The Secretive Life of the International Mathematics Union

Geombinatorics XXVII(1), July 2017, 20–25. 

The Secretive Life of the International Mathematics Union
Alexander Soifer
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, USA


There is a popular misconception that one who does nothing, does nothing wrong.


What is in common between the Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, and IMU, the International Mathematics Union? Both are three-letter abbreviations, you would observe. True, but this is not the only commonality. To my disbelief, I discovered that secretiveness is their shared mode of conduct. I accept FBI secretiveness as a necessity of its investigative work. Why does the IMU Executive Committee dress their decisions and even the location and dates of their meetings in the shroud of secrecy? To the inquiry into the dates and the location of the April–2017 IMU Executive Committee meeting, IMU President Shigefumi Mori replied on March 16, 2017, as follows:
Thank you for your interest in International Mathematical Union (IMU).

The Executive Committee discusses a variety of topics including confidential ones and also ones that need longer considerations. Thus we do not make the date and venue public as a practical measure.

Thank you very much for your understanding in advance.

Best regards,



Are you satisfied with the president’s justification for secretiveness of our mathematical (!) union? I, for one, fail to see logic in his text. While the selection of winners of Fields Medals, Rolf Nevanlinna Prizes, and the like could be decided in a closed session, I expect the rest of the IMU business to be done in transparency and openness, which Mikhail Gorbachev famously called “glasnost.” How can the need of some closed personnel sessions imply hiding the place and dates of the IMU Executive Committee meetings?

As a reader of Geombinatorics, you are familiar with the July 30, 2016, letter I sent to IMU President Shigefumi Mori and his Executive Committee on behalf of the Executive Committee of the World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions [1], in which I urged the name change of the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and medal. On January 21, 2017, I sent another letter warning IMU again that the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize stains our profession. In case the money were the problem, I offered to pay $15,000 personally, thus replacing Finland, which has been providing this sum for the prize:


Executive Committee of the International Mathematics Union (IMU) c/o IMU President Distinguished Professor Shigefumi Mori


Dear Members of the IMU Executive Committee,

Today I woke up compelled to write to you my personal letter. Right after my plea to change the name on the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and Medal, addressed to the General Assembly of ICMI, I was thanked by many members present. One response is still imprinted in my memory. Gilah C. Leder told me, “Thank you, I was on the Executive Committee of ICMI, and I did not know.” Imagine, a most distinguished scholar, a Laureate of the highest Felix Klein Medal did not know about Prof. Nevanlinna’s public support for Hitler and Nevanlinna’s leadership in the recruitment of criminal SS troops! This makes me think that the 1981 IMU Executive Committee was likewise unaware of Nevanlinna’s dark past, or it would not have established a prize in the name that makes me cringe when I look at IMU’s web pages. All right, an innocent mistake was made by the distinguished IMU mathematicians, who were uninformed in the history, what are we – what are you – to do now?

There is a popular misconception that one who does nothing, does nothing wrong. In fact, now that you know the truth, doing nothing would transform an innocent mistake of 1981 into an intentional error of IMU and all mathematicians. This would stain forever our profession. Remember Grigory Perelman’s refusal of the Field’s Medal and the Millennium Prize, and his exodus from mathematics? Now you understand why this great mind did not wish to be a “poster buy” for mathematics, where the majority condones immorality of the minority.

We ought to do something to correct the 1981 mistake. Putting myself in your shoes, I realize the complexity of the situation. In my opinion, it is noble to admit a mistake of your predecessors and correct it. How? For example, you can let the Rolf Nevanlinna’s Prize expire, effective immediately or by 2018 ICM Congress at the latest. Let it expire, and create a new prize in honor of a person, whose profile will be appreciated by all people in the world: John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, or Norbert Wiener.

If the $15,000 donated by Finland is a concern, I am willing to contribute this amount every four years, even though in 1978 I started my American life as a refugee, after revoking my citizenship in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

This is certainly an important public affair, and the whole world is watching. I brought the public awareness to the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize in my book The Scholar and the State: In Search of Van der Waerden (Birkhäuser, Basel, 2015). Make me proud of you when I cover your decision in my forthcoming memoirs Memory in Flashback: A Mathematician’s Adventures on Both Sides of the Atlantic.


Happy New Year, dear colleagues,


Alexander Soifer

A Concerned Citizen of the World


After (!) the meeting of the Executive Committee was completed, IMU announced that it took place in London on April 1–2, 2017. Three weeks later, on April 24, 2017, my request for information, was answered by the IMU President:


Dear Prof. Soifer,


We did discuss the issue regarding the Nevanlinna Prize at our recent EC meeting, and we made a decision.

But, as I am sure you understand, we need to discuss this with the partners involved.

Before we have reached an agreement with them, we will not go public.


We ask for your understanding of this way to proceed.


Best regards,


Shigefumi Mori

IMU President


This is a mysterious reply. If IMU were to reject my plea for the prize’s name change, President Mori could have simply stated so. Thus, “we made a decision” sounded promising. My worry was about the IMU desire “to reach an agreement” with IMU partners. How long would negotiations last? What would happen if “partners” disagree with IMU’s “decision”? I expressed my concerns to President Mori still in April–2017 without receiving any reply. I repeated my inquiry about the state of the matter and finally on June 11, 2017, I received the following response from the IMU President:


Dear Prof Soifer,


Thank you for your email. I can assure you that the IMU is working hard to resolve the issue. We ask for your understanding that we cannot provide any further information before the matter has been fully resolved.

Once we have reached a solution, within my term of Presidency, i.e. by the end of 2018 at the latest, it will of course be made known.




Shigefumi Mori


I was certainly pleased that “the IMU is working hard to resolve the issue” and advised so President Mori on June 17, 2018. At the same time, I asked the president to clarify his reply:


What do you mean exactly? That


  1. The resolution will take many more months?
  2. The resolution will be reached during your presidency, i.e., before the end of 2018?


I got no reply, and so on June 29, 2017, I resent these two questions. Once again, President Mori merited my questions with a non-reply and thus continued to maintain IMU’s secretiveness resembling the secretiveness of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, investigating connections between Vladimir Putin’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election and Donald J. Trump’s campaign.


Why does the IMU President and the Executive Committee go out of their way to maintain secrecy of their meetings and their decisions? Is it because they fear the embarrassment ‘earned’ by the IMU past actions, such as establishing in 1981 the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize and their continued awarding of this prize named after the Nazi collaborating SS troops recruiter and Hitler’s loyal fan Rolf Nevanlinna? How does adding the insult of secrecy to the injury of staining Mathematics by the notorious Rolf Nevanlinna Prize help the IMU?


I never tire to repeat, the truth like water will eventually find its way out. A swift and transparent divorce from this prize is, in my opinion, the only way to cure Mathematics from its stain and its worldwide embarrassment. As the famous Civil Rights song of protest declares:


We shall overcome, we shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall overcome someday.


Let us sing it along with Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sesions Band: .


[1] Soifer, A., To Walk the Talk: A Letter to the President of IMU Shigefumi Mori, Geombinatorics XXVI(2), 84–89.