A few weeks ago, the Australian Intermediate Mathematics Olympiad took place. Administered by the Australian Maths Trust, the AIMO is a high level mathematics competition and serves as a testing ground for invitation to even higher level programs. It is a serious and important competition.
The AIMO paper is the creation of a committee, consisting mostly of volunteers. After this year’s paper was finalised, proofread and ready for the printer, AMT’s CEO, Nathan Ford, vetoed a question on the paper. This is the question that Ford vetoed:
There are 10 boys and 10 girls learning a traditional dance. They are to be arranged into 10 boy-girl pairs. To avoid height mismatches, each boy is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights, and each girl is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights. A boy may partner with a girl if and only if their numbers differ by no more than 1. For example, Boy 4 may partner with Girls 3, 4 or 5, but not 2 and not 6. How many ways can the boys and girls be partnered for this dance?
Regular readers can guess where this is going, but we’ll spell it out.
In an email to the chair of the AIMO committee, Ford noted his “concerns about the gender context” of the above problem:
“The expectations around gender contexts have changed significantly in society and amongst school leadership, teachers and students. As we serve these students and teachers, we need to be responsive and sensitive to these expectations.”
Ford then noted the existence of guidance for organisations such as AMT:
We shall pause to note that the Australian Government Style Manual to which Ford refers seems to have absolutely no bearing on the AIMO question at issue. As for the second document, it is strained to characterise it, as Ford does, as specific guidance issued by ACER; the document is simply a comment piece by one UK-based ACER research fellow. Moreover, as we have argued, this comment piece is utterly absurd, offering guidance for nothing more than an overtly political and highly perverse crusade.
Ford gave the AIMO committee chair the non-choice of either de-sexing the question himself, or of accepting a revised question that Ford and AMT employees had constructed. Here is the revised question that Ford presented, which, according to Ford, includes “an equivalent context which achieves the same goal while ensuring we are as inclusive as possible”:
Two local sports teams, the Tigers and the Lions, are coming together for some practice. There are 10 Tigers and 10 Lions. They are to be arranged into 10 Tiger–Lion pairs. To make the game as competitive as possible, we want to avoid height mismatches. So, each Tiger is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights, and each Lion is assigned a number from 1 to 10 in ascending order of heights. A Tiger may be paired up with a Lion if and only if their numbers differ by no more than 1. For example, Tiger 4 may pair up with Lions 3, 4 or 5, but not 2 and not 6. How many ways can the Tigers and Lions be paired up?
The AIMO chair refused to change the original question, which he noted received “acclaim” from the more than a dozen people who vetted the AIMO paper, and which he argued was entirely unproblematic in terms of any gender issue. The chair also refused to endorse Ford’s replacement question, which he regarded as “artificial and confusing”. The chair also objected strongly to the manner and the timing of this demanded change to the AIMO paper.
It is fair to say that Ford ran roughshod over the chair’s concerns, and those of the writer of the original, vetoed question.* Ford barrelled through to include the revised question on the AIMO paper. To our knowledge, no one on the AIMO committee, excepting a single AMT employee, voiced either private or public support for Ford’s change. The chair and the question writer consequently disassociated themselves from the AIMO paper. The question writer, a long-standing and highly respected AIMO volunteer, was so upset by Ford’s contemptuous response that he resigned from the AIMO committee, and has also resigned from his other, paid work for AMT.
We emailed Ford, indicating that we were writing this post and offering Ford the opportunity to discuss the matter or to make a statement. This is Ford’s response, in its entirety:
“One of the 2023 AIMO problems was changed prior to the competition date.
The change was contextual, not mathematical.
It was made in the interests of inclusivity and in support of the diverse cohort of students and teachers the Trust serves.”
Readers can make of this episode what they will, but our opinion should be obvious. We believe that there was zero argument to change the original question and that the revised question, while adequate, is clearly inferior. We believe Ford acted foolishly and arrogantly and rudely. It seems clear to us that Ford owes the AIMO committee, and the chair and the question writer in particular, a sincere apology. If Ford were not to provide this, we believe the AMT Board should then act accordingly.
*) Disclaimer: the question writer is a colleague and good friend of ours.