Summers’ Words Still Sting

U. of California rescinds speaking invitation for former Harvard president

Under pressure from a group of female professors concerned about gender and racial prejudice, the University of California has rescinded a speaking invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers.

The decision drew criticism from allies of Summers as well as some of his onetime opponents in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Summers had been invited to speak at a dinner hosted on Wednesday by the University of California board of regents, prompting a group of female University of California at Davis professors to draft an online petition, eventually signed by more than 350 people, protesting the choice.

“Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the people of California,” the women wrote in the petition.

In a statement, Summers called the University of California system a “national treasure.”

“I regret missing the chance to discuss issues facing universities with the regents,” he said. “I often participate in discussions of this kind, and find that I always learn a great deal from the exchange of views and am sorry that the regents do not feel the same way.”

The petition’s authors pointed to two controversial incidents of Summers’ tenure as Harvard president, including a 2005 speech in which Summers suggested that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” might partially account for the lack of females in the upper echelons of science and engineering fields.

They also cited Summers’ dispute with former African American studies professor Cornel R. West ’74. West, who is black, left for Princeton after Summers reportedly asked him to focus more on traditional scholarship rather than producing rap CDs.

Richard C. Blum, chairman of the University of California board of regents, spoke with Summers, now the Eliot University professor, last Thursday and rescinded the invitation, according to University of California spokesman Trey Davis.

Susan Kennedy, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, will replace Summers at the event.

Several Harvard professors, including some critics of Summers’ presidency, came to his defense over the weekend after the decision to rescind the invitation was reported.

Judith L. Ryan, who called for a vote of no confidence against Summers in 2006, said that the authors of the petition “have fallen prey to a simplification that became widespread in media reports.”

“It’s not necessary for [Summers] to be able to speak anywhere and everywhere,” Ryan, the Weary professor of German and comparative literature, wrote in an e-mailed statement. “Still, when all is said and done, we should be able to listen to views with which we don’t agree, and to debate them in a civil way.”

Beren Professor of Economics N. Gregory Mankiw, a Summers supporter, called the decision to rescind the invitation “truly despicable.”

“To deny him the opportunity to speak is...academia at its worst,” Mankiw said. “The university should stand for open debate and be willing to listen to differing points of view, especially from someone as prominent as Larry Summers who has reached the pinnacles of academia.”

Maureen Stanton, one of the petition’s organizers and an ecology professor at Davis, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at lholland@fas.harvard.edu.