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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The significance of Lawrence Summers's resignation under fire as president of Harvard University has been widely misunderstood. Oozing sympathy for a beleaguered and aggrieved Harvard faculty, the Boston Globe editorial page argued that because he was "arrogant" and "brusque," in short a "bully," Summers was "losing the ability to be effective" and so it was "sensible," and in the interests of all, for him to step down. A sympathetic editorial in the Washington Post portrayed Summers as a martyr, a foe of "complacencies and prejudices" who was forced to fall on his sword by a "loud and unreasonable" minority. An angry Wall Street Journal editorial, which colorfully decried "a largely left-wing faculty that has about as much intellectual diversity as the Pyongyang parliament," portrayed Summers as a victim whose apology, "in the wake of his 'gender' comments," failed "to placate his liberal critics."

Summers's ouster certainly demonstrates--as Harvard professor Ruth Wisse observed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and as another Harvard dissenter, Alan Dershowitz, argued in the Boston Globe--the power at Harvard of a faction within the faculty of arts and sciences for whom scholarship is politics by other means and who aggressively practice the politics of resentment that they loudly preach. Yet they could not on their own have brought down Summers, whose intellectual credentials as a brilliant economist and whose political credentials as former secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration are impeccable.

Summers's vociferous faculty critics--those who voted no confidence in him last year represent only about 25 percent of the arts and sciences faculty--needed, in the face of their scurrilous attacks, the silence of the vast majority of the rest of the Harvard arts and science faculty as well as the silence of the eight other faculties at Harvard.

Those attacks, and the deafening silence with which the vast majority of Harvard greeted them, followed Summers's comments in January 2005 to a closed-door, off-the-record session of a National Bureau of Economic Research conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce. Summers suggested that one of three "broad hypotheses" that need to be considered to explain and correct the relative dearth of women in science and engineering was the possibility of innate differences in the sexes in their aptitudes for highly abstract thought. Summers's faculty critics demanded that he publicly recant and confess his transgression. Regrettably, Summers obliged by offering public apologies not once, not twice, but no fewer than three times--a fact that some of his supporters regret, and that even his critics could not bring themselves to praise. A certain graciousness he displayed under fire--perhaps he was not such a bully after all--went unnoticed.

It must be emphasized that Summers had no good reason, none whatsoever, for apologizing, and that those of his advisers and members of the Corporation--the small body of seven movers and shakers who run Harvard and who alone have power to hire and fire the university president--who counseled him to do so ill-served him and the university over which he presides. Apologies are appropriate when you have said something inconsiderate, vulgar, or ignorant. Summers's remark was none of these.

It was part of a talk (available here) in which he displayed a subtle appreciation of the problem, a clear sense of his own fallibility, and an eagerness to be corrected by better arguments and more refined data. Summers contended that the most likely reason talented women were underrepresented in sciences and engineering faculties was the choices they made against a career option that involved up to 80 hours a week in the laboratory while in their twenties and thirties, low pay, and the probability of not obtaining job security until age 40. The least likely reason, he thought, was overt discrimination against women. And in the middle were questions about the natural aptitudes of the sexes and about the ways in which girls are socialized differently than boys. He related these questions to data showing that "on many, many different human attributes--height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability--there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means--which can be debated--there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population."