February 19, 2005

Harvard: Dumb, Dumber, and Chicken

The New York Times has done a story and linked to the transcript of Harvard President Lawrence Summers's now much-discussed remarks at a meeting on how to get more women into science.

These are the same remarks over which Summers has dressed himself in sackcloth and ashes, sitting in the dust on the ground outside the city gates, while the howling mob of Harvard faculty, bones through their Bolshevik noses, scream for his head. Forgive the hyperbole, but that's really how it is.

What did Summer say, exactly? Trying, as he said, to be informal and give something more than the institutional line, this university president asked some questions. Not took positions, but asked questions. He outlines his intentions:

The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality. It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it's important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.

I suppose this is subversive to the prevailing "diversity" ideology because it suggests that uneven distribution of social groups in particular occupations is normal, and might not even be a problem. Should New York City adopt a policy to reduce the number of Greeks in the florist business to their proportion in the population? The number of Koreans in the vegetable business? Or Gujaratis with newsstands?

That's an aside. Back to Summers. He outlines three hypotheses as to why women are underrepresented in tenure positions in the hard sciences:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

Note that word: "hypotheses." He's not even saying these are his conclusions. They're just ideas for discussion and testing.

The first idea is that fewer women than men want to work 80 hours a week on their careers, especially if they (gasp!) marry and have children. He offers some anecdotal evidence to support this speculation.

Then he goes on to what really set the hounds to baying. He suggests that the bell curve of abilities in science and math may be higher in the middle and lower at the extremes for women, compared to men. In short, he asks, are there more men truly gifted in these fields than women, and more men who are really dumb in these areas? Remember, he's trying to explain the paucity of women in the very upper reaches of the hard sciences, not high school grades or the gender distribution of lab technicians.

And he goes on to suggest that not every difference between males and females is necessarily the result of socialization. He talks both about various studies and about his own experiences as a father. The suggestion that there are more innate differences between male and female than feminists would like to think is probably what got Summers in deep skatá:

There are two other hypotheses that are all over. One is socialization. Somehow little girls are all socialized towards nursing and little boys are socialized towards building bridges. No doubt there is some truth in that. I would be hesitant about assigning too much weight to that hypothesis for two reasons. First, most of what we've learned from empirical psychology in the last fifteen years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization. We've been astounded by the results of separated twins studies. The confident assertions that autism was a reflection of parental characteristics that were absolutely supported and that people knew from years of observational evidence have now been proven to be wrong. And so, the human mind has a tendency to grab to the socialization hypothesis when you can see it, and it often turns out not to be true. The second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and longer. When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what's happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out.

Maybe right, maybe wrong, but as a topic for discussion and investigation, in a university, aren't the baying hounds a bit hypersensitive?

Summers then goes on to wonder that if many institutions start engaging in deliberate efforts to hire more women in these fields, there is a question whether quality will suffer, giving ammunition to right-wing critics, and secondly, he questions whether women taking time off to raise children affects their ability to keep current with their fields.

Is short, he's talking as someone who would like to bring more women onto hard science faculties, and suggests what might be some obstacles to doing so. Am I missing something, or was this really not a bigoted and heretical speech?

There's a question-and-answer period, with some quite critical but polite questions, and Summers acknowledges that he might be wrong, and there are other factors he hadn't considered, and so on.

Summers said nothing that should have led Nancy Hopkins to walk out afraid she might be sick, as opposed to just saying, "Summers, you've got it wrong, and here's why"?

He had nothing to apologize for. Nothing at all.

Summers could have stood up and said, "This is a university. I put some ideas forward as possibilities, things to discuss and study. Criticize me all you want, mock me, even. But this is a university. Discuss and study issues is what we do. So no, I won't apologize. And you shouldn't ask me to." The apology was a betrayal of the idea of free inquiry in the face of a backlash by the doctrinaire diversity peddlers. Either cowardly or stupid, or both.

Of course, it gets much, much worse.

