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Harvard Chief's Comments on Women Assailed

Academics Critical of Remarks About Lack of Gender Equality

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A02

During nearly four years as president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers has earned a reputation for blunt, sometimes brutal comments. After upsetting African Americans early in his tenure, he has provoked a new storm of controversy by suggesting that the shortage of elite female scientists may stem in part from "innate" differences between men and women.

"I felt I was going to be sick," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who listened to part of Summers's speech Friday at a session on the progress of women in academia organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. She walked out in what she described as a physical sense of disgust.


Lawrence H. Summers is known for being blunt, but he said his remarks were misinterpreted. (Jon Chase -- Harvard University News Office Via AP)

"My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," she said. "I was extremely upset."

Other female scientists also criticized the speech, in which Summers laid out a series of possible explanations for the underrepresentation of women in the upper echelons of professional life, including upbringing, genetics and time spent on child-rearing. No transcript was made of Summers's remarks, which were extemporaneous but delivered from notes. There was disagreement about precisely what he said. Summers's remarks were first reported by the Boston Globe in Monday's editions.

The former Treasury secretary won the support of fellow economists and others, who said that they could not understand what the fuss was about and believed that Summers presented ideas that were a legitimate topic for debate.

"I left with a sense of elation at his ideas," said Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor who attended the speech. "I was proud that the president of my university retains the inquisitiveness of an academic."

Since taking over as president of Harvard, the highest-profile academic post in the country, in July 2001, Summers has been praised and criticized for an abrasive style that is in sharp contrast to the patient consensus-building favored by his immediate predecessors. One of the stars of the university's department of African American studies, Cornel West, left Harvard for Princeton after Summers criticized his lack of scholarly output.

Some at Harvard view Summers as a brilliant administrator who is not afraid to say what he thinks and is bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air to a revered but stodgy academic institution. Others question his commitment to diversity and point out that the number of tenured professorships offered to women has dropped sharply over the past four years. Of the 32 offers of tenure made by Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences last year, four went to women.

In an interview yesterday, Summers said some critics had erroneously interpreted his remarks as "suggesting that women can't do science" or that he was "fatalistic" about the university's ability to attract top female scientists. "Nothing could be further from what I think and believe," he said.

In his remarks last week, Summers pointed to research showing that girls are less likely to score top marks than boys in standardized math and science tests, even though the median scores of both sexes are comparable. He said yesterday that he did not offer any conclusion for why this should be so but merely suggested a number of possible hypotheses.

Some women who attended the meeting said they felt that Summers was implicitly endorsing the notion that there are genetic differences that inhibit girls from excelling in math and science. They cited a story Summers told about giving his daughter two trucks as an effort at gender-neutral parenting. The girl soon began referring to one of the trucks as "daddy truck" and the other as "baby truck."

The point of the truck anecdote, said Hopkins, a Harvard graduate, seemed to be that girls have a genetic predisposition against math and engineering. "That's the kind of insidious, destructive, un-thought-through attitude that causes a lot of harm," she said. "It's one thing for an ordinary person to shoot his mouth off like that, but quite another for a top educational leader."

Summers described the truck story yesterday as "a misguided attempt to provide some humor" at an otherwise dry academic conference. He noted that the meeting was meant to be off the record.

One of the women sharply critical of Summers at the meeting was Denice D. Denton, chancellor-designate of the University of California at Santa Cruz. She took issue with his suggestion that women are less likely to achieve top professional positions than men because they are encumbered by child-rearing and family commitments. "Four of the 10 campuses at the University of California are run by women, who are all highly respected in their field," said Denton, an electrical engineer by training. "These are all clear examples of women reaching the top of their profession."

Denton and other critics said that Summers played down the role of discrimination as a significant factor in preventing women from reaching the top and paid too much attention to unproven research into genetics and "aptitude."

Paula Stephan, an economics professor at Georgia State University, said she did not agree with some of Summers's remarks, including his views on discrimination. But she said she was not offended by his presentation, which was standard fare for a research conference.

What Summers said "is controversial and should be debated," said David Goldston, chief of staff of the House Science Committee, who was also at the meeting. "But there ought to be some place in America where you can have a thoughtful, non-ideological private discussion."


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