yes vote appealing to the utility of a fellows program for convincing deans and other administrators is interesting in itself – it reveals a capitulation to the MBA style form over content management into which US universities are degenerating. The AMS ought to be an organization representing the interests of mathematicians, which are not necessarily the same as the interests of mathematics departments, and more generally advocating for the mathematical sciences. Perhaps it would do better to fight the commercialization of universities, the subordination of everything to metrics and impact factors and awards and teaching evaluations.

    Practically what happens is clear from a sort of economics argument: most AMS members have no expectation of being elected fellows, and don’t see how the program is beneficial for them personally, so are likely to vote against it. Some subset of AMS members, basically tenured professors at what the AMS calls Group I universities, expect to be elected fellows, and so vote for it. The former group outnumbers the latter.

    That the fellows program is repeatedly reproposed and revoted despite being voted down repeatedly is evidence of the elitist nature of the proposal. The same elite that expects to benefit from it keeps promoting it despite its constant rejection by the dumb masses.

  48. Deane says:

    I certainly can’t argue with this. If you’re one of the “dumb masses”, I don’t see any reason why you should support the AMS Fellows program. If you’re already in a top tier department, you probably don’t need it, either. There are, however, capable and productive research mathematicians in lower tier departments or schools who would like to see either themselves or their departments treated with more respect and given more support and resources. Those are the ones I hope will support the AMS Fellows program.

  49. Melancholia says:

    Bobito the payaso:

    I am totally in agreement with your first paragraph.

    But I doubt that your “economics argument” agrees with actual numbers. According to the AMS estimate (based on the suggested rules), the number of initial Fellows would be about 800, and over 10 years the number of Fellows will slowly grow to about 1500, or 5% of the membership. But the proposal failed twice not because the “dumb masses” voted against the “elite”. It is failed because of the high standard which was set for the passing: 2/3 of votes, not just a majority. Both times almost 2/3 votes were for the proposal and it failed only by a very narrow margin. In particular, both time over 60% voted for the proposal. Now only simply majority is needed for passing, and I have very little doubts that it will pass. On the other hand, many eminent members of the AMS (like a Past President David Eisenbud) argued against the proposal.

    In terms of economics, this probably means that it is not the elite (in terms of achievements), but the people outside the Group I departments, and the administrators in the Group I support the commercialization of the universities. The arguments for the proposal were first time presented by Ronald Stern, Dean of Physical Sciences at UC at Irvine, i.e. an administrator. See

    One should note that over the last one or two decades the AMS made significant efforts to enlist in its governing bodies a lot of representatives of colleges outside of the Group I. I believe that the result are to a big extend responsible for proposing this program again and again.

    There is a paradox here: it is the (scientific, not administrative) elite who wants to keep the egalitarian character of the AMS.

  50. Bobito says:

    Yours is the pragmatic argument, and it makes sense, certainly if one thinks of someone like the differential geometers working at the city college of NY, or somebody like that – there are superb mathematicians working at all sorts of universities (at least in the US) – something that is too often overlooked by the folks at the fancy places – my concern is that structures like the proposed Fellows program tend to reinforce the existing hierarchies, rather than giving support to those who have trouble finding a place in them. The problem for the excellent group at CCNY working on affine isoperimetric problems and valuations and the like is not that there aren’t people who are aware of them and the quality of their work – it is that there aren’t many of those people highly placed in the standard hierarchy – simply because the research area is not as well known as it could be – I don’t see why a fellows program won’t simply reinforce this tendency.

  51. Bobito says:

    What you say makes a lot of sense.

    Perhaps the scientifically serious are those who have the most to lose by the creation of administrative structures that tend to reward the sort of behavior related to professional advancement rather than scientific progress.

  52. Deane says:

    Bobito, if by “the excellent group at CCNY working on affine isoperimetric problems and valuations and the like” you mean my colleagues and me at NYU-Poly, I can assure you that we feel quite well appreciated and respected by the “people highly placed in the standard hierarchy”. I also agree completely that the AMS Fellows program should have negligible impact on our standing among such people, simply because these people are more than capable of judging our work on its own merits and don’t need to rely on indirect evidence such as the AMS Fellows program. Our support for the AMS Fellows program is not an effort for more respect from influential mathematician. On the contrary, we are frustrated that although we *are* well respected by the research mathematical community, we can’t seem to convince our own dean and president or our colleagues in other departments of this. The AMS Fellows program won’t cure this, but it will definitely improve the situation.