Two examples will have to suffice. First, the faculty as an organized group took umbrage, and organized a meeting to attack Summers that seems reminiscent of the Chinese cultural revolution:

We turn to Tuesday's Faculty meeting in its place. Slighting norms of civility, certain opportunistic members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have decided to rile the mob and convene the kangaroo court to put Summers--already downtrodden from his unjust beating by the media over the past month--on the hot seat.

That's an article in the Harvard Crimson. These students go on, and I'm going to quote them at length, because there some inside baseball here that most media haven't covered:

If the Faculty wants to challenge Summers on his leadership style, they unquestionably have the right to do so. But to kick him while he's down and use the public vulnerability the incident created to help themselves out is, to be honest, deplorable.

The Faculty meeting was not an impromptu eruption of tensions, but a planned show trial. Rumors and anonymous comments about possible motions to dismiss Summers from the meeting do not spread on their own, and New York Times reporters do not show up at University Hall because they want to see John Harvard. The media should not be a tool to further an agenda on university governance.

Still more disturbing are the sensationalist calls for a vote of no confidence and resignation. Given Summers' apparent support from the Harvard Corporation, he clearly isn't going anywhere. Surely a collection of the most brilliant academics in the world should be able to avoid the temptation to flaunt their credentials in a petty power-trip. Surely they realize that the best course of action for the overall well-being of the University is measured cooperation.

But any loyalty to a higher cause seems to have been lost in a rumble of power dynamics and showmanship. We can't shake the depressing suspicion that the Faculty knows better, but seems keen on leveraging the threat of "no confidence" when they sit down at the bargaining table.

If the solution to addressing grievances is waiting for a national media frenzy to break Summers down before the Faculty is willing to speak, productive discussions will be few and far between.

With job security rivaling that of Supreme Court Justices, tenured professors should have had ample opportunity for considerate criticism of University administration without turning the Faculty Room into Harvard Stadium.

If the goal is to debate increasing their involvement in the decision-making processes of this university in a reasonable manner, the Faculty shouldn't limit itself to the extremes--resignation or revolution--it can't reduce the esteemed University Hall attendees to an intellectual lynch mob, and it certainly shouldn't seek out spectacle by advertising its intentions well in advance. Tuesday was not an emotional reaction; it was well-executed plan, and as such it is inexcusable.

Nasty stuff. And if you go back to the Times piece, up pipes the martyred Cornel West, who left Harvard in a huff when Summers suggested he might do some scholarly work for a change, only to land at that proletarian campus, Princeton. Here's the West bit:

On Thursday, after the transcript was issued, Dr. West volunteered his reaction to the latest imbroglio.

"I've been praying for the brother, hoping he would change," Dr. West said in an interview. "It's clear he hasn't changed, I feel bad for Harvard as an institution and as a great tradition. It was good to see the faculty wake up. The chickens have come home to roost."

This remark, of course, was a deliberate evocation of Malcolm X's remark after the Kennedy assassination, that earned him much notoriety and many denunciations.

A Harvard faculty member, Howard Georgi, is quoted as saying basically that Summers was a heretic, that his suggestions that golly, there might just be some innate differences was not just mistaken, but pathological:

"What bothers me is the consistent assumption that innate differences rather than socialization is responsible for some of the issues he talks about," said Howard Georgi, a physics professor who has been part of a successful effort in Harvard's physics department to recruit more women for tenured positions.

"It's crazy to think that it's an innate difference," Professor Georgi added. "It's socialization. We've trained young women to be average. We've trained young men to be adventurous."

Maybe Georgi's right and Summers's mere hypothesis was wrong. But "crazy"? Crazy is a world supposedly dedicated to open discussion and thought that even the mention of a possibility or a suggestion for research is deemed heretical and triggers hysteria and a pile-on.

Why in the world would any parent--other than to have their child make connections and gain a credential for purely mercenary purposes--pay tens of thousands of dollars to send a son or a daughter to be indoctrinated by these bigots and fools, not to mention all the other things that make our colleges notorious?

We need to fisk these institutions relentlessly. The mighty have fallen, but neither they nor the public realize it yet.

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