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The Worlds That Started The War

How the president's remarks on women thrust Harvard into the spotlight

By Tina Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

By the time the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) voted that it had no confidence in the leadership of University President Lawrence H. Summers in March 2005, the speech that touched off the crisis had largely become second order.

As allegations of insensitivity and bad facts turned to accusations of poor leadership, it was apparent that Summers’ remarks, delivered at a closed Jan. 14 conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), were the straw that broke the camel’s back.


By his own admission, Summers came to the NBER conference ready to give a speech with “some attempts at provocation” rather than “an institutional talk” on Harvard’s policies. He was there, he said, to discuss “the issue of women’s representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.” Summers presented three hypotheses—predicated in part on research, part on his own observations—to explain the observed underrepresentation of female scientists and engineers at top universities.

First, Summers said, women may be less willing to choose a high-powered job with an intense level of commitment and an 80-hour work week. Summers continued with his second point, saying that there is “relatively clear evidence” that there may be a greater variance between men and women in aptitude areas such as mathematical and scientific ability, which may account for more men rising to top positions in these fields.

The third cause, Summers said, was that there may be cultural norms, expectations, and societal discrimination that leave women at a disadvantage in some areas.

“Somehow little girls are all socialized towards nursing and little boys are socialized towards building bridges,” Summers said. “No doubt there is some truth in that.

Summers said repeatedly that he was “speaking completely descriptively and non-normatively,” and that questions such as whether women ought to be asked to make a choice between work and family were different from the hypotheses he was proposing.

“I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable,” he added.


On Jan. 17, three days after the closed NBER conference, the Boston Globe reported that Summers’ remarks “sparked an uproar” with claims of “innate differences” between men and women. His remarks, the Globe reported, prompted Nancy Hopkins ’64, a chemistry professor at MIT, to leave the meeting in disgust.

Hopkins’ reaction, printed in the Globe, prompted a media frenzy, even though no official record of the talk was available.

“For him to say that ‘aptitude’ is the second most important reason that women don’t get to the top when he leads an institution that is 50 percent women students—that’s profoundly disturbing to me,” Hopkins told The Crimson on Jan. 17 “He shouldn’t admit women to Harvard if he’s going to announce when they come that, ‘hey, we don’t feel that you can make it to the top.’”

University of California-Davis sociologist Kimberlee A. Shauman, whose research with University of Michigan colleague Yu Xie was cited in Summers’ remarks, called Summers’ claims “uninformed,” in an interview with The Crimson that month. And Xie said he accepted Summers’ comments as “scholarly propositions,” although he said his own analysis “goes against Larry’s suggestion that math ability is something innate.”

Ascherman Professor of Economics Richard B. Freeman, who organized and attended the conference, says Summers’ ordering of the various causes was the most controversial aspect of his speech. “My sense would be that most people disagreed with what seemed to be the weighting put on it,” says Freeman. “There seems to be a lot of indicators men have more variance than women,” Freeman says. “I’m not sure that irritated people because it’s largely a fact. Making a big point of it was maybe a bit far-fetched.”

But, Freeman adds, “there is zero evidence of any of this being innate. I’m sure he wished that he said another word,” than “intrinsic aptitude.”

Many academics objected to Summers’ downplay of claims of discrimination which they say disregard decades of research.

In a March panel, several female professors sharply criticized Summers’ arguments, weighing the merit of claims of social prejudices and biases that may impede women from reaching many tenured positions in top universities over those of innate gender differences in the sciences.

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 ’71 wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson in February.

But others cautioned against dismissal of other evidence that may support Summers’ remarks.

“There’s not 100 percent certainty in any of the claims, but they are reasonable given what we know in the literature,” Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, whose book “The Blank Slate” provided some of the basis for Summers’ emphasis on “intrinsic aptitude” in his remarks, said in March.


On Jan. 19, two days after his remarks hit the national newsstands, Summers issued an apology in an open letter to the Harvard community.

