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[Too late... is there a way to give a medal back?]

Dear community,

the VU University Amsterdam, my employer, is planning to shut down its pure math section and fire four tenured faculty members, including me. This is a very drastic step for a department to take, and sadly, this kind of thing is becoming more and more common (Rochester, the Schrödinger institute, Bangor, Utrecht (CS) come to mind). I will explain about our particular situation a bit more later on. I apologize for abusing MO in this way, but I think this is an issue that we as the mathematically active community must try to stop or else many of our departments will soon be run solely on a business-oriented basis and pure research will give way to an industry of fundraising and revenue generation, eventually rendering our universities' work irrelevant for society.

In our case, we have tried fighting this with creating pressure on all decision-taking levels of our university from the department to the president by rallying for support from mathematicians both offline and online in the hope that a public outcry will make an impression. We have involved the union to represent us and try to stop or delay the firings.

Question: what do you think are other good measures to fight something like that?

Apart from asking for your ideas, I would also like to ask you to consider supporting us in an online petition we have set up. If you do decide to support us, keep in mind that an anonymous signature isn't as helpful. Here is what is happening at our university (it's from the online petition):

As with most universities in the Netherlands, the VU University Amsterdam suffers from financial underfunding. All faculties and all departments at the VU are asked to take measures to deal with this problem. For the Department of Mathematics a committee of applied mathematicians has put forward a proposal to close the Geometry Section, which consists of six tenured positions and focuses on algebraic K theory, algebraic topology, and general/geometric topology. At the same time, some of the funds freed up by the abolition of the Geometry Section are to be used for the creation of two additional positions in the Analysis Section. This proposal has received the endorsement of the Dean of the Faculty of Sciences and of the Executive Board of the university. Two members of the Geometry Section will retire in the next two years and closure of the section will allow for termination of the other four tenured positions. Thus, the proposal's drastic measures will merely cut the total number of positions by two.

Of the four positions slated for termination, one is in general/geometric topology and has been held since 2001 by Jan Dijkstra. The other three people were appointed less than four years ago: Dietrich Notbohm, Rob de Jeu, and Tilman Bauer. This introduced algebraic K-theory and algebraic topology as new research subjects at the VU. In 2010, a research evaluation of all Dutch mathematics departments by an international committee took place. The committee welcomed these changes very much, stating that strong young people provided new impetus to the group in mainstream mathematics and offered promise for the future.

What are the consequences of the closure of the Geometry Section for the university? Algebra, algebraic topology, and general/geometric topology will vanish. Algebraic K-theory and general/geometric topology will cease to exist in the Netherlands, and only Utrecht will be left with research in algebraic topology. No pure mathematicians will be on the staff anymore. The university will give up central areas of mathematics and adopt a narrow research profile. The education of students offered at the VU will also become much narrower, which may lead to a drop in the yearly intake of students, and will certainly compromise the academic chances for VU graduates.

locked by Scott Morrison Oct 11 '13 at 0:59

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Whether or not this question gets closed, I will remark that I am on two mathematics email mailing lists that were also "abused" today by people who sent this message out---and not one person complained. –  Kevin Buzzard Apr 27 '11 at 20:12
I suspect that there will be calls to close this, but it strikes me as being enough of an emergency to justify bending the rules. I vote against closing -- if you want to vote to close, leave a comment canceling my vote instead of clicking the "close" button. –  Andy Putman Apr 27 '11 at 20:18
I vote against closing the question, and I also vote against closing the pure math section of the VU. –  André Henriques Apr 27 '11 at 20:24
I am possibly the most hard-line of the "keep MO pure" party. I certainly will not vote to close this question and certainly will sign the petition. –  Loop Space Apr 27 '11 at 20:38
Please put all further comments about closure of the thread in the meta thread, as this seems to be orthogonal to the point of this thread: tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/1026/vu-closure-thread –  Ryan Budney Apr 27 '11 at 20:45

18 Answers 18

Many applied mathematicians (based on no empirical evidence, I'd guess a vast majority) feel that pure mathematics is absolutely necessary because they apply pure mathematics to the real world. A university that is hostile to pure mathematics may thus find it difficult to maintain a strong status in the applied mathematics community. So I suggest that you try to find some high profile applied mathematicians who will support your cause. Hopefully some such people are reading MO these days...

