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Harvard Law vs. Free Inquiry

Dean Martha Minow flunks the test.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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This saga has followed the same dispiriting trajectory as that of the Lawrence Summers affair. In 2005, the then president of Harvard University spoke at a private off-the-record seminar organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research to explore why women, who had made great strides throughout most of higher education, remained significantly underrepresented in sciences and engineering. One of the hypotheses that Summers considered—which he hedged with caveats while insisting that more research was needed—was that fewer women than men were born with the extremely high levels of abstract theoretical intelligence that graduate study of science and engineering requires. Although he explicitly rejected it is as the chief factor, Summers’s tentative discussion proved too much for MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins. She set off a national controversy by walking out of the meeting, informing the Boston Globe that if she hadn’t, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up,” and suggesting that Summers had argued that women were genetically inferior to men.

The controversy presented Summers with an opportunity to instruct Harvard and the larger public about the university’s proper mission. He might have begun by pointing out that he had participated in the meeting because of his devotion to equal treatment for women and had argued that the most important factor explaining women’s underrepresentation in the sciences is probably that many young women with the requisite intellectual gifts rationally choose to go into law, business, or medicine, which allows them to establish careers and begin families in much less time than in the sciences. And he should have concentrated on arguing that it is the special task of the university to expose a range of hypotheses, including unpopular ones, to rigorous analysis.

Instead, Summers issued one groveling apology after another, endorsing his critics’ view that his remarks were false and insensitive. This was to no avail. He lost a no-confidence vote in the faculty of arts and sciences and within a year was ousted from Harvard’s presidency.

It is not to be expected that a third-year law student, publicly accused by her dean of making hurtful, racist comments, would step up to defend herself in light of the university’s proper mission. But it is to be lamented that Dean Minow, who sought to turn the controversy into a teachable moment, taught the wrong lesson.

For Minow, the lesson is that members of the university community must learn to be more sensitive. For fear of offending each other and causing hurt, students and faculty must not mention, even in private correspondence, a proposition that “resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions,” even if the proposition itself—concerning the biological basis of intelligence—can be proven false through empirical investigation. This, though, is an intellectually stultifying obligation. In a complicated world, everything resonates with everything.

Contrary to Dean Minow, our students and faculty need to learn to be less sensitive. Instead, they need to develop the virtues of toleration and intellectual humility. The cultivation of sensitivity sharpens antennae for hurtful words and ideas, and encourages complaining whenever they sting. In contrast, toleration, particularly at universities, means suffering with equanimity the expression of disagreeable, even odious, opinions, provided that they are subject to reasoned analysis. The cultivation of humility fosters respect for others and their opinions and a willingness to follow logic, evidence, and experience—to consider that one might be wrong and to find in others’ errors the occasion for improving one’s own understanding. 

The question of race and IQ is explosive. It has an ugly history, and it has been tied to cruel injustice. But the nefarious use of opinions about the biological basis of intelligence is no reason to denounce a student who advocates submitting competing claims to systematic inquiry.

In her statement to the Harvard Law School community, Dean Minow ought to have proclaimed that free speech on campus is very broad, that it is rooted in the freedom and equality of all human beings, and that its purpose is to protect the robust examination of ideas, including controversial ones, in order that the truth may emerge. She ought to have reminded students and faculty who cherish free inquiry that it is their responsibility to confront views that they deplore with better evidence and stronger arguments.

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