“I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women,” he wrote. “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.”

During the next month, tension between the president and the Faculty grew, culminating in a confrontation at the Feb. 15 meeting of the full Faculty, where professors assailed Summers for, among other things, tarnishing Harvard’s public reputation with his controversial remarks.

“We do not fear open give-and-take about anything you might have said,” Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol told Summers at the Faculty meeting, accusing him of “wrapping [himself] in the mantle of academic freedom” in refusing to release the transcript immediately after his remarks sparked a media frenzy.

Two days after the Faculty meeting and over a month after the NBER speech, Summers bowed to faculty pressure and released the transcript of his remarks, along with a letter of apology to the Faculty. “Though my NBER remarks were explicitly speculative, and noted that ‘I may be all wrong,’ I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields,” Summers wrote.

After issuing his apology, Summers also met with female professors and disavowed his earlier suggestion that “intrinsic aptitude” may account for the underrepresentation of women on elite science faculties. But the damage was done.

“Probably the big mistake that was made by the University was in not immediately releasing the transcript,” Freeman says. If Summers had released the transcript earlier, Freeman conjectures, “it would’ve ended all kinds of silly rumors. And the rumors reached all kinds of people.”

By the time the transcript was released, Freeman says, professors already “got into a position where if you didn’t like him and you were attacking him on this, then somehow you were looking for support for your dislike. That was the problem.”


“We didn’t invite Larry as a Harvard president per se,” Freeman said in the days following Summers’ speech. “We invited him because he has an extremely powerful and interesting mind. And I think if we had invited him as Harvard president, he would have given us the same type of babble that university presidents give. And thank God we have a president who doesn’t say that.”

“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,” Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse said in February.

In a Jan. 17 interview with The Crimson, Summers said that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses.”

“Everyone agrees that working toward gender equity is vitally important,” Summers told The Crimson in that interview. He said that universities must address discrimination head-on, but that academics must also engage in “careful, honest, and rigorous research” to understand the factors fueling the underrepresentation of females. “My speculations were intended to contribute to that process,” he said.

But others argue that Summers spoke with the force and weight of the University behind him.

“The notion that Larry Summers’ position should be kept a secret on issues like this—that’s just wrong,” Hopkins told the Crimson that month.

“This is not about academic freedom. It’s about academic responsibility,” Hopkins said in March.

Freeman says that he thinks it was “normal operating procedure” that the academic conference would be conducted privately. “Unfortunately, we didn’t say it at the beginning of the conference. You assume everyone knows that’s the way you do things.”

Freeman says he did not expect Hopkins would be “going to the press instead of yelling at him.”

“That’s what we’re normally used to, we disagree with you, we yell at you,” says Freeman.

“It was a kind of outrage that a woman scientist would walk out of that meeting pretending to be getting sick and giving it out to the press, and a brazen rejection of reason and discussion and scientific inquiry,” says Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53.

Freeman says that there was objection at the meeting beyond Hopkins’ decision to leave.

“There was a lot of objection at the conference. People stood and said you’re totally wrong about this. You’ve got your weights wrong,” says Freeman.

After his remarks, Summers faced harsh questions from conference participants critiquing his conjectures, particularly his emphasis on biology.

“I agree with you, in fact, that it is wrong-headed to just dismiss the biology. But to put too much weight to it is also incredibly wrong-headed,” one member of the audience said.

Some say that, were it not for intense media coverage, Summers’ remarks may never have caused such controversy on campus.

“For a bit, it got out of hand,” says Freeman of the media frenzy. “It became like a little circus.”

In retrospect, Freeman says that he thinks “probably the biggest negative” would be if Summers became more restrained at conferences. “It would be terrible. Because he has a real mind.”

“The best thing would be if people say he’s outspoken and just take it as a given,” says Freeman, adding that, “you could say some of the things he said in a way less provocative way.”

­—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at

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