And, incidentally, applications of algebraic topology are popular now, so you might be able to find people who feel particularly strongly that the work your Geometry Section does is important to the world of applied math. –  Dan Ramras Apr 27 '11 at 21:49
Real world applications of algebraic topology by David Mumford and Robert Ghrist come to mind. Also see mathoverflow.net/questions/2556/… –  Vít Tuček Apr 27 '11 at 21:49
Yup, those are two of the people I had in mind. Gunnar Carlsson has also done a lot of work in this direction recently. –  Dan Ramras Apr 27 '11 at 22:13
Perhaps something that as a community we could do is to encourage the applied mathematicians, physicists, and engineers in our own universities at least to sign the petition, and to urge high up leaders of the scientific community in the Netherlands to do likewise. –  Tim Porter Apr 28 '11 at 12:13
It seems that there are two related problems. The first is immediate and relates to Amsterdam. The second is to breakdown the idea that somehow pure maths is irrelevant to life, the universe and everything! Gunnar Carlson's team in Applied Topology is doing great things in applying topology but I find that the news of that work and related other work by topologists, category theorists, etc. sometimes gets the cold shoulder from the 'mainstream' pure mathematics faculty who control some of the funds. In other words we may be our own worse enemy! Everyone needs to help work against this. –  Tim Porter Apr 28 '11 at 18:15

As an applied mathematician, I'm appalled at these measures to shut down vibrant mathematical research groups. The intellectual hubris required to predict which mathematical ideas will become relevant, and when, is breathtaking! Better to err on the side of supporting good mathematics, period.

One suggestion is to get people within the country energized enough to send individual letters to politicians. This tends to get attention, and quickly - politicians care about angering constituents. You may consider drafting a sample letter which people can print, sign, and send.

Another suggestion is to get international math societies (eg. SIAM, EMS, ESIAM, LMS, etc) to write to heads of granting agencies in the Netherlands, cc'ing the Dean and university administration. I suspect this carries less weight, though embarrassment is a useful tool to employ in such situations.

Bienvenue, Nilima. Or, excuse me -- welcome. :) –  Pete L. Clark Apr 28 '11 at 4:14
Thank you, Pete! –  Nilima Nigam Apr 28 '11 at 15:59
I'm afraid the non-mathematical population doesn't care a lot about some math professors being laid off of which they have no clue what they actually do with their tax money. We would have to make a huge effort to explain why what we do is important, and get people to listen. Maybe we should always do that anyway. That kind of education of the general public about the importance of our subject takes a lot of time, though... –  Tilman Apr 29 '11 at 22:26
One cannot generalize, of course, but at least in Canada these matters find surprising resonance in the public domain. Some recent examples are: dontleavecanadabehind.wordpress.com/…, and, more recently, the matter of the long census form. When statisticians pointed out the importance of maintaining the continuity of data, the public was extremely supportive. –  Nilima Nigam Apr 30 '11 at 2:07
@Tilman You say: 'Maybe we should always do that anyway. That kind of education of the general public about the importance of our subject takes a lot of time, though...' Both true, but in fact the first more so than the second. The second can be very rewarding at the personal level (people usually are very positive), at the level of making one think about what we are doing, (which can influence teaching), helping recruitment of students (who can become fascinated with the challenges involved) and actually can encourage collaboration with other scientists. All these are positive. –  Tim Porter Apr 30 '11 at 6:02

I wish I personally had something to suggest or offer, but I don't. However, something kind of comparable was announced in Australia a couple years ago, and with the intervention of a lot of mathematicians from around the world, the plan was scaled back, at least temporarily. Terry Tao was heavily involved:

Maybe some of the info in the above pages can be of some use to you.

A similar action by lots of mathematicians to save Bangor's math department was not successful, as I know to my cost. Thanks to all who tried. It does suggest that we need to be a bit more 'political' in promoting the pure side of mathematics, although in a mathematically based world it is incredible that there is so much anti-maths sentiment. –  Tim Porter Apr 28 '11 at 5:55

First let me say that the attempts to destroy the tenure system are happening all over the world. A few years ago in the UK (before my time) many universities including mine closed Chemistry departments. At least in my university, as far as I know, no one was fired. Now, there is no tenure system in the UK anymore, but still it is pretty hard to fire people arbitrary. However, UK universities are using “reorganization” or closing units as a way to fire people. It is useful for them in two ways, legally it is hard to argue with it and also this way there is less solidarity amongst academics. This is because if they don’t touch your department, you might not care too much and you might be worried to raise your voice in the risk that your department will be asked to make cuts too.

The main way we can fight such actions is by uniting. A strong union can make a difference. This might be too late in the current case. But I believe this is the most efficient way to protect the tenure system, academic freedom and independence of research. If we won’t fight, no one else will. So even though academics tend to be very individualistic acting together is the only way to save the system from short sighted decisions.

