February 18, 2005

Summers Sparks Discussion

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A transcript of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’ controversial speech at a economics conference last month was released yesterday following a month-long furor over his remarks about women in science.

Although the phrase “innate differences” was not used, Summers’ speculations in the transcript on the reason for a scarcity of female scientists at top universities correlate to previous accounts of the speech.

“So my best guess, to provoke you … [is] 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,” Summers is recorded as saying at the National Bureau of Economics Research conference on Jan. 14.

Earlier in the transcript, Summers had addressed hiring practices at universities: “If there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that.” Summers explicitly stated his desire to be proven wrong on these points.

“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 said.

The release of the nearly 7,000-word document came after Summers faced intense pressure at a faculty of arts and sciences meeting on Tuesday to publicize its contents.

Many of the approximately 250 Harvard professors who attended the meeting also criticized Summers for Harvard’s direction under his leadership.

According to The Crimson, many Harvard professors viewed Summers’ remarks as the last straw in a growing list of grievances.

“It’s not simply a matter of that one comment or this particular issue,” Harvard’s history department chair Andrew Gordon told The Crimson. “There’s widespread discontent at multiple levels … catalyzed by this one event.”

Part of that discontent stems from Harvard’s declining percentage of female tenures, which under Summers fell from 36 percent in 2000-2001 to 13 percent last year.

The fire he drew for his remarks last month has hastened Summers’ response to the concern surrounding female tenures. About three weeks after the economics conference, Summers and other top administrators at Harvard unveiled a plan for creating two new faculty task forces to recommend actions for the advancement of women. The plan also called for a senior administrator to carry out those recommendations.

Five days following the conference, Summers also issued a formal letter of apology for his remarks. A day later, he met with the Faculty Standing Committee on Women to express his regret.

“I made a big mistake, and I was wrong,” he told the committee.

Reactions at Cornell

Faculty and students expressed disbelief at the remarks Summers made, especially in light of his position as a top university president.

“I thought he was very misinformed,” said Prof. Melissa Hines, chemistry and chemical biology. “I couldn’t believe someone who was president of a major university held that opinion.”

For Jamie Gullen ’07, the opinion carried little weight. The co-president of Students Acting for Gender Equality described Summers’s comment as “so clearly not backed up by research … that it’s hard to even take it seriously.”

Prof. Stephen Morgan, sociology, used the incident in his class, “SOC222: Controversies about Inequality” as “an example of a set of comments that can be (and almost certainly should be) interpreted as discriminatory.”

“I believe I said something to the effect of: ‘If I was a female scientist, and I was coming up for my tenure review at Harvard, I would be very concerned that President Summers might my harbor inner thoughts that my work was less meritorious simply because it was produced by a woman,”‘ Morgan stated in an email.

Morgan, who is also Director of the Center for the Study of Inequality, acknowledged his surprise at Summers’ speech. “He did not seem to be sufficiently aware of the compelling evidence against his statement,” he said.

The storm Summers battles now did not come as a shock to Dir. Joel Brock, applied and engineering physics.

“I thought he was going to get in a lot of trouble,” Brock said after learning about Summers’ remarks.

Several, however, feel that the month-long furor has generated some positive effects. “When I saw how everyone got so riled up, it was actually a good thing that it was brought to light,” said Kate Bakey ’05, president of Women in Science at Cornell, in reference to Summers’ words.

Urging female science students not to be discouraged by the president’s remarks, Bakey said, “I think the most proactive way to deal with it is to take it as a challenge.” For Prof. Joanne Fortune, biomedical sciences and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, the controversy has affirmed the relevance of her course, “BIOAP214: Biological Basis of Sex Differences.”

“Before this semester started, I was wondering, is this course on sex differences something that students would be interested in, or did they think that problems of gender bias had been solved?” Fortune said. “President Summers’ remarks helped to highlight that we still have a ways to go in providing equal opportunity.” After bringing up the Summers controversy in her “SOC270 Gender: Meaning & Practices” class, Prof. Shelley Correll, sociology, presented a more drastic case of gender discrimination in the last century.

“Early in the 1900s a Harvard professor suggested that the reason there were so few women at Harvard and other colleges was that their brains were too small to handle the pressures of college,” Correll wrote in an email recalling her lecture. “Since over half of all college students are now women, we can see how wrong he was.”

“I think time will prove Summers equally as wrong,” she stated.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer