Summers Storm

Women, science, and a Harvard president's notorious remarks

Of course, a university should also be a place for the untrammeled, lively exchange of ideas. The outcry over Summers's remarks raises the specter of a repressive political correctness that would prevent students, faculty, and administrators from engaging in a meaningful debate about the issues of the day.

Not that Summers doesn't have his supporters. There are many alumni, students, and faculty who say he has done an exemplary job of making a Harvard education available to the financially disadvantaged. For instance, he implemented a program guaranteeing free tuition to any undergraduate student with a family income of under $40,000 and has made low-interest loans more widely available to others. They also note that he has appointed several women to positions of importance.

But as the head of such a powerful institution, Summers needs to realize that his words do have power—as much power, perhaps, as his actions. The super-analytical statistician's approach he took in his controversial remarks may have some intellectual merit, but it ignores a basic reality: When the president of Harvard starts questioning women's "intrinsic aptitude," it potentially sends a message of contempt to women everywhere.

At press time, it looked like Summers was going to get through this storm, the way he has through so many others. If he survives in his job, let's hope he means what he says about practicing respect. Diplomacy, tact, sensitivity: These may be talents more easily learned by playing with dolls than with trucks. But with remedial education, maybe even Larry Summers could gain a new skill set—regardless of his intrinsic aptitude.

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