When THEY closed down maths at Bangor, in the meeting of the Senate on the closure it was clear there was some feeling of 'keep a low profile as that way the closure angel of death may pass by our house!'. –  Tim Porter Apr 28 '11 at 12:06
In case of cuts I personally would prefer that everyone will have a reduction in salaries and I would like it to be progressive, e.g, 5% for the young postdoc and 15% for the principal. –  Yiftach Barnea Apr 28 '11 at 13:41
That has been the practice here in Wisconsin, by the way -- the whole faculty (and in fact every state worker) takes a temporary pay cut, but hiring does not stop. (Though the percentage of salary cut is uniform, not gradated.) –  JSE Apr 28 '11 at 14:50
This is all the more galling since the general public seems to equate "tenure" with "job for life". It's not, and I don't think it's ever been the case anyway. As a matter of fact, I've heard argued that the laws in some US states effectively void the legality of tenure, so that it's more an agreement than a binding disposition. –  Thierry Zell Apr 28 '11 at 15:51
The solidarity principle with voluntary cuts in salaries is great, and I would favor it, but if this becomes the norm then the system might turn into a blackmailing scheme. –  Tilman Apr 28 '11 at 16:41

Petitions can carry more weight when they are part of a personalized effort including other forms of appeal, particularly:

  • Letters
  • Phone calls

You could provide the community (here on MO, and on the AT list, and at SBS) the address and phone number of a key decision maker or administrative body in this process (or more than one). If that person begins receiving letters and calls from faculty at numerous international universities, I suspect it would make a strong impression. In particular it might make the number of signatures on the online petition more real and harder to ignore. Also, getting even a few people in the Netherlands (pure mathematicians, applied mathematicians, physicists, and others) to go and visit the relevant administrators in person could be extremely effective.

Another approach:

  • Press

You can find a reporter at De Telegraaf to write and publish a story about the VU's threat to close down the pure mathematics section and on the international uproar over this threat. If the decision makers see a public article exposing the ongoing damage to the international reputation of VU as a result of their proposal, it will become harder for them to argue that this action is in the best interest of the university and could prompt a rapid reconsideration. Similarly you could have an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, either as a pure news story about the threat and the online response, or as a discussion piece about the state of the tenure system in the Netherlands.

Another source of support:

  • Alumni

You could contact alumni of the VU mathematics department and have them write letters to the administrators communicating both how important the department was in their lives and how disappointed and disgruntled they would be to see the department decimated. If they are donors to the university, they could also indicate that the outcome of this decision will affect, in addition, their future contributions.

Another avenue to consider:

  • Alternative funding options

You could bring forward alternative proposals to directly cover some of the budget gaps that are being `addressed' by the proposed measure. These could involve temporary distributed pay cuts to existing faculty and staff, along with fundraising efforts, or perhaps corporate donations or partnerships and other less traditional means. Even if some of the proposals are not appropriate in the end, an effort to contribute to the solution of the administration's funding problem might make them more receptive to revising their overall plan.

@Tilman: I think that Chris is right about phone calls and letters. Petitions are important and great, but getting multiple calls could be more persuasive (of course both is better!). The person on the other end of the phone knows it takes more effort than signing and online petition. So please, if you don't mind, give us a number to call or an address to write to... (I realize Tilman might not see this, I don't know how the ins and outs of the notification system yet, so apologies Chris.) –  Sean Tilson Apr 29 '11 at 19:30
He does see it! We're working on it, I think a number of people have written letters and called. Certainly important, I agree! Here are some addresses, in case somebody wants to get more involved. Ronald Meester, Head of the department of mathematics rmeester@few.vu.nl Aad van der Vaart, member of the department and member of the Royal Dutch Society of Sciences (KNAW) a.w.vander.vaart@vu.nl Hubertus Irth, dean of the faculty of sciences h.irth@vu.nl (all of the above: de Boelelaan 1081-1087, 1081HV Amsterdam) –  Tilman Apr 29 '11 at 22:33
and the governing body of the university, c/o the rector magnificus Lex Bouter De Boelelaan 1105 1081 HV Amsterdam lm.bouter@dienst.vu.nl –  Tilman Apr 29 '11 at 22:34
Tilman -- if you see this, I was wondering if there is a way to put those addresses somewhere where they would be more visible (part of the question itself perhaps?). –  algori Apr 30 '11 at 7:13
On the topic of calling/emailing/writing letters, I think one has to be careful. The last thing I want is for everybody and their mother-in-law to call the rector and tell him he's an idiot. That's just harassment and will only come back to hurt us. It's great if some high-level people (other deans etc) make a call, and thought-through letters and emails will help us if they're not offensive. But I'm wary of putting up a billboard at the top of this page with the phone numbers. We're not Anonymous after all. –  Tilman Apr 30 '11 at 14:38

