An Open Letter to the SSB Council, on a solution to the Ernst Mayr Award controversy

Davis Hillis asked to have this open letter posted to PT and any other interested blogs. It contains a new proposal to try and resolve the Society for Systematic Biology’s ongoing controversy over a proposal to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award for an outstanding student presentation, allegedly because it is not inclusive. As I said on Twitter, while Hillis’s proposal is not something I love, it is an adequate compromise, and I would support on that basis, if this proposal were put into formal language and substituted in favor of the old proposal. – Nick Matzke

An Open Letter to the SSB Council, on a solution to the Ernst Mayr Award controversy:

To the SSB Council:

I have been wracking my brain trying to think of some way to turn the upcoming vote on the Ernst Mayr Award from a divisive into a uniting event for the society. Currently, the problem we face is that a major group of members will feel disenfranchised, no matter which way the vote goes. No one wants that.
I think I’ve come up with a solution that everyone can support, and that will unite all sides. The primary motivation for changing the name of the award is to avoid any exclusion of applications from students from historically underrepresented groups. And yet, removing the name clearly offends many members who admire the outstanding contributions and service of Mayr to SSB and society in general, including his lifetime efforts to make systematics and society more welcoming for all. The latter group includes many student members, as well as members who knew and admired Mayr in life. Both groups are motivated by reasonable concerns, and everyone seems to want to make SSB more welcoming for all.

My proposal has two parts: (1) change the name of the award given for the outstanding paper presented at the Annual Meeting by a student member to the Outstanding Student Presentation Award, as in the existing proposal; and (2) change the purpose and mechanism of awarding the Ernst Mayr Award in Systematic Biology, to a new award that is selected by committee, without any applications. The new award could be fashioned as a “Nobel Prize in Systematics,” or it could be an award for exemplary service to the society. But there would be no applications, and thus no feeling of exclusion by any potential applicants. Ernst Mayr would continue to be recognized for his important contributions and generous gift to the society’s endowment, and the Outstanding Student Presentation Award would remove any bias from student applications.

This solution seems to meet the stated goals of all sides, and includes and welcomes all members of the society.

I hope that the Council will consider this uniting solution, as I fear that the vote will otherwise divide the society, no matter the outcome.

David Hillis
SSB Trustee