APRIMARY function of universities is to ask questions and to advance knowledge, popular or otherwise. When they do this well, whole societies benefit: from scientific innovation, from smarter economic and social policies, and from a culture that values truth and reason above prejudice. This is why the battle over Harvard's president has broad national consequences. If Lawrence H. Summers loses his job for the crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis -- or even if he pays some lesser price for it -- the chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone.
Mr. Summers advanced his controversial thesis at a meeting of economics researchers who were discussing the scarcity of women in university science and engineering positions. He began by mentioning Harvard's commitment to "the crucial objective of diversity" and "our common goals of equality." But he explained that on this occasion he would not discuss what the world ought to be like. Instead, he would seek to provoke fresh thinking on why it is as it is.
Mr. Summers offered three possible reasons for women's underrepresentation in top science faculties. The most important, he suggested, is that women on average (which doesn't mean all individual women) may be less willing than men are to work 80-hour weeks and make the family sacrifices that high-pressure occupations require. "That's not a judgment about how it should be," he reiterated, adding that new research "may prove my conjectures completely wrong."
Next, Mr. Summers suggested that fewer women than men are outstandingly good or outstandingly bad at math. If this is so, the average ability of men and women may be identical, but the pool of math geniuses from which top universities recruit is disproportionately male. Mr. Summers conceded he might be wrong on this point, adding that "I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true." But he cited research that led him to think that innate differences probably explained more than the third and most eagerly cited category of reason for women's underrepresentation: social and parental pressures that direct women away from sciences, coupled with workplace discrimination.
One can agree or disagree with this ranking of reasons or with Mr. Summers's reading of the research on gender and ability. But it's contrary to the mission of a university to attack people for provoking fresh thought on big issues -- issues that, as Mr. Summers rightly put it, "are too important to sentimentalize." The furious reaction from some members of the Harvard faculty may reflect disaffection with Mr. Summers's leadership on issues ranging from his questioning of tenure to his expansion of the campus. Mr. Summers has sparked controversies on other subjects, too, including political diversity in the law school, the quality of African American studies and campus criticism of Israel. If those subjects in part underlie the movement against Mr. Summers, his critics should engage them directly and not unjustifiably paint him as an anti-feminist bigot.