And here in the United States, the University of Nevada-Reno has announced that recent budget cuts will "significantly downsize" the department of Mathematics and Statistics, as well as many other programs and departments. If I read the spreadsheet correctly, 11 math faculty members will be fired. (The department currently has 20 regular faculty members, but employs many visiting lecturers as well -- it's not clear whether the reduction is drawn from the smaller or larger group.)

That sounds really alarming- they have an excellent group of mathematicians there whom they certainly could have built around. –  Daniel Moskovich Apr 28 '11 at 12:19

Unfortunately, such incidents like the one that is happening now at the VU don't get advertised enough (of course, right now, there is plenty of advertisement. But will that still be the case in 10 years?...). The people who lived through it will of course remember. But will a newly hired faculty be aware of the shameful past of a given university?

I suggest:      Name and Shame.

Universities and math departments should learn that laying off tenured faculty is damaging to their reputation, and gets remembered for a long time.

Let's do this in the comments to this question!
Please include the name of the university, the year when it happened, and the number of tenured faculty that got laid off.

Following David Speyer's suggestion, I created a new MO question on the subject.

(Also, following people's criticism about the wording and tone of this reply, I have tried to phrase the new question, in a tone that is as neutral as possible.)

If you seriously want to do this, you're not going to get very high google rank out of the comments to an MO answer, and you might not even be visible to all the MO users who could help you gather data. You might do better to put up a separate question: "What universities have laid off tenured faculty for financial reasons?" and, once you have enough data, make a page-of-shame with the appropriate google-friendly phrases. –  David Speyer Apr 28 '11 at 21:00
By the way, in American English, a person is "fired" if they lose their job for incompetence; they are "laid off" if they lose their job to save the employer money. You probably want to ask about the second. –  David Speyer Apr 28 '11 at 21:02
I think that the word "Shame" is appropriate if it is clear that other appropriate steps were not taken to preserve the faculty position while trying to improve the situation of the institution. It seems to me to be an improvement (and a better lesson to all) if such other steps were included in each incident report. Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.04.28 –  Gerhard Paseman Apr 28 '11 at 21:21
I'm in the process of formulating a new MO question on that subject. –  André Henriques Apr 28 '11 at 21:25
Thanks for clarifying the usage of "fired". –  Tilman Apr 28 '11 at 23:44

The details that one can infer from the petition and the text attached to it don't look pretty. All in all, this looks not so much a desperate last resort measure as an attempt to "manage" science, based on the University management's understanding or views on what is and isn't good mathematics. I do not think I can offer much practical advice on top of the excellent suggestions, which I would like to second:

  1. Don't let them hush this up. Instead make sure the story widely known to the scientific community (to an extent I believe you've done this already) and the general public at large.

  2. See if there are any prominent applied mathematicians who would be prepared to send a letter to the University management and the NWO expressing their concern and stating that an attempt to handle the situation in this way has already damaged the VU's reputation and the damage will be far worse still if the intended measures are carried out, making it clear, if possible, that if the management sticks with those plans, then from some moment on, if someone is introduced to an analyst from Amsterdam, the reaction of quite a few people from both pure and applied (inadvertently, I'm sure) would be something like "you're an analyst from Amsterdam.. I see..".

However I would also like to make a possibly controversial point. I think one should refrain from promoting algebraic topology or another area of pure maths to the general public by saying "look, it is useful, because ...", and then mentioning an application or two. By doing so one subscribes to the idea that algebraic topology is there only to generate practical applications. And I think it is this idea that is the source of the problem.

@algori I agree with your "look, it is useful, because ..." criticism, but it is easy to turn this and say 'the power of pure mathematics is that we follow our noses where the problems lead and not surprisingly we find things that have applications elsewhere. For instance, the intuitions about space that lead to problems in algebraic topology are also there in higher dimensional data and the tools of algebraic topology are being used by .... to develop new exciting insights inf such data clouds....' you see the style. –  Tim Porter Apr 30 '11 at 9:27
oops: for inf read `into' :-) –  Tim Porter Apr 30 '11 at 9:28

I suggest consulting the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and by consulting I mean calling their offices and speaking to someone. They have a lot of experience with universities attempting to fire tenured faculty, and are therefore familiar with strategies one might use against it. Of course it would be better to find a similar organization in the Netherlands, but I don't know if there is one. The AAUP might know some people in Holland to consult as well.

