Edray Goins on being a Black mathematician, building community and confronting racism in academia

A bald man wears a brown blazer and has a blue button-up shirt.
Pomona mathematics professor Edray Goins is leading the charge to document the first Black pioneers in mathematics, a feat that has yet to be attempted to the same extent. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

In 2017, Edray Goins, then a tenured professor of mathematics at Purdue University, wrote in a widely circulated blog post: “I hate working at research universities.” 

He was tired of his colleagues viewing teaching as a punishment. And he was done being the “only one” — the only Black mathematician in almost every space he occupied — with no access to community support. 

But Goins had a solution, one that allowed him to continue his research with undergraduates, join a department with faculty engaged in teaching and mentor students in minority communities. 

Goins began a new chapter at Pomona College in 2018. Since then, he has taught classes, led summer programs, mentored students, and served as president of the National Association of Mathematics. He is currently working with students to expand a research database about mathematicians of the African diaspora, which he hopes to develop into an institute dedicated to studying the lives and achievements of Black mathematicians. 

Of the 2,000 or so mathematicians awarded with PhDs, Goins is one among a dozen tenured Black doctorates in the nation’s top math departments, an experience explored in a 2019 New York Times article. Even as Goins has found a stronger sense of community as a professor at Pomona College, the diversity in the mathematics department still has room to grow.  

TSL sat down with Goins to talk about this initiative, his transition to Pomona, his experiences finding and building community and his thoughts on making academia more inclusive and diverse.

TSL: How did you find your way to the field of mathematics and to Pomona College?

Well, for mathematics, it’s kind of a long, long roundabout route. I originally wanted to go into physics. That was my whole thing back when I was in high school. When I was a first year in college, I had a really good calculus teacher that would talk a lot about the history of mathematics, how math was all related to physics. Seeing that relationship to physics is what got me interested in learning more about it. So I went to the bookstore in my first semester freshman year, and I found a book that was titled “A Modern Introduction to Number Theory.” I had never heard of this thing called number theory before but I got a copy of the book. I read it and have been hooked on math ever since.

Getting to Pomona College was actually a stranger thing. I was a professor at a large research university in the Midwest — Purdue University — for 14 years. Several people at Pomona, like Stephan Garcia here in the math department, asked me if I was interested in coming here to Pomona as a faculty member and I said no. I was relatively happy with my job and didn’t really want to move to California. But the math department is such a welcoming place that I considered it more and more, and eventually I decided to come here. But it was something that took about three years. It wasn’t like just one day I woke up and decided to come here. I really had to think, ‘I’m going to be moving to a completely different school to a completely different state.’ Purdue has around 40,000 students. Pomona has about 1,600 students, so it was going to be a very, very different situation. 

TSL: What was the evolution that took place over those three years? 

Some of it was me thinking that I really wanted to be back to a smaller school, like where I went as an undergraduate. I went to Caltech, where there’s about 2,000 students. I was becoming more and more disillusioned. Being at a larger school, I would have a class of 200 students. I’d be lucky if I even got to know the name of one of the students in the class. The math department that I was in had about 100 faculty members. Here at Pomona, [the] total all over campus is about [260]. So I just wanted to be at a much smaller place. Also, I had gotten to know the faculty members here in the math department really well over those three years. Ami Radunskaya and I had done a couple of programs together. And I hate to say it, but Purdue gave me more and more reasons to consider leaving. So kind of putting all that together, the tide was slowly turning and it convinced me Pomona was going to be a good fit.

TSL: In your blog post you wrote about your feelings of isolation at Purdue due to being one of the only Black members of the mathematics faculty. Do you think there have been more community building opportunities at Pomona? 

In general, it felt like it was an isolating department, but I’ll say the campus itself was just very isolating. It is a very conservative campus. And there really weren’t many options to meet students, to get to know the other Black faculty from other departments. I feel that it’s very different here. Granted, there aren’t any other Black faculty in the math department here, but there’s just so much activity, and really so much of an interest in having a welcoming department. We have cohorts like PSM [Pomona Scholars in Math]. I’m currently a Posse mentor. But then you see other activities happening on campus. I’ve gotten to know the Black students relatively well. Having those opportunities to meet the students actually does mean a lot. 

TSL: Could you speak more about the work that you’ve done with underrepresented students in mathematics? 

I run a summer program called PRiME — Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience — where I bring in students from all over the country and a handful from Pomona. This coming summer, for the first time, I’m going to try to bring in more faculty from all over the country. The goal is to have a community of people doing mathematics. Pomona is an excellent place to have this type of community, because you have the facilities here and you also have a very welcoming atmosphere. Outside of that eight week summer program, I also try to get to know the students one-on-one. So doing little things, like inviting students out to dinner or taking them to the movies, just to get to know them better. This is one of those places where you can do that. I can’t really say that at my last job all of those things were welcome. But here there seems to be a general encouragement to do these things [here]. 

TSL: How do you see these programs and your engagement with students inside and outside the classroom enhancing the field of mathematics in the long run?

Mathematics has a stereotype of being a very elitist field, a solitary field…I’ve been slowly trying to replace that image by saying, you know, we can have women, we can have minorities, we can also work in groups.— Edray Goins

Mathematics has a stereotype of being a very elitist field, a solitary field. You know, you think of a mathematician and you think of a crazy older white-haired guy in his room doing math by himself. I’ve been slowly trying to replace that image by saying, you know, we can have women, we can have minorities, we can also work in groups. That’s why I’m really big about having the summer program here — I really want people to work in groups and get to know each other. 

Much in the same way, I approach mathematics from a non-traditional point of view. I like to bring everything I can to the table. I have students working with me that are computer science majors, media studies majors, because I care about creating graphics and other pictures to explain, mathematically, what’s happening. I really want to bring in students from all different points of view so that they can help me think about the problem from a totally different point of view. But my hope is, by bringing in students to see math being done in this different way, by seeing people who are media studies majors doing mathematics and by seeing people who are not the older white man at the chalkboard working by themselves, hopefully that will convince them that math is something they can do. I definitely want them to rethink what being in mathematics is. 

TSL: Can you speak about your involvement with the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora research project? What are the goals of this initiative?

[Mathematicians of the African Diaspora] was originally a website that was started in 1997 by a Black mathematician named Scott Williams who wanted to keep track of the different Black mathematicians he was meeting at conferences. When he would meet a mathematician, he would create a website for that person. Eventually, over about 10 years from 1997 to 2008, he came up with about 600 profiles of people that he met.

Well, every good thing comes to an end, and he decided to retire, so myself and a few friends of mine decided to take over the site so that we could continue to add more profiles and update the information that was there. And now it has turned into a much, much larger project. We’ve taken all the previous pages and moved everything over to a searchable database so we can continue to keep track of the information that’s there. 

I also have a group of undergraduates that’s working on writing biographies of the mathematicians. This year, we have eight students from Pomona College and another five students from Cal Poly Pomona working together every week to write biographies and come up with new information and photos; all of the things necessary to put the site together. My hope is to eventually turn all of this into a center here at Pomona, where the idea will be to focus on the history of Blacks in the mathematical sciences. The addition would be to have a summer program where people can actually do research on Black mathematicians and focus specifically on the mathematics that people have done. So this will be in addition to the research that I’m doing now in the summer program, but I’m hoping to have a research unit that focuses on math history, the first of its kind in the country.

TSL: This level of documentation has never been done before. Have any of your findings surprised you?

I think what’s most surprising is the fact that it’s never been done before. When I was an undergraduate, I was a minor in history, and one of the first quotes that my advisor told me was, “History is written by those who write it.” What you learn in all these history projects is that it shouldn’t really surprise you that it hasn’t been done before, because you have to ask the question, “Who would have sat down to do all of this?” 

What you learn in all these history projects is that it shouldn’t really surprise you that it hasn’t been done before, because you have to ask the question, “Who would have sat down to do all of this?” — Edray Goins

We’re still learning a lot of stories of individuals and asking basic questions, such as who were the first five Black women to have gotten their degrees in math? I have to admit, I did not know until last summer who the first Black woman to get her degree in statistics was. That was something that just came out in the last couple years. We’re also looking to see what are the trends of African Americans getting their PhDs in mathematics. The first one did so in 1925. Nowadays it’s about 40 or so a year. So we’re looking at trends over the last 100 years or so, to see, how can we plot the data? How can we keep track of all the data? Again, this has never been done before. Race really wasn’t kept track of in this way until 1980. So we can’t just look up government records and look at the data. We really have to do a lot of work to figure out how we find the data. So it’s an interesting project, but it’s not as straightforward as you might think. Getting the stories, getting the names, just getting the data itself. You have to be very creative about it.

TSL: In 2019 you were featured in a New York Times article in which you spoke about being one of the few Black doctorates in mathematics. What changes need to be made within academia to expand the field of mathematics’ scope and representation within minority communities? 

I’d say a couple of different things. One, an overall rethinking of what a mathematician looks like. It’s still too much of this idea that, if you don’t look or behave a certain way, maybe you aren’t cut out to do mathematics, or maybe you aren’t good enough to do mathematics. That’s very self-selecting for students. Students will tell me all the time that they don’t feel that they’re good enough to do it, so they’re not going to do it. Which is a little bit silly, because how do you really know if you’re not good enough if you don’t try? I think that some people are scared away because they think they’re supposed to behave a certain way. 

I think that if more people understood what mathematics did as a profession outside of just teaching in a classroom, then more people would take math seriously. — Edray Goins

Also, I think that math needs to be more welcoming in the sense of trying to explain what it does. I, myself, was hesitant about majoring in math, because I didn’t know what a mathematician did. I knew that math people were college professors, but I wasn’t really interested in being at a chalkboard all day. So, nowadays I try to say, here are some really interesting facts that mathematicians can prove. Here are some really interesting jobs that mathematicians are doing these days. I think that if more people understood what mathematics did as a profession outside of just teaching in a classroom, then more people would take math seriously. But I would put a lot of it on the culture of mathematics, that we haven’t really been willing to open up and tell people what we do, or be encouraging to people that aren’t traditional. That’s why I say I think that we ourselves, we as a culture, have to rethink what we’re putting out there for the rest of us. 

TSL: Do you believe that it’s possible to combat structural racism from within academic institutions?

I think a lot of issues [of racism] are very deeply rooted in American culture. Some of this is structural, like redlining and what’s happening with insurance properties and voter fraud. Others are more psychological. Like the whole construct of race. Exactly what is it? How would you define it? I don’t really know if academia can solve all of those problems. But I think academia has its own problems that it has to work on solving. I’m more interested in, let’s say, mathematics and what happens here at Pomona College. What we ourselves can do. I think Pomona does a good job of being self-reflecting and asking, “Are we doing the right thing? Can we be doing better?” I think too many other schools, when they hear phrases such as racism or sexism or bigotry, they like to say that these are things that happened in the past without reflecting on whether or not that’s the case. So I do hope that Pomona is doing the right thing and really asking, “Are we doing everything that we can do?” I think right now that’s what academia can do. Think about itself.

So I do hope that Pomona is doing the right thing and really asking, “Are we doing everything that we can do?” I— Edray Goins

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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