Mathematical Lives: A Profile of Edray Goins

As the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests have shown, police brutality against Black Americans is still a major problem in our country. Racism is present in many forms and areas of the United States, and academic mathematics is no exception. As part of the Stanford Math Department’s effort to address and engage with these issues, we are launching a series of columns highlighting members of our community from underrepresented groups.

There is no better candidate with whom to kick off our series than Edray Goins, who received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1999. His advisor, Daniel Bump, speaks of his days at Stanford fondly:

“Before tackling his thesis problem, Edray made a deep study of Felix Klein’s monograph on the icosahedron. I was a little concerned about the amount of time this digression was taking. One day he walked into my office and I think I mentioned that I had not seen him for awhile. He said (jokingly, as I soon learned) that he had been ‘taking it easy’ and then he showed me calculations of a new elliptic curve ... related to Joe Buhler’s modular form. I realized then that he had done something remarkable. … I was privileged to have Edray Goins as my student, and I am very proud of what he has accomplished in his career.”

Goins was not only an exceptional graduate student by academic standards, but he also found time to be heavily involved in community service. While at Stanford, he received awards for his work with the Black Community Services Center and the Chicano/Latino Graduate Student Association. He has continued this work ever since, including coordinating a number of conferences and programs for minority students in mathematics, such as the PRiME REU and Infinite Possibilities Conference. He also served as the president for the National Association of Mathematicians from 2015-2020.

Upon graduating from Stanford, Goins obtained a sequence of prestigious appointments, including a postdoc at CalTech and eventually a professorship at Purdue. During this time, he was a visiting scholar at Harvard University working with Richard Taylor, who is currently a professor at Stanford. “[Goins] impressed me because he is very determined and really thought for himself, which is a rarer quality than you might think,” wrote Taylor in an email.

After 14 years at Purdue, dissatisfied with the culture of a large research-oriented department, Goins left for Pomona College. He detailed his reasons in the American Mathematical Society’s Inclusion/Exclusion blog, noting the lack of institutional commitment to teaching and the isolation of being the only African-American man in his department (and for a while, in the entire College of Sciences). “I have been willing to work with my university on bringing more underrepresented minority faculty to give talks ... and bringing more underrepresented minority students to conduct research. … But it gets very tiring. Very Tiring,” he wrote.

Last year, the New York Times published an article about Goins’ experience, touching on this isolation and the unusual move from a Research I university to a liberal arts school. The writer, Amy Harmon, noted that the top 50 mathematics departments in the United States employ roughly 2,000 tenured faculty--only a dozen of whom are Black. However, it’s not only underrepresentation that’s an issue: “The presumption of competence and authority that seems to be automatically accorded other mathematicians … is often not applied to them, several black mathematicians said,” writes Harmon. 

Shortly after the article ran, Harmon wrote another piece on why she felt the topic was important: “What I Learned While Reporting on the Dearth of Black Mathematicians”. In it, Harmon points out that the level of diversity in math is unusually abysmal, and that mainstream notions of intelligence may contribute to a nasty feedback loop: “The lack of African-American representation in math can end up feeding pernicious biases, which in turn add to the many obstacles mathematically talented minorities face.”

When it comes to diversity in academia, particularly in STEM subjects, there is a lot of work to be done. Addressing systemic racism in mathematics is not simple. It involves dismantling structures which automatically inhibit and discourage individuals from studying mathematics as well as making more concerted efforts to promote diversity on a departmental level. Having conversations about diversity in mathematics can be uncomfortable, but we would like to start having them now and continue having them long into the future.

"Mathematical Lives" is a continuing series of stories about mathematicians from underrepresented backgrounds with connections to the Stanford Math department as well as an exploration of representation and diversity in mathematics.