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Harvard's President, Tackling Another Great Mystery

Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B03

On Tuesday, a puff of white smoke at the Vatican signaled the election of a new pope. On Thursday, the following memo appeared in Outlook's e-mail. We don't know the source, but the memo looked real, so we made absolutely no effort to verify it. We reprint it here in full:

To: Members of the Harvard Community

From: Lawrence H. Summers, President

Re: The recent events in Rome

As all of you know, pressing business over the past three months (I can't even count how many times I've apologized for some of my remarks about why women aren't better represented in tenured science and engineering positions at this and other esteemed universities) has kept me from communicating with my flock as frequently as I would like.

I apologize. Again.

I continue to be interested, however, in why certain groups are underrepresented in important sectors of society. For the few of you who haven't yet downloaded and e-mailed the text of my remarks at that conference in January, I actually said (and here I quote myself directly from the transcript) that "the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture."

Then the white smoke in Rome made me realize that I had neglected another position with a substantial imbalance in the ratio of women to men: the papacy.

I did a bit of research -- okay, I read the New York Times -- and I was amazed to find out that there have been 265 popes in the past two millennia, and not one has been a woman. Now that's a disparity. How do they get away with it?

By the way, I wasn't saying that as president of Harvard. I was just talking off the top of my head. If I said anything that offended anyone, I apologize. Again.

But someone has to lead on this question, so it might as well be me. I'm speaking officially now, as president of the most important university in the world. Veritas, from God's lips to my ears. So I have asked the task force on women, which I established in February, to broaden its mandate to include the papacy and the Roman Catholic priesthood, which has also never had a woman in its ranks.

I know better than to make any broad generalizations now, but for argument's sake only, I would propose three specific areas of inquiry. The task force is welcome, of course, to push the bounds of academic freedom and explore less important factors that I haven't thought about.

• There are 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, about half of whom are women. There are about 400,000 Catholic priests and 117 cardinals younger than 80, and not a woman among them. Popes are chosen from among the cardinals. You don't need to be a whiz at math or science to see the problem here. My question: Is there something intrinsic about women that prevents them from competing for these jobs?

• The priesthood seems to be a full-time occupation that requires a certain kind of dedication. I understand that this puts a damper on social activities outside the church. For example, none of those 400,000 priests are married. Perhaps women aren't willing to make that sort of sacrifice. Perhaps they don't want to work 80 hours a week ministering to the needs of others. Perhaps I've said enough.

• The most difficult question to judge is the one of discrimination. Surely there is some. But is it overt? Is there something in the institution itself that discourages women from entering the priesthood?

As a man with a similarly important job, I can say with reasonable certainty that Pope Benedict XVI has a lot on his plate. So the task force can take its time researching these issues thoroughly. I've noticed, meanwhile, that no one is giving the cardinals any grief about the paucity of female popes. So if Benedict wants to go outside the church to fill his old post as guardian of the faith, my cell phone is on.

-- The Outlook staff

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