PC at Harvard

October 2005

Presented at SAFS AGM, May 14, 2005 at symposium entitled: Controversy at Harvard: Academic Freedom and Sex Differences

Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, spoke at a National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce on January 14, this year. He spoke unofficially and intended to be provocative on “the issue of women’s representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities…” and intended “to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgemental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality” In my view, Summers’ presentation was calm, reasoned, inquisitive, and respectful. I did not detect any signs of an attempt to demean or condescend to women. Obviously, others did.

So what were the ‘hypotheses’ that Summers advanced to provoke his audience to think carefully about what he thought was an important issue. Essentially, Summers discussed three possible reasons for why women were underrepresented in science and engineering at the top universities: First, he offered the high-powered job hypothesis by which he meant that top jobs require long hours and almost total dedication, and that for whatever reason (though probably having to do with family choices), men are more willing to work these long hours than are women.

The second hypothesis concerns his belief that at more than three and a half or four standard deviations above the mean on math or physics or chemistry ability, men outnumber women by about 5 to 1. He refers to this phenomenon as the ‘different availability of aptitude at the high end.” Interestingly, he doesn’t use the words genetic or biological or evolution in the paragraph where he elaborates this second hypothesis, but it is fair to infer that he is implying a natural difference in variances between men and women on relevant abilities. But this is no in-your-face sexist hypothesis.

His third hypothesis refers to possible socialization differences and discrimination. He thinks that while these happen, they are unlikely to be as important as the previous two explanations. His summary statement of his three hypothesis couldn’t be clearer:

“So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong…”

Unfortunately for President Summers, the response he got in the month following his speech was anything but a scholarly consideration of his hypotheses. The person most responsible for igniting the frenzy over Summer’s talk was Professor Nancy Hopkins of MIT, who reported to the Boston Globe that she had to leave his talk “because if she didn’t she would have ‘either blacked out or thrown up…When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill.’” (Goldberg, January 19, 2005).

Six days after his talk, as reported in the Boston Globe (Bombardieri, January 22, 2005), Summers met with Harvard’s Standing Committee on Women who earlier sent him a note saying “his comments serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars” In a phone interview that reporter Marcella Bombardieri had with Summers on January 21, Summers was said to have used the phrase ‘I was wrong’ four times. He said, “I’ve seen the distress that people took from the reports…and I’ve realized that this was a case where the good academic value of challenging and provoking thought just went where it should not have gone…I’ve certainly learned a great deal. I’ve certainly been reminded of what’s most important, which is that we need more women in science and engineering in America and in the world.”

As a result of this meeting with the Standing Committee on Women, two panels were set up. The first “will seek to ensure that women are considered for positions of leadership at Harvard and will consider the use of targeted searches to fill faculty and admini- strative posts.” The second panel “will seek to understand what factors drive the choices of women at all levels who are interested in careers in science and engineering and remove barriers to their success” (Bombardieri, January 22, 2005).

Despite Summers’ several apologies and the announcement of the creation of two panels to help in women recruitment and advancement, the presidents of Princeton (Shirley Tilghman), MIT (Susan Hockfield), and Stanford ( John L. Hennessy) wrote an essay taking Sommers to task: “The question we must ask as a society is not ‘Can women excel in science and engineering…but can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields.’” (Bombardieri, February 12, 2005). Additionally, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Standing Committee on Women sent Summers a letter of censure which was signed also by 100 professors in the Faculty. However, Harvard Corporation, the university’s governing body, gave him a vote of confidence, and thus he gets to keep his job.

I don’t think it is unfair to interpret at least part of the negative reaction to Summers’ remarks as an opportunistic attempt to increase the number of women faculty. For example, a December, 2004 Harvard report “concluded that there was ‘no statistically significant difference’ between men and women on the faculty in measures such as pay and promotion. But the Standing Committee on Women slammed the methodology as ‘crippling to the use of validity of the report.’” Dean Faust responded that Harvard would “look not simply at counting the numbers but also at some of the less tangible, [less] quantifiable issues… to document a campus climate where women felt pressure to be ‘effortlessly perfect’” (Bombardieri, February 12, 2005).

I look forward to the audience discussion period to examine the implications for academic freedom in this story.


  • Bombardieri, M. (2005, January 22). Summers calls for initiative on women. Boston Globe.
  • Bombardieri, M. (2005, February 12). University chiefs chide Summers on remarks. Boston Globe.
  • Goldberg, J. (2005, January 19). What’s sex got to do with science? Don’t ask! National Review Online, posted on
  • Summers, L. (2005, January 14). Remarks at NBER Conference on diversifying the science and engine-ering workforce.