The Magazine

Summers's End

Too bad Harvard's president wouldn't take his own side in a quarrel.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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In 2005, almost 40 years after Harvard College began admitting women, after women have risen to head several Ivy League universities, to lead major corporations, to serve as governors and as secretary of state, understanding why women continue to be represented less well in some fields than others, and generally underrepresented at the top of many fields, is a complicated project. In undertaking it, any sensible person would inquire, as did Summers, into the actual choices women make, the sexes' natural aptitudes and socialized differences, and overt discrimination. To denounce the very outlining of the essential features of such an inquiry is anti-intellectual in the extreme. Alas, Summers's decision to acquiesce in the denunciation and to serve up one apology after another not only legitimated but also emboldened the forces of darkness and reaction. And to earmark $50 million (as Summers subsequently did) for the creation of two more task forces to nurture and promote women at Harvard in advance of the very inquiry Summers himself insisted was necessary to determine the roots of the problem rewards intellectual thuggery and provides fabulous incentives for further intimidation of freedom of speech and thought on campus.

Some seasoned observers, both inside and outside Harvard, while distancing themselves from those who attacked Summers for the content of his comments, condemned his lack of prudence in making them. Just as federal judges are prohibited from speaking about pending cases, and CEOs try not to take controversial stands that might anger customers or discomfit employees, so too, it was said, a university president has an obligation to hold his tongue on controversial subjects to avoid offending important constituencies within the university. Or put more simply, a prudent university president would have better understood the limits on speech imposed by the self-appointed enforcers of political correctness.

Prudence indeed must be given its due. And wise men and women understand the limits of propriety and what their audience can bear. But a university president has special responsibilities not shared by federal judges and corporate CEOs. The aim of a university is not impartial interpretation of the law or the making of profit for shareholders but transmitting knowledge and pursuing truth. For Summers, who is also a professor in the economics department, to have accepted the NBER invitation and not mention the possibility of the relevance of natural differences between the sexes, or to have declined the invitation for fear of the fallout from mentioning it, would also have betrayed the principle of free intellectual inquiry.

Other observers maintained that the problem was that Summers spoke beyond his field of scholarly expertise: After all, he is an economist and his comments dealt with the biological bases of behavior. This is even less persuasive. The very idea of a liberal arts college presupposes the possibility and the desirability of scholars and students reaching out across disciplines to integrate knowledge.

In addition, some have denied that Summers's comments were at the center of the storm that ended his presidency. Count Summers among them. After his resignation, he told reporters that the causes of his rift with faculty were complex and they should not be reduced to a single incident. No doubt. But one of his leading critics, sociology professor Mary Waters, maintains the comments provided a strategic opportunity, and she would know. As she told the Boston Globe: "When the news about his speech on women broke, people began talking to each other, and they began to realize how widespread his behavior was. Sharing information increased everyone's disapproval."

It was never a secret that Summers is socially clumsy and does not suffer fools gladly. And it was clear that he had alienated various parts of the faculty by telling star African-American studies professor Cornel West in a private conversation that West should devote more time to scholarship and should cooperate in the faculty-wide effort to combat grade inflation; by expressing his support for ROTC; by speaking in favor of patriotism; and by defending Israel against selective and one-sided criticism. But it was his comments about women in the sciences he delivered in a collegial setting, in an effort to explore ways to improve women's representation at the university, that became the public symbol of the rift between Summers and the faculty. And it is his handling of that affair that will be longest remembered and have the largest impact.

What should Summers have done? From the beginning he should have stuck to his guns, and failing that, he should have come to his senses after summer vacation last year and uttered words similar to those supplied by attorney Harvey Silverglate, writing in the Boston Phoenix two days after Summers's resignation: