Posted by: Administrator | 17/10/2009

Comment from Norman Biggs

This year there are some new features in the voting papers for the annual elections to the Council of the London Mathematical Society (LMS). There are contested elections for two officers, including the General Secretary, and there are numerous nominations for members – 16 in all for 7 positions. It would be comforting to think that this development is simply the result of the LMS becoming aware of the benefits of democratic processes. But those who have kept abreast of recent events will know otherwise. It is, in fact, evidence of a bitter dispute within the Council. In such situations facts are often hard to come by, and there are already signs that history is being obfuscated. A website that played a significant role in the dispute has been wiped, but it has been succeeded by another (this one). As might be expected, some of the contributions are noteworthy for what they do not say, rather than what they do say. I do not know all the facts myself, but I should like to supply a brief historical perspective, before I too become part of the forgotten story.

The origins of this dispute lie in the attitudes that prevailed in the LMS Council in the 1960s. Since its foundation in 1865, the LMS has been through many phases. In the 1920s and 1930s the central figure was G.H. Hardy, a charismatic person, as well as a leader in (pure) mathematics internationally. Perhaps the most revealing of his sayings was that a professor should be prepared occasionally to overstate the importance of his own subject, and his own importance within that subject. After the Hardy era the LMS Council was for many years dominated by his disciples. Unfortunately, most of them lacked Hardy’s charisma, and some of them also lacked his wisdom and graceful lightness of touch.

It was around 1960 that the LMS received approaches from people who thought that the time had come to take a broader view. These approaches were sternly rebuffed, and anecdotes that circulated at the time suggested that an adverb stronger than ‘sternly’ might be used with some justification. As a result a new body, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), was set up, and not surprisingly the LMS and the IMA did not get on. When I first served on the LMS Council (1979-85), collaboration between the two societies was unthinkable.

In the 1990s things began to change. The LMS became increasingly aware of a broader role, and the IMA began to cast off its bureaucratic image. There were regular joint meetings, and in 2002 the LMS Council began to discuss seriously the question of the Society’s role in the mathematical community, and in particular its relationship with the IMA. A document about this ‘Framework Studies Initiative’ was produced, and after it was published there was a widespread consultation with members. As a result of that process, Council voted in 2006 to embark on a ‘route to unification’ with the IMA. I was General Secretary at the time, and my recollection is that, although there were some dissenting voices, there was a substantial majority in favour.

In 2008 a blueprint for a unified society was produced in conjunction with the IMA, and the Council agreed to commend it to members. The most visible sign of disagreement was a website that aimed to ‘Save the LMS’, set up by three members of the Council.

The blueprint formed the basis of the referendum of the members held in March 2009.

The number of votes received was 1168, nearly half of the eligible membership, and far in excess of the number that had previously voted in any LMS procedure.

The result was that 56% of those voting were in favour of proceeding. However, the referendum was not a constitutional procedure. In fact, in advance of the referendum Council had decided that, subject to the result of the referendum, it would be followed almost immediately by votes at two Special Meetings, with provision for postal voting.

On the first vote 437 were in favour and 361 against. Around this time, there was much activity among those who wished to save the LMS. A letter to the Council asking that no decision be taken without a two-thirds majority was circulated, and it attracted the signatures of many former officers of the Society. Certainly, some of them were implacably opposed to unification, while others may have felt that a decision of such importance should not be taken on the basis of a simple majority. As a result the Council held a special meeting and decided that a two-thirds majority would indeed be needed. And, possibly as a result of the widespread interest now being generated, the result of the second vote was that 458 were in favour and 591 against.

If that were all, there would be nothing much to worry about. But before the second vote was taken, the Society was shaken by the announcement that its President and Treasurer had resigned. The President had suffered a breakdown in health as a result of the stresses put upon him, and the Treasurer felt that he could not accept the methods that had been used in opposition to the unification proposal, a sentiment that was endorsed by the President. Despite this bombshell, the Council was able to persuade Sir John Ball, a former President of both the LMS and the International Mathematical Union, to take over as interim President. I do not know the details of his efforts to effect conciliation within the Council, but I know that they were unsuccessful because towards the end of August there was another bombshell. The Council had held a special meeting to consider the position of its next President, and had confirmed the designation of the person previously suggested by its Nominating Committee. However, as a result of this decision, the General Secretary and a Vice-President had resigned with immediate effect. The resignation of the society’s chief employee, the Executive Secretary, followed soon afterwards.

For the most part, those who have resigned have refrained from public comment. But I have no doubt whatsoever that their resignations were not simply the result of the vote against unification. One of the reasons why I was prepared, over a period of thirty years, to give my time and energy to the LMS was because it was, in many respects, a model of how a learned society should conduct itself. Of course, there were many disagreements, but there were very few occasions when the line was crossed, and fortunately they did not impinge on the core purposes of the Society. The Society’s affairs were run smoothly, by people who respected each other even if they did not always like each other. Latterly there was significant progress towards more open procedures, although the mysterious routine for the choice of President has survived.

In my opinion the failure of the unification proposal is a missed opportunity. None of the problems facing the LMS have been resolved, and it is likely that others have been created. Whether or not the LMS has been ‘saved’ remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that it has been altered.

Norman Biggs (LMS General Secretary 2002-2006)


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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: