Harvard commits $50 million for women's programs

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BOSTON -- Facing unrelenting criticism over his comments that women may be innately less adept at top-level science than men, Harvard president Lawrence Summers pledged last winter to "turn heat into light" -- using the controversy as a springboard for changing the gender culture at the nation's most famous university.

On Monday, he tried to back up those words.

Summers committed his school to spending $50 million on a range of programs over the next decade -- from mentoring to child care to safe, late-night transport -- that were recommended by two task forces he appointed at the height of the crisis.

"Universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men and for men," Summers said. "To fully succeed on these issues we're going to have to address issues of culture."

Some, however, questioned whether the steps put Harvard at the forefront of gender equity or were just a belated attempt to catch up.

The committees, set up just three months ago, compiled their recommendations quickly by academic standards, and Summers said some will take time to get up and running. But he committed to starting others immediately, such as hiring a new senior administrator to oversee faculty diversity efforts.

The $50 million commitment represents "earnest money" for the most pressing issues, said Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one of the task forces' leaders. Summers said there could be more later.

The recommendations range from better advising for students, to earmarking money for development of a more diverse faculty, to requiring graduate students in the sciences to be instructed on gender bias before they are given teaching assignments.

"I guess the question is, 'Is there really going to be some meat to this or is it all window-dressing?"' said Mary Waters, the chair of Harvard's sociology department and an outspoken critic of Summers.

Summers, however, insisted he was committed to changing Harvard's culture with the help of a range of programs. He called Harvard's hiring record for women "unacceptable" -- women represent fewer than a fifth of tenured faculty in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the central body of the university.

Candidates are put forward for tenure by their departments.

At a conference in January at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Summers said that innate differences in ability between the genders may partly explain why fewer women are in the pipeline for top science jobs.

Summers apologized repeatedly for his remarks, and appointed the two task forces -- one on women at Harvard, one on women in science more generally -- though many academics, alumni and students defended him.

On Harvard's campus in Cambridge, the controversy became part of a more general debate about Summers' leadership style, which supporters call bold but critics say is blunt and imperious. The arts and sciences faculty passed a symbolic no-confidence vote in Summers' leadership in March.

One task force recommendation is that funding should be provided for departments to hire outstanding scholars even if there is no departmental opening. But Harvard officials denied that would mean pursuing substandard "affirmative action hires."

Harvard officials described the recommendations as touching on the pipeline of scientific talent at various points along the way -- from undergraduate research to mentoring for graduate students and junior faculty -- and said their implementation would benefit the entire university, not just women.

But one outside observer said Harvard remains far from path-breaking on the topic of nurturing women scientists and faculty generally.

"Mostly I see it as catching up," said Elizabeth Ivey, former president of the University of Hartford and president of the Association for Women in Science. "Much of what they're talking about has been done at other institutions for 30 or 40 years."

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