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For Bullish Summers, An Unintentional Return to Center of the Ring

News Analysis

By Stephen M. Marks and Lauren A.E. Schuker, Crimson Staff Writerss

Just as the world was forgetting about the reckless bull, University President Lawrence H. Summers is once again walking through broken pieces of china.

It seemed like Summers had finally learned his lesson, moving away from the reputation of being “a bull in a china shop,” as former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 described Summers when West left Harvard three years ago.

Over the last year, Summers had successfully led the University through the initial planning phases for a new campus in Allston without attracting the harsh national scrutiny that has dogged him in the past.

He had even managed—so far—to deflect the gathering storm of criticism about the University’s declining number of female tenure offers under his guidance.

But something cracked on Monday when the Boston Globe reported that Summers, the economist, suggested last week that there may be “innate differences” between the scientific aptitude of men and women.

“I’m going to provoke you,” he told the assembled audience of about 50 at a Friday conference of the National Bureau of Economics Research in Cambridge. Instead, he provoked a far wider audience, ranging from Harvard faculty and undergraduates to science scholars and university administrators across the country.

The outcry followed the Globe article immediately. Yesterday the story was teased off the front page of The New York Times. It’s been picked up by the Drudge Report and the Associated Press. Even Good Morning America wants a piece of the action.

Summers said that his comments were taken out of context by the media.

“I’m extremely surprised and disturbed by the uproar,” he said in an interview with The Crimson yesterday. “I did not intend any public discussion of my speech at all, only to stimulate various kinds of statistical research by putting forth hypotheses.”

Summers said he meant for his remarks to spark academic debate, noting that “there are deep and profound questions regarding the underrepresentation of women in science.”

“I greatly regret all the fall-out that has come out of the way my remarks have been understood particularly because they have been read as suggesting that I believe things that I do not believe,” he added.

But this is hardly the first time, or even the second, that Summers has inadvertently put his foot in his mouth—and subsequently sparked a media frenzy.

Before taking over Harvard’s helm, Summers signed his name to a now-infamous World Bank memo suggesting America should relocate its polluting industries to developing countries in order to boost its national economy. When the internal memo was leaked, Summers quickly earned the wrath of domestic and foreign leaders.

Closer to Cambridge, he also stirred up controversy when his private comments to a professor were made public during his first days in office. Afro-American Studies Professor West reported that Summers “disrespected” him in a meeting, when the president urged him to pursue more scholarly endeavors.

The meeting spiraled into a national blow-up, and West and colleague K. Anthony Appiah soon packed their bags for Princeton.

Summers also chalked up that conflict to miscommunication.

More recently, Summers has drawn fire from faculty over comments denouncing the divestment from Israel movement as anti-Semitic.

And while Summers said that a decade in Washington has taught him to choose his words wisely, at last week’s talk, he caused one female scholar, Nancy Hopkins ’64, to leave the conference feeling physically ill.

“You learned very quickly that the right way to handle things was to speak with restraint,” Summers told The Crimson in 2001 of his time in Washington. “Being provocative and interesting wasn’t always good.”

But “provocative and interesting” was his aim at the conference, and continues to be a hallmark of his leadership style.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at marks@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Lauren A. E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.

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