So the story I brought up a while ago in reference to our affirmative action discussion is really taking off as a controversy at Harvard – I would liken it to a witch trial.
Larry Summers had the utter temerity to suggest that there might actually be genetic differences between male and female brains, and all hell has broken loose – besides accusing him of being sexist, various faculty groups have suddenly discovered all sorts of relevant-sounding complaints concerning his management style and whatnot that went strangely unmentioned for the previous 4 years (or however long he has been President of Harvard – I think he went in right after Clinton left office). He even noted an easily demonstrated statistical point concerning the distribution of male IQs being flatter (less congregated on the mean) than are female IQs – HOW DARE HE?
Academic freedom? Not if you want to broach a topic covered by politically correct dogma. Sure sure, if you want to harass students or call 9/11 victims Nazis, then everyone will jump to defend your academic freedom – but ask a question concerning genetics, and BAM!
Here are some relevant links to check out on this tempest in a teapot in Cambridge:
Here’s a transcript of the actual Summers comments (have fun wading through the academic verbiage):
Here’s an NYT story on the current squawking:
Furor Lingers as Harvard Chief Gives Details of Talk on Women
By PATRICK D. HEALY and SARA RIMER
Published: February 18, 2005
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb. 17 - Bowing to intense pressure from his faculty, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, on Thursday released a month-old transcript of his contentious closed-door remarks about the shortage of women in the sciences and engineering. The transcript revealed several provocative statements by Dr. Summers about the “intrinsic aptitude” of women, the career pressures they face and discrimination within universities.
Dr. Summers’s remarks, which have only been described by others until now, have fueled a widening crisis on campus, with several professors talking about taking a vote of no confidence on the president next week. - That idea alone is unprecedented at Harvard in modern times.
Among his comments to a conference of economists last month, according to the transcript, Dr. Summers, a former secretary of the United States Treasury, compared the relatively low number of women in the sciences to the numbers of Catholics in investment banking, whites in the National Basketball Association and Jews in farming.
He theorized that a “much higher fraction of married men” than married women were willing to work 80-hour weeks to attain “high powered” jobs. He said racial and sex discrimination needed to be “absolutely, vigorously” combated, yet he argued that bias could not entirely explain the lack of diversity in the sciences. At that point, the Harvard leader suggested he believed that the innate aptitude of women was a factor behind their low numbers in the sciences and engineering.
“My best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon - by far - is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity; that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude; and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination,” Dr. Summers said, according to the transcript.
“I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them,” he added.
Over and over in the transcript, he made clear that he might be wrong in his theories, and he challenged researchers to study his propositions.
He also urged research on “the quality of marginal hires” to the faculty when efforts to diversify are under way. Do these hires, he asked, eventually turn into star professors? Or “plausible compromises” that are not unreasonable additions to the faculty? And “how many of them are what the right-wing critics of all of this suppose represent clear abandonments of quality standards?”
Several professors said Thursday that they were only more furious after reading his precise remarks , saying they felt he believed women were intellectually inferior to men.
Everett I. Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, said that once he read the remarks, he could understand why Dr. Summers “might have wanted to keep it a secret.”
“Where he seems to be off the mark particularly is in his sweeping claims that women don’t have the ability to do well in high-powered jobs,” said Professor Mendelsohn, who was one of a group of faculty members who sharply criticized Dr. Summers’s leadership at a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Tuesday. “There’s an implication that they’ve taken themselves out of that role. But he brings forward no evidence.”
But Dr. Summers seemed to back away from those theories on Thursday in a letter to the faculty released with the 7,000-word transcript. In it, he said he should “have spoken differently on matters so complex,” and he said he had “substantially understated the impact of socialization and discrimination.”
“The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments,” he said in the letter.
The senior member of Harvard’s governing corporation, James Houghton, released a letter shortly after the transcript was made public, offering praise and support for Dr. Summers.
With the timing of the release of the transcript, at 2:15 on a class day, faculty members were still studying it and trying to digest its meaning on Thursday evening. But some faculty members said they were already drawing the conclusion that Dr. Summers believed that innate differences were a significant reason for women’s lack of success in math and science careers.
“What bothers me is the consistent assumption that innate differences rather than socialization is responsible for some of the issues he talks about,” said Howard Georgi, a physics professor who has been part of a successful effort in Harvard’s physics department to recruit more women for tenured positions.
“It’s crazy to think that it’s an innate difference,” Professor Georgi added. “It’s socialization. We’ve trained young women to be average. We’ve trained young men to be adventurous.”
In recent weeks, the Summers controversy has led to a wider debate among academics about not only innate gender differences but also the state of campus political correctness - with Dr. Summers’s supporters insisting that a left-wing cabal on the faculty was seeking to bring down his presidency over his remarks.
Among his critics on the faculty, the current outrage against Dr. Summers amounts to a culmination of reaction to three years of sharp-edged remarks, actions and displays of attitude by the Harvard president that to these professors have been divisive and unworthy of one of the world’s leading universities. Dr. Summers gained notoriety several months into the job by offending a leading professor of black studies at Harvard, Cornel West, who promptly decamped to Princeton University.
Yet some Harvard professors and leaders said that the critics were focusing too narrowly on remarks that were meant to be private and provocative, and that they were losing sight of Dr. Summers’s accomplishments at the university.
“My primary response to the transcript is that President Summers has profoundly apologized,” said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor who is a strong supporter of Dr. Summers. “At this point the university will be much better served by looking forward rather than by parsing his comments.”
On Thursday, after the transcript was issued, Dr. West volunteered his reaction to the latest imbroglio.
“I’ve been praying for the brother, hoping he would change,” Dr. West said in an interview. “It’s clear he hasn’t changed, I feel bad for Harvard as an institution and as a great tradition. It was good to see the faculty wake up. The chickens have come home to roost.”
While Harvard professors plan to convene Tuesday to discuss the transcript and Dr. Summers’s leadership, and some have spoken of a vote of no confidence, it is the Harvard Corporation that has decisive influence over Dr. Summers’s fortunes. It stood behind him on Thursday.