Professors Welcome Release, but Critics Say That Concerns Over Leadership Remain
And professors who called for the transcript’s release welcomed Summers’ move—but are already disputing the substance of his comments.
Summers’ advocates, meanwhile, validated the scholarship behind the claims made in the speech and circulated a petition among the Faculty, asking that they actively affirm their confidence in Summers’ leadership if it comes to a vote at next Tuesday’s meeting.
As of last night, 70 faculty members had signed the petition.
While it was difficult to gauge just how much yesterday’s development will change faculty opinion, one senior professor said that if a vote were held, it appears that the majority of professors would vote “no confidence” in Summers.
“I believe there is a minority of faculty who would support the president entirely. I believe there is a majority who don’t. I believe that there is a small group in between that takes a more reasoned view,” said the professor, who asked not to be named.
According to the transcript of Summers’ remarks at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference last month, Summers said that the underrepresentation of women in science is due largely to “issues of intrinsic aptitude” and women’s self-selection out of certain jobs to focus on family obligations.
He downplayed the significance of discrimination in the hiring process and beyond.
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker said that Summers’ interpretation is a valid claim.
“There’s not a hundred percent certainty in any of the claims, but they are reasonable given what we know in the literature,” Pinker said.
But Summers’ critics remain most upset about the president’s dismissal of the discrimination claim, which they say contradicts decades of research and represents a setback in the fight for gender equality.
Summers “ignores the impediments to women’s progress posed by long-standing patterns of prejudice, unwelcoming environments, and unequal resources: factors that have been documented by a wealth of research over many years,” Berkman Professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
Given the scope of the debate over Summers’ ability to lead, the same anonymous professor said the transcript may not change many minds.
“People are going to read these comments and read into them what they want to see,” the professor said.
BENDING TO PRESSURE
Summers’ release of the transcript yesterday came in response to strong Faculty pressure at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting.
According to Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Mahzarin R. Banaji, that pressure made the release of the tape almost inevitable.
“When a demand of this sort is made of the president, it is quite likely that the president will comply in the spirit of free inquiry,” Banaji said.
Faculty who criticized Summers for withholding the transcript said that honest debate about the issues can finally occur.
“We will all read his remarks and evaluate what he said,” said Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies J. Lorand Matory, who sharply criticized Summers at Tuesday’s meeting. “One keeps an open mind about the substance of the remarks today.”
Higgins Professor of Natural Science Barbara J. Grosz, chair of the Task Force on Women in Science, who was one of the first professors at Tuesday’s meeting to call for the release of the transcript, said she was “very glad” about yesterday’s development.
She also approved of Summers’ statement—in a letter accompanying the release of the transcript—that he regrets “the backlash directed against individuals who have taken issue with aspects of what I said.”
But faculty satisfaction with Summers’ actions will not prevent them from debating—and likely severely criticizing—the substance of the speech, both in private and at next Tuesday’s much-anticipated continuation of this week’s Faculty meeting.
“He’s just flat-out wrong when he argues in favor of genetic differences,” said Banaji. “As a psychologist who studies these issues as opposed to someone who merely has opinions, I would say that President Summers has not read the literature.”
Banaji nevertheless said she would not vote “no confidence” in Summers if a vote were held at the meeting.
One senior faculty member said the remarks demonstrated what has been perceived as Summers’ tactless handling of administrative issues.
“The whole thing that comes across is that women can’t hack it,” the professor said. “I’m very surprised that he says it so sweepingly, and I don’t know what he was thinking.”
While some will likely seize on the transcript to further criticize Summers, his defenders—including Pinker—say that the transcript exonerates the president from accusations of prejudice.
Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse said that in addition to clearing Summers’ name, the transcript allows for an indictment of the feminists who have criticized his ideas.
“Clearly, if there was to be any reaction to Larry Summers’ speech, it should have begun with giving him the freedom to present his ideas in the form that he chooses to do so,” she said.
Wisse said that feminists are offended by Summers’ discounting of discrimination as a significant factor in the underrepresentation of women in science because his statements undermine their life’s work attempting to prove that discrimination exists.
While professors concerned with gender issues will continue their attacks on Summers, yesterday’s transcript release will also likely do nothing to silence broader faculty criticisms of Summers’ leadership style.
“I do not think the apology indicates that he has a new administrative style,” Matory said. “By and large, we have on our hands someone who would do a much better job as an economist than as a university president.”
A senior faculty member echoed the idea that leadership is the central issue in the conflict between Summers and the Faculty.
“[The transcript release] doesn’t really get rid of the question of whether he has the good judgement to be an effective president of the university,” the professor said.
—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Sara E. Polsky can be reached at email@example.com.