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Six people, including at least two wearing masks, gather around a table with "Welcome to MAA Mathfest!" written on a chalkboard behind them.

Attendees of last year’s MathFest, in Philadelphia.

Mathematical Association of America

Tampa: right on the water—but also right in the heart of Florida.

The Mathematical Association of America is, despite continued public objections from LGBTQ+ mathematicians, holding its main annual conference, MathFest, this August in the sprawling Tampa Convention Center, near Hillsborough Bay.

Mike Hill, president of Spectra, a national LGBTQ+ mathematicians’ association named after a common math word that also invokes a rainbow, said his organization isn’t holding any official events at the conference this year, in light of the location.

“The MAA has long been at the vanguard of supporting rights of mathematicians from traditionally excluded communities,” said Hill, a University of California, Los Angeles, math professor.

He said the MAA chose Tampa for this year several years ago, and since, “Florida has passed just a series of increasingly vitriolic laws targeting queer and trans people—like really, really, specifically trans people.”

Just last month, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor and a 2024 presidential contender, signed a law restricting gender-affirming care for transgender people and banned state dollars from going to diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public colleges and universities.

Hill said it’s important that people make their own decisions on whether to attend.

The MathFest situation is just one more example of organizations facing controversy over conferences in red states—including pressure to relocate.

Hortensia Soto, the MAA’s president and a Colorado State University math professor, said she was the organization’s associate secretary when it chose Tampa.

“I did the site visit [in 2017] and everything, so I was involved in that decision, and I very much promoted it,” Soto said.

She said association representatives signed contracts with hotels and the convention center in 2018 and finalized the convention center contract in January 2022 after a second visit there. She said she first heard concerns about picking Tampa later that year, in Philadelphia, where MathFest had resumed in person after a pandemic pause. (The MAA’s website, however, says, “the MAA did give serious consideration to moving MathFest 2023 out of Florida, beginning in late 2021.”)

Now, Soto said, the association would face penalties alone of “over half a million dollars” if it relocates the conference. She didn’t provide these contracts Thursday, saying they included confidentiality provisions, and the Tampa Convention Center didn’t respond to requests for them.

Spencer Bagley, an associate math professor at Westminster College in Utah, said he was among those who went to that August meeting in Philadelphia to raise safety concerns about Tampa.

In this month’s issue of the association’s magazine, MAA Focus, Bagley criticized the organization’s handling of the situation. Soto also wrote in the issue, saying she respects anyone’s decision to not attend, “especially when it relates to their safety,” and posing questions such as “How can we attend MAA MathFest united, trusting that we will try to take care of one another?”

Bagley told Inside Higher Ed that “it’s a little frustrating, even insulting, that this has been an issue on people’s radars since at least—at least—last August, and the best response that they can give is, like, ‘Well, here are some questions that I am still facing; how do we attend MathFest in a unified way?’”

“It’s just so completely missing the point that it’s not safe, physically, for a lot of people to attend MathFest this year,” Bagley said.

“I think that underrepresented people have always been disappointed by professional organizations,” he said. “And this is sort of a fresh new hell into which we are now being thrust.”

Soto’s defense of continuing to have MathFest in Tampa isn’t limited to the financial penalties.

“We have members throughout the country, in every state,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “We have members and we have a Florida section—which is not a homogenous state, like probably every state in the country—and so we have an obligation to serve our entire community.

“Also, it would have been very difficult to find a new venue at such a late date,” she said. “Because of the COVID situation, so many organizations moved their meetings, and so it was difficult to find a place at such a late time.”

DeSantis’s spokespeople didn’t return requests for comment Thursday. His administration recently confirmed chartering flights to transport migrants who weren’t yet in his state to California.

Alicia Prieto-Langarica, a Mexican immigrant who’s now a U.S. citizen and a math and statistics professor at Youngstown State University, said she’s going to bring her passport to Florida.

“Just in case,” Prieto-Langarica told Inside Higher Ed. “I know that it’s really rough for immigrants.”

“I know what it is to have to show I’m legal in this country all the time,” she said.

She says she must go to the conference because she’s one of the associate directors of an MAA professional development program. She said she’s contacted several nonprofits that serve immigrant populations and the LGBTQ+ community to try to help them while in Tampa.

Prieto-Langarica said one “positive” she’s found is “there are already people from those marginalized groups living there … we can’t just forget about them.”

“I am trying to find something positive, because the decision has already been made,” she said. And, she said, part of her thinks the same reasoning to oppose having MathFest in Florida could be applied to never having the conference in Ohio.

“Isn’t that sad?” she said.

Hill, the Spectra president, said he’s not attending himself, as part of curtailing his “nonobligatory” travel to the state. Still, he has family there.

“As much as I love MAA, it’s different than, sort of, my 96-year-old grandmother saying, ‘Hey, can you come down and visit?’” Hill said.

“MAA has said, and I applaud this, that they’re going to work to make the convention center itself as safe as possible,” he said.

Soto said MAA is working with a group called Social Offset to allow attendees to donate to local organizations, including Books Like Me and Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, and MAA has offered Tampa nonprofits free exhibit booths. Books Like Me and NAACP Hillsborough County have already confirmed their attendance, she said.

There’s also going to be a panel on Florida higher education and a speech by Tampa’s mayor, Jane Castor, who is a lesbian.

A Castor spokesman said Thursday, “As Mayor Jane Castor often says, diversity and inclusion are central to Tampa’s identity and a big part of why Tampa is one of the most welcoming, friendliest and safest cities in America. That will never change, regardless of what happens in Tallahassee.”

As of now, Soto said, MathFest has 674 registrants, compared to 658 at this time last year. In 2019, there were ultimately 1,734 attendees, the organization said.

“People appreciate what we have to offer,” she said. “Our members appreciate what we do. We are a community, we are a tight community, we are inclusive, we value teaching and learning, and we are very conscientious about communicating to our community the efforts and the work that we’re doing to ensure that people feel included and that they feel safe. And we’re doing the things that we have always done and taking extra precaution.”

Bagley dismissed this as the MAA patting itself on the back “for all the good we can do by parachuting into Tampa for a week and inviting the lesbian mayor to give a welcoming address.” He questioned why there’s no remote option to attend.

In 2025, MathFest will be in Sacramento, with likely less probability of controversy.

But in 2024? It’s in Indianapolis.

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