Summers: ‘I Made a Big Mistake’
National Organization of Women calls for Summers to step down
“I made a big mistake, and I was wrong,” Summers said he told the Faculty Standing Committee on Women in a meeting last night.
The mea culpa followed four days of intense media scrutiny and a barrage of criticism from academics who objected to Summers’ comments at an economics symposium one week ago.
The National Organization for Women, one of the nation’s largest women’s advocacy groups, called yesterday for Summers’ resignation.
“For decades, women have been making dramatic advances in science and technology fields while negotiating a minefield of gender stereotypes and obstacles created by ignorance,” Kim Gandy, the group’s president, said in a statement. “It’s time to remove the barriers, and one of them is Lawrence Summers.”
Summers issued a formal apology for his remarks in a letter posted on his website Wednesday night.
“I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragment to talented girls and women,” he said. “As a university president, I consider nothing more important than helping to create an environment, at Harvard and beyond, in which every one of us can pursue our intellectual passions and realize our aspirations to the fullest possible extent.”
Members of the standing committee, many of whom said earlier they were nonplussed by Summers’ apology letter, largely declined to comment as they left their meeting with Summers at the Barker Center last night. In a statement, the committee would say only that the meeting was “frank” and “constructive.”
Summers said he was pleased with the meeting. “I apologized to the group, and we had a constructive discussion of steps that we can take in the future,” he said.
As students hunkered down for the final stretch of exams, word of Summers’ letter moved slowly across campus.
Student leaders of campus women’s groups praised the president’s statement. “That letter seriously puts a huge smile on my face,” said Connie Zong ’05, co-vice president of Women in Science at Harvard Radcliffe.
Still, professors on the standing committee, who sent a highly critical letter to the president on Tuesday, were not assuaged by Summers’ apology to the Harvard community.
“I fear it’s going to take much more than a letter to repair the damage that’s been done,” Kay K. Shelemay, the Watts professor of music, said before last night’s meeting with Summers.
Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88 said Wednesday the letter “doesn’t really change the environment for graduate students who feel their ability has been questioned and for undergraduates who are taking exams.”
But Melissa E.B. Franklin, one of Summers’ most vehement critics this week, who is not a member of the committee, called Summers’ letter “a great step forward.”
“There are probably quite a few members of the Harvard faculty who actually believe that there is an innate difference between girls and boys in science skill,” said Franklin, the Mallinckrodt professor of physics. “Now that this is brought up, maybe all the ensuing discussion will be able to convince those people otherwise.”
The two co-chairs of the Radcliffe Union of Students, Dara F. Goodman ’07 and Giselle B. Schuetz ’07, said they hoped Summers would back his words with concrete actions to bolster the position of female scientists at Harvard.
“I think he made a lot of positive strides,” said Goodman, “but the next step he can take to prove his commitment to women in the sciences is to start tenuring them.”
Schuetz, a history of science concentrator, said that she and many of her friends individually e-mailed Summers to express their frustration with his remarks.
Nancy Hopkins ’64, the MIT biologist who first reported Summers’ comments to the media, said yesterday she was not impressed by the president’s letter.
“One still has to be deeply concerned about what he said on Friday,” Hopkins said. “Unfortunately, there really isn’t yet any convincing evidence that he was misunderstood.”
In his letter on Wednesday, Summers wrote that he “had learned a great deal from all that I have heard in the last few days.”
“The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers,” Summers wrote.
At the request of symposium organizers, Summers delivered a luncheon talk to 50 academics in which he presented several hypotheses to explain the scarcity of female scientists at top universities.
Summers has said that he did not expect the remarks to be published. His spokeswoman, Lucie McNeil, said yesterday she had a recording of the event but would not release it.
Wednesday’s apology came after a letter Summers sent Tuesday night responding to the standing committee in which he wrote that he “had hoped to stimulate research on many interrelated factors that bear on women’s careers in science.”
“I misjudged the impact of my role as a conference participant,” he wrote Tuesday.
The full text of Summers’ letter is available online at www.president.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached email@example.com.