Trust and the academy: seeking a second opinion

Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, wrote: “[C]onformity can lead individuals and societies in unfortunate and even catastrophic directions. The most serious danger is that by following others we fail to disclose what we actually know and believe … Those who dissent, and who reject the pressures imposed by others, perform valuable social functions, frequently at their own expense.”

Nowhere in a liberal democracy is this warning more relevant than in its universities. Partial insulation from the subtly coercive pressures of economic necessity and political reality should allow for the honest reflection and intellectual freedom that are prerequisites for challenging popular myths. Yet two recent events discussed in the pages of the News force a reconsideration of whether the contemporary academy has abandoned this ideal.

The first started with Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ suggestion that the disproportionate representation of women in science and engineering might be linked to biological gender differences. Summers’ comments at a scholarly conference offered a hypothesis that only experimentation and analysis could confirm or reject. But much of the public reaction has not been one of openness to inquiry. Summers has been condemned, even by his fellow academics, for merely raising the question.

In an opinion column in the News, for example, sophomore Zachary Zwillinger argued against scientific examination of the issue altogether (“Who’s better at math? Better off not knowing,” 1/21). Zwillinger wrote: “[S]ociety has seen it fit to put limitations on what science can do for the overall sake of humanity. For instance, I cannot deliberately infect someone with AIDS in the hopes of finding a cure, because society has judged that the moral cost would be too great. Likewise, the benefits of discovering innate differences between men and women … are far outweighed by the risk of creating justifications for injustice.”

Certainly Zwillinger is right to oppose experimentation that poses grave risks to its subjects, but his analogy does not hold. If scientists were to discover that men, in the aggregate, have advantages over women in the sort of cognitive abilities required for higher-level work in science and engineering, it would be a gross misapplication of the discovery to use it as justification for sex discrimination. It would not be the actual science that would merit criticism, but the misuse of its findings for morally abject purposes. Knowledge of biological differences could far more convincingly, in my humble opinion, be used as evidence to support more intensive education and enrichment programs in science and engineering for young women.

Moreover, the research could instead prove that biological sex differences in these abilities do not exist — thus more brightly shining light on discriminatory practices that create the disconnect between the representation of women in the population and on science and engineering faculties. Either way, it is the prescriptive conclusions drawn from scientific discoveries — not the truth of science’s descriptive claims — that should be supported or condemned on moral grounds.

A related controversy stems from a recently publicized letter in which Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions at Dartmouth, questioned the role of athletic recruitment in higher education. The response has been startlingly dramatic. In addition to the usual retractions from the relevant officials, a petition has circulated at Dartmouth calling for Furstenberg’s dismissal.

The News, in a Jan. 25 editorial titled “Finding a home for athletics on academic turf,” agreed that the issue does “deserve our consideration.” But the News then added: “For Yale, recruiting varsity athletes, even those whose test scores or high school GPAs are lower than the average Yale student’s, is justified because those students are seen as making a distinct contribution to the Yale community” and “Football, and athletic recruiting, are here to stay — and for good reason.”

Perhaps the News and the academic establishment should not be so quick to applaud the status quo without a more thorough review. It would be helpful for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to spearhead collective introspection by publishing aggregate statistics on its recruitment policies and the performance, both at Yale and in the admission process, of recruited student-athletes. Failure to do so could be understood to constitute a tacit affirmation that standards for student-athletes are not consistent with those for the larger community.

The News seems willing to tolerate different standards for those Yale applicants with special non-academic talents, so it is hard to believe that letting the public access information would be seriously destructive to the University’s reputation. More importantly, Yale officials who support athletic recruitment would deserve respect for having the courage to be honest about their policies, even if critics still disputed their value. President Levin will not be remembered for carefully worded press releases; in fact, his finest moments came when he dared to take on establishment views on restrictive student visa policies and the social harms of early decision.

Leadership both reflects and influences the climate that prevails under its shadow, and the intellectual daring of the academy or lack thereof reverberates in the society surrounding it. The pressure of political correctness and the ease of conforming dampens sincere discourse about the important issues of the day. Whether or not those forces will overcome the pursuit of truth, the sacred foundation upon which the academy is built will be resolved by the strength of our character.

Matthew Wansley is a sophomore in Trumbull College.