A month after his controversial statements about women and science, the uproar surrounding Harvard President Lawrence Summers shows no sign of disappearing. The grievances many Harvard professors will raise at an emergency faculty meeting today have much to do with his leadership style — an issue that matters little beyond Cambridge. But if Summers’ future at Harvard is not our concern, the national debate he has sparked over both female underrepresentation in the sciences and academic debate on college campuses certainly is.
Summers was wrong to make his remarks — both because of who he is and what he said. No matter how much Summers wanted to speak strictly as an economist, his words inevitably carried the weight of a university president behind them. For him to suggest, even in a private forum, that Harvard’s president believed women were innately less suited to become Harvard science professors, sends — intentionally or not — an unfortunate message about his university’s attitude toward female academics. Even though Summers touted his active efforts to recruit more women in the sciences, it is hard to imagine how his comments would not work to counteract those endeavors.
At other times, we have admired the degree to which Summers has been willing to use his position to challenge some of the sacred cows of both his own institution and higher education at large. It would be unfortunate, then, if this latest uproar has a chilling effect on the willingness of top university presidents to take controversial positions. But it would be equally wrong to argue that the reaction to Harvard is a sign of a stifling political correctness that prevents serious discussion in academia.
To suggest that Summers was engaging in the kind of fruitful debate universities try to foster misrepresents what he said. Summers is himself an exceptional economist, but his most controversial comments were not the stuff of high-minded inquiry expected of Ivy League scholars. Rather, his explicit suggestion that genetic differences were more responsible for female underrepresentation in the sciences than discrimination was profoundly unacademic, justified not with empirical data, but with anecdotes about his twin daughters. And even if the question of intrinsic abilities is one that should be studied, the long history of discrimination on the basis of purportedly scientific arguments should have given Summers pause before he attempted to be “provocative.”
Whether Summers’ comments and the emerging discontent on his campus are grounds for new leadership for Harvard is a question best settled in Cambridge. But Harvard’s very public turmoil has spilled into the rest of the country, and Yale’s leaders would be wrong to ignore it. With the leadership of the Women’s Faculty Forum, Yale has long sought to increase female representation throughout its tenured faculty — but that doesn’t change the fact that less than 10 percent of tenured science professors are women. While his response thus far has been appropriately measured, Yale President Richard Levin and his administration should use this time of national attention to initiate a wider conversation on whether Yale does enough to bring women into the sciences. That discussion is the right one for this University, no matter what happens to Larry Summers.