    It also makes sense to me that a good mathematician and experienced administrator like Ron Stern would understand the importance of the AMS Fellows program, because he sees the influence of similar programs in other disciplines.

  53. Melancholia says:


    For me, it is hard to expect that your hopes will materialize.

    First, the deans and presidents are not completely dumb, and even when they are, they have enough subordinates to sort out that the initial fellows are not going to get any new recognition. There is a simple formula in the proposal: if you got this or that distinction in the past, you are a fellow; if not, you are not. To a big extent this is bound to continue with new fellows.

    Second, it seems that the mathematical community is again well behind the events. The deans and presidents today are not interested in the signs of recognition per se; they are interested in the money. Would the fellows of the AMS be able to bring, say, a million $$ a year to the university budget, they will matter. But they will be not able without replacing the current mathematical community by something completely different.

    People at our department won some quite prestigious prizes. This had absolutely no effect on our standing in the eyes of the administration: these prizes have zero monetary value for the university. At the same time, one may expect that an IEEE fellow will bring in a lot of money.

  54. Anonymous says:

    If the fellowship program is supposed to help Deans recognize the quality of their faculty, then I think that it is highly inappropriate to require that fellows be full paying members of the AMS for the previous two years. Apparently I would qualify for automatic qualification next year were it not for the fact that I was not a member of the AMS in 2010. Sounds like a shakedown to me.

  55. Will Kazez says:

    Dear colleagues,

    As you may know, the AMS is currently voting on whether or not to establish a Fellows program for its members ( ).The program would create a special membership category by designating about 5% of the members of the AMS as Fellows. The hope is that this will elevate the status of our profession as a whole.

    Alongside this hope, however, lies the certainty that it will needlessly create a class system within the organization, breeding resentment among the excluded majority. Furthermore, given the major ramifications of this proposal the decision process has been utterly inadequate.

    Proponents of the Fellows program argue that it will help us tout the accomplishments of these highly valued mathematicians to university administrators. Yet any definition of “highly valued mathematician” obviously determines as well the complementary class of “not highly valued mathematicians”, providing a ready-made rationale for disregarding them. In addition, the proposed mechanism for designating new Fellows (cf. article III.E. of the proposal) is a shining example of the pomposity and self-importance that are the bane of the academic world, guaranteeing a lot of busy work, frustration and wasted time, all for a title without any tangible reward.

    This issue is by its nature highly political, and the seeming reluctance of the AMS leadership to enter into a process adequate to its actual political dimensions will only serve to highlight its divisive effects. When it was first proposed in 2006, the voting process required a two-thirds majority. This time the powers that be have decreed instead that the measure will pass if a simple majority of those who cast votes favor the measure. Yet, outside of two solicited columns in the Notices, there has been no public forum for discussing this issue.

    The Fellows Program proposal is dubious at best. To institute it without a thorough and inclusive debate would be extremely foolish. We urge all AMS members to vote against this measure. If you agree, please append your name to the list of signatories below and circulate this email to your colleagues at other mathematics departments in the United States.


    Joe Fu, University of Georgia
    Will Kazez, University of Georgia

  56. Oy Vey says:

    Once we’ve taken care of this pesky Fellows issue, we should really start discussing how we order the authorship on our papers. Alphabetical order is clearly elitist and does not properly recognize each author’s precisely defined contribution to a paper. Just ask biologists.

    Once we’ve done that, we should start telling our students to go to poster sessions, write down the results, and try to publish them first. Failing that, how about just making something up?

    Then our transformation will be complete. Everyone will suddenly understand what we do and will care. Maybe they’ll finally smile at us in the hall. I’m sure the university administrators will be pleased and “resources” will come raining down on us. (Well, maybe the administrators will be smart enough to restrict additional resources just to the Fellows. Why give anything to the freeloaders?)

    After all, we are tremendously expensive. Without giving away our souls for a few bucks, how can we possibly do our work? WHO WILL GIVE US CHALK???

    Here’s a way to save some money: we could stop paying dues to the AMS.

  57. […] don’t want to argue here about the merits of this particular program (see some opinions here), but I want instead to ask: should I become a member of the AMS? My department chair is (gently) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: