January 21, 2005

Harvard president raises firestorm

A recent comment by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers regarding possible "innate differences" between men and women that result in fewer women reaching top positions in science and engineering fields has created a flurry of debate and renewed controversy for Summers, who is now in his third year in the top position at Harvard.

What Summers said precisely at the January 14 National Bureau of Economic Research conference (NBER) on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers," is unclear, as the conference was closed and Summers did not prepare written remarks. What is clear is that several women at the conference were offended by comments that Summers made, and they stormed out of the conference in protest.

One of the women offended, Nancy Hopkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described in the Boston Globe feeling physically ill by his remarks.

University of Chicago President Emeritus and Professor of History Emeritus Hanna Gray, also a fellow of the Harvard Corporation, cautioned that it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding Summers's remarks at the NBER conference.

"Nancy Hopkins was offended by what she thought she heard," Gray said. "She walked out instead of questioning Summers."

Gray said that, from conversations with Summers, she did not think that he believed that innate differences between men and women held the latter back from achieving top positions in science and engineering fields, and that there was "clearly a misinterpretation," of what he said.

Summers has issued three public statements in response to the controversy over his remarks, the latest being a letter to the Harvard community posted on his website ( In the letter, he said, "despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science...I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women."

Summers's comments come at a particularly sensitive time for female and aspiring female scientists at Harvard. In each of the three years Summers has held the top spot, the number of women who were granted senior positions has declined. Gray explained this decline in terms of the unique way Harvard hires tenure-track professors. Whereas at the University of Chicago, she said, departments look for the best junior faculty to prepare for tenure track positions, Harvard typically looks outside Cambridge to attract the best in the field. Therefore, junior faculty have historically been overlooked for tenured positions.

In the statement he released on January 19, Summers addressed concerns regarding the number of tenured women professors. "We have recently committed up to $25 million in new funds to avoid budget constraints on the appointment of outstanding scholars from underrepresented groups, including women and minorities...We are actively exploring ways to enhance flexibility and support for faculty trying to balance career and family through such measures as enhanced leave, parental teaching relief, delayed tenure clocks and better childcare options."

Here at the University, administrators and professors are concerned about diversity in the faculty. Steve Klass, vice president and deputy dean of students in the University, described how different departments face issues of diversity.

"Wherever there is under-representation, it's always going to be an area of concern," he said. "There are areas where women are underrepresented."

Klass emphasized the importance of diversity at the University. "Diversity has many faces and facets," he said.

Robert Feffermen, dean of the Physical Sciences Division, said that this issue is constantly being addressed at the University. "We certainly recognize that various groups, including women, are underrepresented in the physical sciences nationwide," Feffermen said. "We are making a serious attempt at addressing this problem."

In the Physical Sciences Divisions, the number of male students far outweighs the number of female students, according to the Registrar's office Spring 2004 "Quarterly Statistical Report."

In the Physical Science Division last year, 74 bachelors degrees were awarded to men compared to 27 for women. Last year, 61 masters degrees were awarded to men; 28 were awarded to women. At the Ph.D. level, 15 men received doctorates compared with four women.

The University, like Harvard, is taking special steps to attract more women to the physical sciences. Feffermen said that there is now a standing committee whose job is "to identify and help to implement those steps that we can take to broaden the diversity of the pool of talented scientists working here as students and faculty scholars."

Back at Harvard, students have mixed responses to the controversy surrounding Summers's remarks. Senior Alex Potapov said Summers's comments were taken out of context.

"I think Harvard is very open to female academics, and things certainly haven't changed for the worse since Summers has been here," Potapov said. "The notion that he is on some sort of anti-woman crusade is outlandish."

However, freshman Jennifer Fauci had a different take.

"It's really disturbing to know that [the] President of the school believes that women, like myself and my friends, have some innate difference in their capabilities to succeed in science and math," she said. "If he feels comfortable saying something so bold and offensive in front of a women's conference, it makes me wonder what he keeps to himself."