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Harvard president apologizes for his remarks about women in science

Friday, January 21, 2005

BOSTON -- Lawrence Summers' bluntness has earned him both enemies and admirers in several top Treasury Department jobs and now as president of Harvard.

He's rarely been one to apologize for his directness -- until this week. Summers has spent much of the last few days saying sorry following a tumult over comments he made at a conference on women in science.

Summers insists his remarks about possible biological differences in scientific ability between men and women have been misrepresented -- that he wasn't endorsing a position, just stating there is research that suggests such a difference may exist. But his words have sparked wide discussion on Harvard's campus.

In a letter to the Harvard community posted late Wednesday on the university Web site, Summers wrote: "I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully."

Summers said that he hopes he'll be able to participate in academic discussions in the future. "But particularly on sensitive topics, I will speak in ... ways that are much more mindful of my position as president," he said.

Some academics think that's too bad. They say it's important for college presidents to be engaged in debating important issues, and worry this episode will discourage them.

"It's rare that a university president comes and offers provocative ideas," said Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Cambridge research institute that hosted the conference where Summers spoke. "All too often in universities somebody comes and it's like cutting a ribbon, and they mouth some platitudes."

Summers already had a reputation as brilliant but indelicate, and drew attention in 2002 when a prominent black studies professor, Cornel West, left Harvard after a dispute with Summers.

But Freeman and several other participants at last Friday's conference say Summers has been portrayed unfairly. They say he was simply outlining possible reasons why women aren't filling as many top science jobs as men.

"He didn't say anything that people in that room didn't have in their own minds," said Claudia Goldin, another Harvard and NBER economist who attended the conference. Goldin said Summers simply summarized research from papers presented at the conference. "Why can they say them and he can't?"

The short answer -- because Summers is president of Harvard. Summers acknowledged the rules are different for him, and critics say Summers' influential position is precisely why they were so offended.

"We need to be drawing on all of the talent of our population," University of Washington engineering school dean Denise Denton, who confronted Summers about his comments, said in a telephone interview. "The notion that half the population may not be up to the task, even remotely getting that idea out there, especially from the leader of a major university in the United States, that's of concern."

Women comprise a majority of undergraduates in all subjects nationwide, but have lagged in ascending to top university science jobs. The debate over why this is so was renewed at Harvard this year after only a few female scientists were put forward for tenure. Summers said bringing more women into the sciences is a top priority.

But MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who walked out of Summers' talk and said it made her "nauseous," said the president was expressing his own views at the conference -- and setting an unacceptable tone for Harvard.

"(We can't) start to say to young people, 'From the day you get to Harvard University your chances of making to the top aren't very good, because you're a woman,"' said Hopkins, a Harvard alumna.

Summers reiterated to the AP that he "was not expressing convictions" but avoided apologizing for raising the issue at all. "I certainly believe that every subject should be brought to bear in research on vitally important problems," he said.

As Treasury secretary under President Clinton, Summers held the power to move markets with an offhand comment, and was accustomed to having every utterance scrutinized. But in this case, he believed the conference proceedings would remain private. An account was of the meeting was first published in The Boston Globe.

Goldin said it's distressing the comments were leaked.

"Academic conferences are always off the record," she said. "They are places to voice concerns, to provoke, so that you promote further research in areas, to ask your colleagues 'What do you think about this hypothesis?"'

But Summers said, as president of Harvard, he should have known "that some would put more than academic interpretations on my comments, even in a research setting."


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Harvard University: http://www.harvard.edu/


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