I heard from a colleague that "all this fuss in the international community" is because people don't understand or don't know that "there is no notion of tenure in the Netherlands" (I'm quoting). There is simply the collectieve arbeidsovereenkomst = collective work agreement that functions as a basic set of rules for the relationship between the employer = the university and its employee. Indeed, I am aware of more than one similar situation in the past 30 years: Leiden, Twente. –  André Henriques May 16 '11 at 13:48

I post this as an answer rather than a comment, so people can downvote: how do the originators of the petition propose the university, or the department, should pay to keep the Geometry Section? Through savings in other sections? In other less useful departments? Through increased government support? Other means? It seems to me one cannot fairly decide A is worth funding at the expense of B, without any knowledge of who/what B is.

If the move was only a cost-savings issue, as there's only a net two positions being removed via this move, there are many alternative routes to comparable cost savings. One is early retirement packages. –  Ryan Budney Apr 27 '11 at 23:15
The university can freeze hiring for a while and can negotiate a cut in salaries. Firing tenure academic should be avoided in all cost. Financially academic careers arn't very attractive. The main financial benefit is that if you get a tenured position, then you have security. If this will be lost, then academic jobs will become even less attractive and I think we will have serious difficulty attracting people to academia. Moreover, if jobs will become a lot less secure, then more time and energy will be wasted on finding jobs and moving which will be on the expense of research. –  Yiftach Barnea Apr 27 '11 at 23:40
I would agree with you if this were about a decision to only hire researches of B in the future. But in taking on four tenured researchers, the university has expressed an explicit commitment to the geometry group a few years ago. –  user11235 Apr 28 '11 at 0:49
Tenure is a very important part of academic life and academic freedom. This means that a university should not (and better could not) fire a tenured person just to bring in a new person that suits the uniuersity better. –  Gil Kalai Apr 28 '11 at 6:01
@Mephisto. I think research mathematicians need to be involved in setting those priorities long before the axe falls. Distasteful as that may be to some, ultimately it boils down to convincing the tuition or tax payer, or donor, that a little math is more useful than massive amounts of sociology, political science, gender studies, psychology etc. etc. Quality undergraduate teaching, especially to non-math majors, helps too. –  Yaakov Baruch Apr 28 '11 at 18:50

In my opinion the petition has a fair chance of success. Firing several tenured professors as part of policy-change in the academic direction of an academic unit is very damaging, to the fine department of mathematics at VU University Amsterdam and to the entire university. Of course, it is a great injustice to the scientists involved whose positions are threatened. It is reasonable to hope and even to suppose that some reconsideration will take place on all the necessary levels.

The decision will be especially harmful to the prospects of attracting excellent young researchers. Y. Barnea mentioned in a comment above that the university web-page declares about tenured-track positions: "In the event of good performance, the tenure track offers a permanent employment contract, or 'tenure'." This declaration by the university agrees with the international standards of tenure and academic freedom but is not in agreement with the recent move regarding the geometry group. We can hope that the VU University Amsterdam will prefer its own declared policy. I thus suggest to VU: Correct and forget

We can hope and even expect that the decision will be reversed and that the massive support expressed by the petition will find listening ears. I do not support, however, Andre Henriques's approach of "name and shame." We do have to remember that individuals are sovereign to make their decisions and even to make mistakes, and so are departments and universities. The academic community should tolerate and can accommodate mistakes by individuals, and it can accomodate even mistakes by institutions, especially very rare incidences of this kind. If the decision will stay I suppose that the excellent four people whose jobs are threatened will find other good academic jobs that they deserve, and also that UV Amsterdam mathematics department will eventually move on. But it will be much better to the department, to the university and to the academic community, to move on with this issue settled in the correct and just way rather than otherwise.

In my opinion, it is legitimate for people to have opinions, even strong ones, on relative merits of areas of mathematics, to express such opinions, to try to promote them or to try to translate them into academic policies. Such is the idea of basing a department solely on applied mathematics or, on the other side, building it around some specific area of pure mathematics. Not agreeing on such matters is in the heart of academics (and even more so in other areas of academia.) In an academic environment where we are not suppose to agree, keeping the conventions regarding academic freedom and tenure is so much more important.

