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K-State Today

September 30, 2021

William Vélez to present College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Lecture

Submitted by Sarah Reznikoff

Photograph of William Yslas Vélez

William Vélez, University of Arizona professor emeritus of mathematics and the seventh president of SACNAS, from 1995-1996, will present the lecture "Border Walls — Assault Rifles" from 2:30–3:20 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 5, in the Town Hall of the Leadership Studies Building. A reception at the Campus Creek Amphitheater will follow. The event is for the entire community and will also be live-streamed

Abstract: Borders are ubiquitous in cultures. We build fences around our properties and the country has spent billions of dollars on the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. Given any physical structure, determined people will find a way through it, around it, over it or under it. One needs more than a physical structure. One needs guards. (On March 22, 2018, the following appeared on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star: ''Agent in border killing acted as 'executioner,' US argues.'')

What are the border walls that education and academia have constructed, and who guards them? These border walls proved effective in the twentieth century in keeping minorities out of scientific careers, yet some managed to surmount these barriers. In 1975 I was the first Chicano to earn a doctorate from the mathematics department at the University of Arizona. In 1977 I was the first Chicano hired in a tenure-track position in mathematics at UA. UA is now a Hispanic-serving institution and when I retired in 2018, I was also the last Chicano hired in a tenure-track position in the mathematics department. I would say that those were effective border walls.

Though the percentage of minorities who managed to earn doctoral degrees in the sciences was very low in the last century, many of these scientists had a social conscience and wanted to address these inequities. Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, or SACNAS, was created in the early 1970s to address this underrepresentation and continues its work to this day. It is a sad fact that minorities and women have to expend great energies in constructing welcoming organizations for themselves.

Societal border walls continue to keep minority populations out of scientific careers. Mathematics has played a large role in this. It is time for all of academia to begin breaking down these walls so that all of our children are equipped with the tools to be able to address the serious problems that confront society.

About the speaker: Vélez was born in Tucson, Arizona, to parents from the Sonora region of Mexico. He earned a Bachelor of Science in 1968 from the University of Arizona with a math major and physics minor. Vélez was then sent to active duty in the U.S. Navy. In 1970 he returned to graduate school, earning a Master of Science in 1972 and a doctorate in 1975 both in mathematics from the University of Arizona. After finishing his doctorate, Vélez worked on the command and control of atomic weapons systems at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. In 1977 he returned to the University of Arizona for a tenure-track faculty position. From 1998 until his retirement in 2018, Vélez was a University of Arizona distinguished professor. Vélez has served as a program director at the National Science Foundation and worked as a consultant to the Naval Ocean Systems Center. Vélez has held numerous grants from the National Science Foundation and other national organizations for his mathematical research and work on broadening participation in STEM fields; he also holds several patents on communications systems for submarines.

From 1994 to 1996 Vélez was president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, or SACNAS. From 1994 to 1999 he was director of the Southwest Regional Institute in the Mathematical Sciences. Vélez was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2009; he became fellow of the American Mathematical Society in January 2013.

Vélez was awarded the Association for Women in Mathematics Gweneth Humphreys Award for Mentorship
of Undergraduate Women in Mathematics in January 2014. In 2017, he was selected as a fellow of the Association for Women in Mathematics, in the inaugural class.

Since 2018 Vélez has served as associate director of the Math Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting students from underrepresented groups pursuing doctoral degrees in the mathematical sciences.

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