Summers Storm

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

Lawrence H. Summers, the embattled president of Harvard University, has made a startling announcement: He says he intends to start showing people some respect.

"I pledge to you that I will seek to listen more and more carefully and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work together more harmoniously," said Summers, addressing a packed meeting of the university's faculty and staff on February 22. The president's promise came five weeks after his remarks about women and their ability in the fields of science and engineering made him the focus of a national debate on gender discrimination.

Treating the people who work for you as if they were intelligent beings worthy of consideration might seem like a lesson from Management 101, but in the mouth of a man whose reputation for pride—or arrogance—matches that of the institution he heads, those words sound like a painfully unfamiliar attempt at humility. Still, they may not be enough to placate a faculty that, in a recent Harvard Crimson poll, registered 52 percent disapproval of his leadership.

What did Summers say to get the faculty so riled up? At a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research on January 14, the 50-year-old economist and former secretary of the treasury set forth a number of hypotheses to account for women's under-representation in the fields of science and engineering, including "issues of intrinsic aptitude . . . reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination." Those "lesser factors," Summers submitted, might include the question of whether married women with children would be willing to commit to the 80-hour workweeks required to succeed in "the most prestigious activities in our society."

He bolstered his argument by citing his observation of his own twin daughters, who, when they were two-and-a-half-years-old, "were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck." That, Summers concluded, "tells me something." What? That his girls are not going to be automotive engineers in the future?

Unsurprisingly, these remarks—which Summers carefully prefaced by saying he was speaking "unofficially" and which he called "some attempts at provocation"—angered many women in the Harvard community and in the wider academic world. The doors of Harvard and other eminent institutions may have opened to women decades ago, but American confusion and anguish over women's role in the world of work seems to be more intense than ever—witness the instant buzz generated by the recent release of Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, a book that asks whether women are being driven crazy by our society's expectation that they be super-nurturers while somehow hanging on to their professional identities.

The topic is a loaded one, and Summers deserves some credit for being willing to take it on in the spirit of a free and unfettered academic debate. But when the outrage started to break, instead of opening up, Summers at first hunkered down, refusing to release the transcript of his talk. When he did, on February 17, critics found a hyper-intellectualized, occasionally clueless document that provided them with more ammunition: "It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models," said Summers in the transcribed remarks. "The data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking . . . that white men are very substantially under-represented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture." The difference being, of course, that Summers stopped short of drawing the conclusion that Jews have less "intrinsic aptitude" for growing soybeans than, say, Norwegians.

A willingness to piss people off—or "candor," as it is called in more polite circles—has always been part of Summers's style. Before he got tapped for the Harvard job in 2001, he was already notorious in the anti-globalization community for signing a memo when he was at the World Bank in 1991 that lightheartedly seemed to advocate dumping toxic waste in underdeveloped countries. (Summers disavowed the memo, saying it was a "mistake" that happened "a long time ago.") He has been the object of several dust-ups since he took control of the university, many of them with members of the academic left. In 2001, he and African American studies professor Cornel West, then a prominent member of the school's faculty, got into a very public tussle over academic standards and grade inflation; West left for Princeton in a huff. Shortly afterward, Summers described the campaign to convince universities to divest from companies with Israeli holdings—a pet project of Noam Chomsky's— as "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not in their intention." Last fall, he denied tenure to African American studies professor and hip-hop scholar Marcyliena Morgan, against the unanimous recommendation of her department; when Morgan left Harvard for Stanford, her husband, noted sociology professor Lawrence Bobo, left with her.

Summers has more than once been described as a "bull in a china shop." But now that he heads what is arguably the nation's most prestigious university, the china in question is part of an American hope chest—the dream of a Harvard education for those who merit one, regardless of race or gender; the idea of an institution that pioneers social progress.

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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