Gil, I agree with most of what you say. However, while I think departments have the right to adopt any mathematical direction, as stupid as it is, I think it is important to emphasize that this shouldn't be done by firing tenured academics. The main problem here is not pure or applied, but getting rid of people to achieve a goal. Tenure is a very serious commitment. I think naming and shaming institutes that do not respect this commitment is the right thing to do. Shouldn’t people who consider taking a job is such a place be aware of its approach towards tenure? –  Yiftach Barnea May 3 '11 at 0:23
BTW, I am not sure that it would be so easy to find new jobs to people that were laid off even if they are very good. The job market is always difficult and if you are older it is much more difficult. If in addition you have family commitments, then it is becoming incredibly difficult. That is one of the reasons why firing of tenured person is morally so bad. –  Yiftach Barnea May 3 '11 at 0:24
First, I agree with G.Kalai. Second, I do not disagree with Y.Barnea that loosing ones jobs is very problematic on a personal level, and even more so if one is not young and/or independent. Yet, third, I also want to say that I find it extremely problematic to link and essentially equate the question of 'academic freedom' to 'personal job security' as I feel is done in Y.B. comment. To put it drastically, throughout history scientists accepted way more severe effects on their lifes than loosing a job for sticking to their scientific convictions, some even accepted to die for them! (cont.) –  quid May 3 '11 at 10:50
(cont) Thus, I feel that much mention of the practical aspects (job security, or the dual, institutions can pay lower salaries due to this added security) in discussions of the importance of tenure is a harmful trivialization of an important subject. Harmful, as it contributes to the fairly wide-spread misconception that tenure is some sort-of privilege of academics (and at some places of some other professions). To me the reason for tenure is freedom of science. Everything else is not another reason (not even a secondary one); it is nothing but a side-effect (albeit a positive one). –  quid May 3 '11 at 11:06
Dear Yiftach Barnea, no it is not a reason to ignore it. But, to me job-security is simply a different subject. Regarding 'unfair,' personally, I can see some but then not too much difference between what you describe, and a factory being shut-down (for reasons unrelated to the workers there). If it was a factory around since a long time, the workers might reasonably have had a high level of subjective job-security. Now, the factory is gone, and they might have a very hard time to find a new job. Of course on can consider the latter as unfair too, but then this is a quite different disc. –  quid May 3 '11 at 11:43

I have the suspicion that fighting a political/financial maneuver with a communtiy outcry will not be effective. If not all good faith efforts have been made to fund the department, they should be explored and brought to the attention of the decision makers. If it is more of a political battle, get some political heavyweights on your side. You might also argue the revenue loss will be greater if the department is closed. If you can't adjust your perspective to solve the basic problem that will affect you (be it political or financial), find someone with that perspective to help you solve it.

ADDED 2011.04.28: As an example of out-of-the-box thinking, consider the following idea (it may be a bad idea, but consider it first): hold a bake-sale. Talk to conference organizers to see what it would cost to hold a conference in your field there, and allow distributors and other vendors to participate. If the conference fee were right, it might bring in enough cash. And even if it doesn't work for your department, consider passing the idea along (for a small fee?) to be used by larger departments. END ADDED 2011.04.28

Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.04.27

Regarding income generation, universities in the Netherlands actually get paid for every student that graduates with the payout increasing from bachelors to masters to PhDs. I think the payout for PhDs is about 90000 euros. This is to incentive the department to make sure their students are looked after, but can of course be a source for abuse. –  Tony Huynh Apr 27 '11 at 22:11
@Tony, that's interesting. A potential problem with this model is there's a large incentive to produce Ph.D's but perhaps less incentive to ensure those are strong Ph.D's ? –  Ryan Budney Apr 27 '11 at 22:21
@Ryan: there is some debate about this model precisely for this reason. But one should keep in mind that (almost) all PhD students are employees of the univerisity, and hence relatively expensive compared to other countries. The costs are around 200.000 euro for a four year period. –  Pieter Naaijkens Apr 28 '11 at 5:47
@Gerhard: Your answer seems unhelpful. –  Ryan Budney Apr 28 '11 at 18:40
Ryan, thank you for frankness. I have heard of situations where this and similar ideas were helpful. I trust those involved in the present situation will receive ideas, bad or good, and hope they find those that help. I invite you to contribute another idea; even if it is a bad idea, there may be something in it that will be useful. Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.04.28 –  Gerhard Paseman Apr 28 '11 at 19:57

My advice. Make a concerted effort to publicize the value of pure research, and also make a good faith effort to teach classes that are valued by the university and that generate revenue. I.e. try to spend some time producing money which they always value, and try also to educate them to the value of what you love to do that they do not value.

