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Correction to This Article
A Feb. 22 article incorrectly quoted Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers as saying in a January speech that there are differences in "innate aptitude" between men and women that help explain why men more often excel on science and engineering tests. As stated earlier in the article, Summers used the phrase "intrinsic aptitude."

Harvard Chief Again to Face Angry Faculty Over Remarks

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb. 21 -- In a rare second faculty meeting in a week, set for Tuesday afternoon, critics of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers are expected to excoriate him again for his leadership style and recent remarks about women in science and engineering.

But the leader of the nation's oldest academic institution also retains a strong base of support among university officials and increasingly vocal groups of students, professors and former Washington colleagues whose counsel he has sought.


Lawrence Summers has support from many administrators and students.

Conspicuous by their relative public silence during a month-long onslaught of criticism from within the university and beyond, many backers of the former Treasury secretary agree he made a major blunder at a Jan. 14 meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research by referring to differences of "intrinsic aptitude" for science between men and women.

But they also point out that he has taken tangible steps -- such as creating two task forces on women in academia, meeting with students and faculty members, and apologizing at every opportunity -- that demonstrate his commitment to change.

"I think we should acknowledge that he made a mistake, learn from it and move forward," said economics professor David Laibson, who along with a colleague has gathered more than 180 faculty members' signatures on a letter that praises Summers's "lifetime of public service" and "remarkable energy" and says he "will continue to make positive and significant contributions" to Harvard.

Others believe that Summers's bluntness has been just what the university needs, and some support his right to say what he thinks -- even undiplomatically -- in the tradition of allowing wide-ranging freedom of expression on campus. Faculty in Harvard's many professional schools have expressed more support for Summers than colleagues in the arts and sciences.

On the same day last week that he bowed to pressure to publish a full transcript of his January remarks, Summers received the full, written backing of the Harvard Corp., the university governors at whose pleasure he serves.

In the somewhat rambling January address, Summers repeatedly said that he was trying to "provoke" his audience and that although he had read the academic literature seeking to explain why women are underrepresented in certain disciplines, he was not an expert in the field.

He attributed the fact that men more often excel on science and engineering tests -- though median scores are comparable -- to "innate aptitude" and the fact that women are more likely to choose family over 80-hour workweeks.

Societal factors such as discrimination and discouragement that women receive in school seem to play a lesser role, he said, adding that he hoped to be proved wrong.

The remark sparked outrage among several women in attendance and catalyzed a more comprehensive debate about his leadership style and vision for the university's future.

Only one professor defended Summers at a contentious 90-minute faculty meeting Feb. 15, after which a second meeting was added.

Several of Summers's prominent defenders said they will, including psychology professor Stephen Pinker and members of the economics department. Students supportive of the president have formed a Web site, www.studentsforlarry.org, while those opposed plan to protest outside Tuesday's faculty meeting.

A weekend survey of professors by the Harvard Crimson found the faculty deeply divided, with a slim majority of respondents expressing disapproval of Summers's leadership and a greater percentage indicating he should not resign. About 40 percent of the faculty responded to the e-mailed poll.

Initially Summers's support came from unlikely bedfellows: conservative pundits, such as writer Andrew Sullivan and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who accused the Harvard community of stifling free speech.

"Now, a more sensible middle ground is emerging that acknowledges -- as Larry has -- that his comments were off the mark and potentially harmful, but that also recognizes that he is a very open-minded leader with a lifetime of walking the walk for greater economic and social opportunity," said Gene Sperling, the chairman of President Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. Sperling and Summers are close friends.

Sperling noted a 1994 paper in which Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, argued that "investment in girls' education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world."

In Washington, Summers earned a reputation as an analytically gifted policymaker who sometimes struggled with the art of diplomacy. On one occasion, he attached his name to a World Bank memo that seemed to endorse the idea of developed countries exporting pollution to the developing world.

"We used to call it 'throwing darts,' " said Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served as the former Treasury secretary's deputy. "He would walk into a room, armed with ideas that challenged people to think more rigorously about their fundamental assumptions."

In choosing a new president after the retirement of Neil Rudenstine, known mainly for his fundraising prowess, the Harvard Corp. selected Summers at least in part to reinvigorate the office.

"His temperament was a source of concern, but they wanted to restore some prestige and vibrancy to the presidency," said Richard Bradley, author of a recently published book critical of Summers's tenure.

Summers, 50, earned his doctorate in economics at Harvard in 1982. A year later, at age 28, he became one of the youngest tenured faculty members in Harvard's history.

Since arriving in 2001, Summers has advanced a highly ambitious agenda that includes retooling the undergraduate curriculum, intensifying Harvard's focus on life sciences research and expanding the university across the Charles River into the Boston neighborhood of Allston.

But he has also earned a reputation for bullying faculty and has generated about one major controversy per year, starting when he criticized the scholarship of Cornel West, a professor of African American studies. That led to West's departure to Princeton in 2002.

In one oft-cited example of his imperiousness, Summers was asked by Peter Burgard, a professor of German, at a faculty meeting in the fall of 2003 whether professors would be able to vote on Summers's plan for Harvard's expansion into Allston. The response came in a single word, Burgard said: "No."

Summers's recent remarks about women were particularly troubling to some at Harvard because the percentage of tenured professorships offered to women has declined each year of his tenure. Last year, only four of 32 slots filled in the faculty of arts and sciences went to women.

"Call that what you want, but that is not progress," said Nancy Tobin, a member of the Committee for Equality of Women at Harvard, which once withheld almost $500,00 it had raised from alumnae to encourage Harvard to grant tenure to more women.

But some who were troubled by Summers's remarks say they now see the opportunity to effect change. Mariangela Lisanti, a senior who majors in physics and is the president of a student organization called Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe, said that last week her group was granted its first face-to-face meeting with Summers.

"He was very responsive to the concerns we raised," she said. "This has opened up a really exciting opportunity, and it's a matter of seizing the moment. We are moving beyond the comments."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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