Plan Calls for Task Forces To Tackle Women’s Issues

Proposal calls for appointment of a new administrator for gender diversity

Top University administrators unveiled a broad plan yesterday to boost the number of female scholars on Harvard’s faculty and increase the representation of women in the science and engineering fields.

The plan, outlined by University President Lawrence H. Summers, Provost Steven E. Hyman, and Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study Dean Drew Gilpin Faust in a conference call with The Crimson yesterday, calls on two new Faculty task forces to generate a set of recommendations for the advancement of women at Harvard by May 1.

The plan also calls for the appointment of a new senior administrator—most likely a tenured faculty member—to implement those recommendations. Funding for the new post will come from the University central administration’s budget, Hyman said.

The percentage of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) tenure offers going to female scholars has fallen since Summers took office as Harvard’s president—from 36 percent in 2000-2001 to 13 percent last year. Summers had pledged to reverse the downward trend in female tenure offers even before he drew fire for his suggestion last month that “innate differences” between the sexes could help to explain the lack of female scientists at elite institutions.

But the maelstrom generated by Summers’ remarks has added a heightened sense of urgency to Harvard’s efforts to encourage the advancement of women.

Faust said that “the energy that surrounds this undertaking simply wouldn’t have been there in the middle of January”—that is, before Summers’ speech at an economics conference touched off a media frenzy.

If not for the furor over Summers’ remarks, “the response of the president and the central administration would continue to be slow,” said Professor Evelynn M. Hammonds, who yesterday was named chair of the brand-new Task Force on Women Faculty.

The other task force, chaired by Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences Barbara J. Grosz, will focus on increasing the representation of women at all stages of the science and engineering fields.

Grosz said in an interview last night that she had received assurances from both Summers and Hyman “that they would take our recommendations seriously and they would move forward as quickly as possible.”

“With respect to this set of issues, President Summers has not made that kind of commitment before,” she added.

Grosz has stood at the forefront of University efforts to encourage female graduate students and junior professors in the sciences since 1991, when the FAS Standing Committee on Women—which she chaired—warned in a high-profile report that the rise in the number of women in senior faculty positions would grind to a halt unless Harvard made a concerted effort to attract and retain female scholars.

The Grosz Report’s prediction proved to be eerily prescient.

Grosz said the newly-formed task force would be action-oriented.

“Committees write reports. Task forces solve problems. We’re a task force,” Grosz said.

Both task force chairs pledged that they would take student input into account in forming their recommendations.

Grosz yesterday named Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Howard Georgi and physics concentrator Mariangela Lisanti ’05, president of Women in Science of Harvard-Radcliffe (WISHR), to lead a working group that will formulate plans to encourage female undergraduates in the sciences.

In one proposal discussed by WISHR members, the College would institute an orientation program during freshman week that would help prospective women science concentrators locate research opportunities and Faculty mentors.

But Georgi said in an interview yesterday that Summers’ remarks could discourage women from coming to Harvard in the first place.

“At this point we have a bit of a public relations problem,” he said.

“I’m just hoping that something good will come out of this,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hammonds spoke yesterday at a panel on women in science at Dudley House and she assured graduate students that their voices would be heard.

In an e-mail last night, Hammonds said she would reach out to faculty and students to convince them “that we are not just another committee that will produce a report that no one will read.”

RENAISSANCE WOMAN

Hammonds, who holds tenured posts in two departments—History of Science and African and African American Studies—brings “a unique familiarity with issues facing women faculty in the humanities, the social sciences, and even the sciences,” according to Jones Professor of American Studies Lizabeth Cohen, a member of the Task Force on Women Faculty.

Hammonds holds a physics degree from MIT, and she taught there as the school wrestled with allegations of rampant gender bias among its faculty. She also served on the FAS Standing Committee on Women, which sent a letter to Summers last month blasting him for his comments.

The proposal for a central administration post charged with promoting gender diversity initially came from the Standing Committee, Hyman said.

Hammonds wrote in an e-mail last night that she envisioned the position would be a full-time post filled by a current tenured professor at Harvard, but she said the final decision would be made by the task force, which has yet to hold its first meeting.

FAUST’S BARGAIN

Late last month, Summers asked Faust to take the lead in drafting the University’s new initiative on women. Faust, a historian renowned for her work on the role of women in the 19th-century American South, then scrapped her plans to teach an undergraduate spring semester course, “History 1643: Civil War and Reconstruction.

“I didn’t want to be running into class unprepared,” she said. Lecturer Elisabeth Laskin will assume responsibility for the course.

Faust said it would be “a little bit of a heartbreak” to scale back her teaching. But she recognized that her work on the women’s initiative would take priority.

“This is a moment that really matters,” she said.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.