I.e. the argument could be: if you cut us you will lose money as well as prestige. Moreover in future when times are better and you try to resurrect this active group, it will cost you even more if you let it die now.

A few years back we hired some of our best people by convincing the administration that times of short funding are ideal for hiring people who are undervalued where they are. I.e. we argued that in hard times there are wonderful talents who have been unable to find appropriate jobs, and that if we step up and make offers to them we can get terrific bargains. These people appreciate this show of confidence in them and tend to stay.

roy -- I'm not completely sure in the Netherlands classes generate that much revenue, since the tuition fees are negligible compared to what they are in the US. Last I heard it was something like 1500 euros per year (but I may be wrong here)> –  algori Apr 29 '11 at 2:30
algori: is there any revenue argument possible? does the govt benefit from the research? or are you pressed to make the harder case that they should appreciate the long term value of pure math? have you talked to experienced people like Oort, Looijenga and Murre? –  roy smith Apr 29 '11 at 2:34
roy -- re the first question: there may be: as mentioned by Tony Huynh in the comments above, the universities do get paid a certain sum per student per year, so one can generate more revenue by having more students enrol, and vice versa, one can argue that if less options are offered (no geometry courses), there will be fewer applications and less income as a consequence. –  algori Apr 29 '11 at 2:59
@roy: I'm not sure how much of this is applicable to the present situation, but ultimately, my impression with universities that are entirely taxpayer supported is that the attitude of people in power is that whatever students get is more than they deserve, given how little they pay. Of course, this attitude misses the benefits that society as a whole gets from the research, but this kind of short-sightedness is not atypical. I guess that in the global society we wlive in today, everyone hopes that some other country will be left holding the bill for fundamental research. –  Thierry Zell Apr 29 '11 at 20:53
Unfortunately, it has become excessively difficult to "generate revenue" in the Netherlands (both Tilman and I know this by first hand experience). There also seems to be widespread dissatisfaction with the way the national funding agency (the NWO) works: the procedures are very time-consuming, and the chances of success are minimal. Here's a fact: in summer 2009, two out of the three mathematician members on the evaluation committee for the VIDI grant (the remaining six members are astronomers and CS people) resigned in the middle of the evaluation procedure. One of them later came back. –  André Henriques Apr 30 '11 at 8:42

Make sure that this issue becomes sufficiently notorious that it becomes known to anyone applying for the Analysis positions. If they are good enough to be able to choose among competing offers, then they will think about this, and realize that the axe could be on their head next time.

I'm not sure... Doesn't this move say: "we only care about analysis!"? Wouldn't it be encouraging to analysts instead? –  Thierry Zell Apr 28 '11 at 15:47
I don't think a serious analyst would see it that way. –  Tilman Apr 28 '11 at 16:37
@Tilman: I didn't necessarily mean that they would have to like what had been done, but I do not think that they would feel that their own position would be in jeopardy next. –  Thierry Zell Apr 28 '11 at 18:25
@Tilman, Thierry: My way of thinking is, professors' supposedly tenured positions seem to be subject to fads and politics. I am not very familiar with differences between European and American math departments, but what if ten years from now a committee decides they want some hot new field, and cuts the analysts? –  Frank Thorne Apr 28 '11 at 18:49
@Frank: Good point, but when I looked at the composition of the VU department, they seemed to have strongly committed to applied math and operations research. And, for some reason, thrown in analysis in that bag too. –  Thierry Zell Apr 28 '11 at 21:30

Another thing that might be helpful is if people who actually know the people involved in this decision, e.g. the head of the department, will write to them a private email expressing their disappointment from the decision. The same might be true if prominent mathematicians will do so.

I am not suggesting in any way to harass them, but to try to start a dialogue and to explain how bad this looks from the outside. People are more likely to listen to people they actually know.

This is a very good point. And I hope that the few people who know: *Ronald Meester (head of math dept) *Aad van der Vaart, (member of the dept) *Hubertus Irth, (dean of the faculty of sciences) *Lex Bouter (rector of the university) will make the step to contact them personally... but time is running short! The decision will probably get finalized on May 10th. –  André Henriques May 3 '11 at 14:03

I deleted my earlier answer, as, indeed, I wrote it after flipping with rage from the whole story. My apologies. (I know Dutch universities system quite well, as I worked there for over 10 years).

The story, however, smells so badly that it's really hard to keep silent about it.

