Math presentations are not generally expected to be controversial. However, the intersection of math and politics can be heated, as demonstrated by Lockheed Martin’s visit to Colorado College.
On Dec 5., the Association for Women in Mathematics hosted a presentation by Lockheed Martin, an aerospace and defense technology corporation. The talk was titled, “What a Mathematical Degree can do for you.”
Reggie Cole, Senior technical fellow and chief architect for Enterprise Solutions at Lockheed Martin, expected to give career advice to members of the CC math department. The talk may have been more than he bargained for. A group of CC students from outside the math department came to ask tough political questions, inquiring into Martin’s role in the military industrial complex
Many members of the audience received one of two emails. An email sent by the CC math department promoted the talk as a positive career opportunity. A different email sent on behalf of the sociology and political science departments encouraged students to attend and question the corporation’s defense dealings, specifically their decision to supply weapons to agents at play in the Yemeni Civil War. Thus, the audience had different agendas for attendance.
The talk itself was devoid of any political conversation. Cole described the different career opportunities for students interested in mathematics.
“We’re just tackling gnarly problems,” said Cole, talking about his work. The CC audience listened with polite interest as he described work opportunities.
The contention started in the question and answer period after the talk. The first question was about Lockheed Martin’s involvement on the Arabian Peninsula and whether Cole felt any personal responsibility for the resulting deaths. Cole responded that it wasn’t his job to think about those matters.
After the first question, there was no pattern to the following questions; they bounced between politics and employment. Cole responded to the job-related questions but stumbled on the political ones. He distanced himself and Lockheed Martin from any international conflict, using the refrain, “It’s not our responsibility,” to defend his position.
Questions of morality didn’t deter prospective interns. Some students asked for finer details and still expressed interest in work. Indicating again, students had different reasons for attending the talk.
After the talk, Cole walked over and sat down next to the politically-minded students. He engaged the students in a personal conversation, making it clear that his positions were not the positions of Lockheed Martin. The students continued to question Cole about his sense of responsibility and morality while working for Lockheed Martin.
After almost an hour, the discussion ended on a personal level. Cole said that he would devote serious thought to the words of the students. And some of the students, in turn, explained how they understood where his position was coming from, even if they didn’t necessarily agree. It seemed the room gave a sigh of relief as people started to gather up their things and filed out of the talk.
Different parties walked away with very different perspectives.
“This was a conversation that needs to happen,” said Sophie Aiken ’19, president of the Association For Women in Mathematics and primary sponsor of the event. She also stated she believes this particular conversation was the start of larger dialogue. Aiken expressed interest in seeing Cole come back to CC for a panel discussion on the ethics of the industry.
“He was being attacked,” said Eden Lumerman ’19. The goal, she said, was to make him recognize his status as an actor in the global crisis. Cole’s position meant he didn’t have to think about the consequences of his actions. She thinks Cole wouldn’t face the reality of Lockheed Martin without direct confrontation. Lumerman made sure to clarify that she was thankful that Cole engaged in discussion.
Edgar Israel Santos ’20 was one of the students who came to learn about math internships. He came to the talk interested in employment opportunities. Santos felt that the outside students were “very rude,” to Cole. He thought the political questions had value but should have been brought up elsewhere.
The student body was divided into two groups: pragmatism and activism. Ostensibly, the math majors were primarily concerned with their own career path than the broader implications. The students from outside the math department were apparently focused on the wider consequences. While they may seem at odds, the Lockheed Martin conversation taught everyone that neither view exists in isolation.