washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

Same Old Stereotyping

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page A15

Self-appointed defenders have rallied around Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University's besieged president, vowing to save him -- and academic freedom itself -- from the baying, torch-wielding mobs of political correctness. Sorry, but I won't be joining those Summers soldiers at the barricades. Not since I read the speech that got Summers in trouble.

It turns out that this imbroglio isn't about political correctness at all. It's about leadership, and it's about a set of bobs, weaves, dodges and excuses that women and minorities have been hearing, in one form or another, since time immemorial. Summers wrapped it in the language of statistics, invoking standard deviations and such, but it's the same old stuff. No wonder the speech left some in Summers's audience shaking with rage.


(Michael Dwyer -- AP)

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Headlines have focused on one line from Summers's Jan. 14 address: his "best guess" that something he calls "intrinsic aptitude" may help explain why there are so few women at the top in science and engineering. Now that Summers has finally released the text of the speech, we can see that "intrinsic aptitude" is only one of the caveats that, according to the president of our most prestigious university, make this whole diversity thing a dodgy proposition at best, perhaps just a waste of time and effort.

He posits that the main reason women are underrepresented in the sciences is that they don't want to work long enough hours. His second-ranking reason is the "intrinsic" bit, and finally there are "lesser factors" that include continuing discrimination.

His tone throughout is of patronizing regret -- "I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong" -- and while the focus of the talk is on women, he cites research done on racial discrimination to make several of his points, in effect generalizing his remarks to minorities as well.

This is the passage that sealed it for me, a series of questions for further research:

"When major diversity efforts are mounted, and consciousness is raised, and special efforts are made, and you look five years later at the quality of the people who have been hired during that period, how many are there who have turned out to be much better than the institutional norm who wouldn't have been found without a greater search. And how many of them are plausible compromises that aren't unreasonable, and how many of them are what the right-wing critics of all of this suppose represent clear abandonments of quality standards."

Underlying those tangled sentences is the assumption that diversity means lowering standards. He's telling women and minorities at Harvard that they're suspect, that they may well be unqualified, and that their presence is just tolerated.

Academic freedom? I agree that it's sacred, but Summers isn't just an overcaffeinated economics professor, bloviating in a seminar or holding court at the faculty club. He's the president of Harvard. He sets policy and has absolute power over careers, and now he has put himself on the record as extremely skeptical, to say the least, about any "special efforts" to increase diversity.

Summers has since tried to back away from parts of the speech, acknowledging his lack of expertise in the fields he was talking about. So far the Harvard faculty, set to gather in an emergency meeting today, is unmollified.

Here are my questions for further research. First, is there a pattern here? When Summers arrived at Harvard, one of his first acts was to dress down one of the university's best-known black scholars, Cornel West, for spending too much time on outside projects and not enough on research. Offended, West decamped to Princeton University. But Harvard is lousy with peripatetic rock-star professors. One of Summers's most vocal defenders is Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz, who found time amid his busy academic schedule to serve on the O.J. Simpson defense team, for heaven's sake. Why start with West? Was he doing anything his white colleagues don't do?

I'd like to assign another team to research how many white male professors are "plausible compromises" or "clear abandonments of quality standards." A third group of scholars can confirm that (as a questioner in Summers's audience pointed out) male professors are far less willing to work 80-hour weeks than they used to be, and then investigate why Summers singled out the women.

All this reminds me of a far more elegant speech I heard in December 1993, in a gilded ballroom in Stockholm, as novelist Toni Morrison accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature. She spoke enchantingly of the power of language to create reality, of how words can nurture but also wound.

One phrase, especially, has stuck with me. Morrison decried "arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness." Larry Summers should read that speech a few times before he opens his mouth again.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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