E.g. try to explain the fact that there are several people in the Department (but outside of Geometry Group) that work... yes, in topology (symplectic topology, Floer homology, etc). E.g. they published MR2461255 (2009k:53225), this is in 53D35 (Global theory of symplectic and contact manifolds). Well, you can argue it's not "pure" topology, but rather its applications to differential geometry---still IMHO close enough.

Now the administration will terminate topologists from another group. I think the call to "save pure maths at VU" would not make too much sense, right?

PS. It seems that the call to "reform the administrative system at VU to make it more transparent and fair" would be more at place.

Well, I signed the following petition, anyway: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-pure-mathematics-at-the-vu-university-amsterdam/sign.html

I know neither anything specific on maths in the Netherlands, nor on Topology or any of the subjects involved (beyond what 'everybody' knows), nor any of the persons involved. It is unclear to me what you want to imply, to achieve, or to suggest. Except perhaps if you are very very certain this is helpful in an immideate way, I'd suggest you do the same with this answer what you did with the other one. Honestly, if I had not read you other contribution where the target of your rage is crystal clear, I might not even get that you actually want to help (as opposed to harm) the goal at hand. –  quid May 3 '11 at 15:58
If you go through the VU math website it is clear there are people in the analysis group who are in pure math by any reasonable definition. So the title of the petition is a misnomer in my opinion. I don't think that it makes what they are doing any less wrong.. to me, an outsider, it looks like they expanded into K-theory a few years ago, had a case of "buyer's remorse" plus possibly some financial troubles, so are now trying to fire some tenured people and replace some of them with people they'd prefer. Clearly the institution of tenure should be stronger than this. –  Michael Greenblatt May 3 '11 at 17:06
Michael, actually, there are hardly any non-permanent faculty positions in the Netherlands to speak about. So the only way to terminate a faculty member is via a reorganization. But there is no "real" tenure institution in the Netherlands. It used to be prohibitively expensive to terminate a faculty member, as labour laws stipulated many years of continued full pay even after termination. Nowadays these laws are much less strict and it becomes a real option for the employer. –  Dima Pasechnik May 3 '11 at 19:24

What about the effects on rankings?

I am speculating, but I would guess that laying off faculty would have a detrimental effect on rankings (for the remaining department or the university as a whole), or other external "quality measures". Perhaps others know of some precedent for this - where other universities that have done this have seen rankings suffer. This sort of concrete effect might make more of an impression on an administrator than philosophical arguments about the importance of pure mathematics.

I was never familiar enough with the administrative side of things back when I lived in Europe, but my guess is that rankings are a moot point. Where else will students go? If thanks to your parent's years of paying taxes, you can go there for 1500 Euros a year (to quote algori's figure; if it's not quite accurate, it's probably the right magnitude anyway), why would you go through the expense of going somewhere else? Not to mention often most of the recruitment is done locally, few students can afford to move. So if rankings don't really affect recruitment... –  Thierry Zell Apr 29 '11 at 21:03
Well, there are two universities in Amsterdam alone (and a couple more specialized colleges and polytechnics), and generally the university density in the Netherlands is quite high. So there are alternatives for students. Question is, do they study the rankings, and if so, do they think the rankings are relevant for them? I don't know how rankings work. They probably all measure different things. Like, how good is the food at the cafeteria vs. how many Nobel prize winners has the university produced. So who knows what this may mean for rankings... –  Tilman May 1 '11 at 18:21

Can only speak about the university sector in Australia, but will assume it is the same the world over - if it isn't, I am sure it is at least heading down the same path.

Academics can do three things to succeed.

  1. Publish lots of papers in top level journals

  2. Bring in lots of research dollars

  3. Teach subjects which bring in lots of students

Academics are paid to do one/two or all three of these things. If they are doing these, the university (if they are smart) will be doing everything they can to keep them, and other universities will be interested in them. Academics which aren't bringing in money/publishing a lot/teaching important courses will be noticed and questions will be asked.

University budgets are tight, and the removal of tenure is inevitable. That said, if you are valuable enough to the university and want tenure they will give it to you.

It is too late to do anything now if academics haven't performed. If they have, then argue with the university about the value they are bringing (i.e. the above three points).

In the case of the VU, the unit that is being laid off is the research group, not the individual. Does your last paragraph still apply? –  André Henriques May 19 '11 at 17:17
I am unable to see how this is an answer to the question that was asked. It looks more like a general comment on the future of academia. –  S. Carnahan May 20 '11 at 2:05

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