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Say it ainít so
Harvard president Lawrence Summers loses at the game of Truth or Consequences

THE INMATES TOOK over the asylum at Harvard last week, thanks to President Lawrence Summersís ignominious, ill-considered, and likely ill-fated retreat in the face of an organized assault by highly politicized feminist academics and their allies. At issue were comments Summers made, at a January 14 conference, merely stating the obvious: that genetic differences between the sexes might in part account for womenís underrepresentation in math, science, and engineering, and that research must be conducted to answer the hard questions and devise remedies. He should have known, however, that in the modern academy, it is no longer acceptable to speak honestly or intelligently about gender, race, sexual identity, or any other issue that has already been "decided" by entrenched orthodoxies ó that these are no longer acceptable topics for rational discussion, much less scientific research.

An hereís the irony: Summersís "feminist" critics set back the struggle for gender equality far more effectively than even the most sexist anti-intellectual troglodyte ever could.

FOR THOSE who missed the brouhaha of the past two weeks, here is what happened.

The outspoken Summers was invited to speak at a Harvard academic conference run by the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he was urged to raise some of the thornier questions about the frustrating scarcity of women in academic math, engineering, and science positions. Summers suggested three areas of research seeking possible answers. First he noted the possibility that women raising children are often unwilling to put in the 80-hour weeks required to compete for elite posts. Secondly, he urged examination of the discrimination women encounter in the hard sciences.

But then Summers touched the third rail of academic politics. He observed that as early as high school, boys often seem to perform better than girls in science and math, raising the possibility that the disparity might be due in some measure to innate differences in gender. All three of these issues, he suggested, should be studied to figure out how to deal with them.

Midway through Summersís talk, Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist, walked out of the room, later explaining to Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri that if she hadnít left she would have "either blacked out or thrown up." The next day, Hopkins told the New York Times that "when [Summers] began talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldnít breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill." Five other female conference attendees reached by Bombardieri likewise reported being offended.

Summers and Harvard professor Richard Freeman, who had invited the president to address the conference, at first frankly expressed their bewilderment over the emerging firestorm. Freeman explained that Summers was trying to "provoke" thought and research. "Men are taller than women, that comes from the biology," Freeman explained to New York Times reporter Sam Dillon. "Larryís view was that perhaps the dispersion in test scores could also come from the biology." Summers further explained: "I was trying to provoke discussion, and I certainly believe that thereís been some move in the research away from believing all these things are shaped only by socialization."

Nonetheless, news of the incident reverberated across the nation. Before long, National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy intoned: "Summers must go, and Harvard must start with a clean slate." In short order, signatures were collected for a faculty letter admonishing Summers, who soon began to backtrack, issuing a statement expressing "deep regret" over the "impact of my comments" and an "apology" for "not having weighed them more carefully."

In a January 19 letter to "Members of the Harvard Community," Summers suddenly announced that he was sorry for having raised the issue ó that research might be undertaken to determine what role, if any, genetics plays in accounting for the gender gap in math and science ó in a way that "has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women." Summersís statement assured Harvard, the nation, and the world that in fact gender and biology do not indicate "that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science." Never mind that Summers never suggested such a belief, and that his talk was sympathetic to the need to tear down existing gender barriers. "The human potential to excel in science" is not, he suddenly realized, at all gender-related ó a stunning turnaround, given that the research he called for on January 14 obviously had not been completed by January 19. Rather, the question was resolved by the loudest voices who could raise the most clamor, collect the most signatures, and attract the most sensationalistic media coverage.

On Monday, January 24, the Globeís Bombardieri wrote disapprovingly in a news story ó not an editorial column ó that Harvardís inaction with regard to womenís professional advancement stood in "stark" contrast to schools such as the University of Michigan, which, she noted, "has created skits to show professors examples of how subtle unconscious bias can affect the hiring process." In other words, Harvard is remiss for not requiring mandatory sensitivity training, which seeks to change attitudes not by reasoned discourse, but by intimidation of those who do not toe the line.

Such were the consequences when, clutching his January 19 statement, Summers returned to his cell in defeat. He lost a golden opportunity, a "teachable moment," to enhance academic freedom and to preserve the integrity and openness of intellectual discourse. He also forfeited the chance to put to rest the notion that all must kneel before certain intellectual and political orthodoxies ó not only at Harvard, but throughout academia nationwide. Most distressing of all, if genetic differences really do erect barriers for some women in math and science, the means of adjusting for such differences will never be developed if the phenomenon is simply declared, by fiat, not to exist.

Two iconic images emerge from this unseemly rout: that of a male Harvard president running for cover because he dares ask an "offensive" question, and that of a female professor promoting the sexist stereotype of the weak, vulnerable woman who gets nauseated, throws up, and has to leave the room for her smelling salts when she encounters an idea she finds threatening. Quite a pair of role models! And yet it is Summers who is attacked for demeaning women.

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Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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