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The Man in The Ivory Tower

Harvard's Lawrence Summers Is a Study in Controversy

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

Asilver-haired woman, sitting in the gleaming glass lobby of a Harvard University science building, notes the arrival of university President Lawrence Summers. "That car," she says, and then rolls her eyes.

That car, bearing the man who was secretary of the treasury in the waning days of the Clinton administration and is now president of this country's most prestigious academic institution, is a shiny black town car. Even by the standards of Boston traffic, it gives the impression of being in a rush. It stops in front of the Maxwell Dworkin building (a gift from Microsoft tycoons Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer), and a small posse of men in suits appears. They move smartly to the rear right-hand passenger door and open it. Cell phones are brandished. The man in back is finishing up his business.


Lawrence Summers talks with the press after being named Harvard president in 2001. Controversy dogged him soon after his arrival. (Lawrence Jackson -- AP)

"The president," says the woman, with mock ceremony, as the man known as Larry and his entourage bear down on the building.

On Thursday of last week, Lawrence Summers addressed a small Harvard symposium on women in science. It was hailed, in the local media, as an effort at public rehabilitation, a setting-straight of the president's troubled record on the subject of women and their ability to thrive as top scientists at elite research institutions.

"I hope I've learned a few things," he said, an obvious reference to the storm of controversy that greeted remarks he made in January on the same subject, to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In Summers's earlier talk, he suggested three things that might limit the number of women in top scientific positions -- the stresses of family life, innate biological differences and social pressures and prejudices. And after raising these possibilities, he said that, as much as he would like to be convinced otherwise, he believed the first two -- family and innate differences -- are probably the strongest factors, while social pressures were a lesser force.

His remarks, made behind closed doors to people who have been studying these issues for years, leaked into the media. To the right wing, these words only confirmed Summers as an odd, newfound hero, a skewerer of liberal pieties, willing to broach difficult issues like the connection between biology and cognitive difference. To many women, to most people who have studied the question and to much of the left-wing establishment, Summers looked like a fool -- and because he was president of Harvard, a dangerous fool, too.

Last week, Summers (who is addressing the Harvard Club in Washington this evening) struck a very different tone.

"You know, universities like ours were structured in their basic structure many years ago, and it's probably an exaggeration but not too much of one to say that they were designed by men for men," he said. He announced that he had five points, and then spoke extemporaneously for almost half an hour, his mind clicking through the main issues, adding examples drawn from as far afield as the physics of electrical charges and orchestra auditions. But he also spoke with a personal touch, noting that he himself had to draw a strong red line around his private family time, and that he, like everyone, had biases that he was only just learning about.

"I know that there is one additional thing that I've learned and that is that what Harvard does and says has an enormous resonance that goes beyond Zip code 02138," he said near the end. That remark was meant, no doubt, in all humility. Throughout the past months, one consistent criticism of Summers, coming from his supporters and detractors alike, is that you can't just flap your mouth like a brash undergraduate when you're the president of Harvard. But, as with so many things about Harvard and about this particular president of Harvard -- right down to the car he arrives in -- there is a (perhaps) unintentional arrogance to it.

Summers's talk was greeted warmly by those present last week. His light touch, his hints at self-deprecation, his embracing of ideas about discrimination and bias that he seemed to dismiss in January were reassuring. Everyone who has made any effort at developing a theory of Larry Summers -- and that includes most people at Harvard -- would find in this talk evidence that, at worst, he has some rough edges, that his reputation for arrogance is a quirk that he can, through effort, compensate for with charm. But there are many theories of Larry floating around, and for those who hold the darkest of them -- those who parse every word he utters for evidence of malign intent -- this wasn't a new Larry, but merely a guy choosing his words very carefully for public consumption.

Walking Out

Nancy Hopkins is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard's near neighbor in the upscale, overcrowded, overpriced city of Cambridge. Hopkins remembers her fateful encounter with "the car." It came sometime in the middle of Summers's remarks in January, after he had laid out his basic hypotheses -- family, biology or prejudice? -- and was proceeding to reiterate them at greater length and with more argument. Hopkins felt increasingly angry, and her eyes wandered around the room, meeting the puzzled glances of other women. And then she walked out.

"Summers had arrived, with his girlfriend, in his limousine, with his driver and a secretary carrying pencils," she says. "I just thought, this son of a bitch. I thought of getting in his limousine -- it was pouring rain -- and saying, 'Take me home.' "

But she didn't. She went home, where she got angrier and angrier. "I felt like his remarks had erased years and years and years of work and all this progress," she said.


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