Harvard leader's remarks stir debate


Published: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 10:51 p.m.
BOSTON - Lawrence Summers' bluntness has earned him both enemies and admirers in several top Treasury Department jobs and now as president of Harvard.
He's rarely been one to apologize for his directness - until this week. Summers has spent much of the last few days saying sorry following a tumult over comments he made at a conference on women in science that he thought were off the record.
Summers insists his remarks about possible biological differences in scientific ability between men and women have been misrepresented - that he wasn't endorsing a position, just stating there is research that suggests such a difference may exist. But his words have sparked wide discussion on Harvard's campus and a string of angry calls and e-mails.
In a letter to the Harvard community posted late Wednesday on the university Web site, Summers wrote: "I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully."
"I was wrong to have spoken in a way that was an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women," he added in what was his third statement expressing contrition since the conference last Friday.
Summers said in a phone interview that he hopes he'll be able to participate in future academic discussions. "But particularly on sensitive topics, I will speak in much less spontaneous ways and in ways that are much more mindful of my position as president," he said.
Some academics think that's too bad. They say it's important for college presidents to be engaged in debating important issues, and worry this episode will discourage them.
"It's rare that a university president comes and offers provocative ideas," said Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard. "All too often in universities somebody comes and it's like cutting a ribbon, and they mouth some platitudes."
Summers already had a reputation as brilliant but indelicate, and drew attention in 2002 when a prominent black studies professor, Cornel West, left Harvard after a dispute with Summers.
But Freeman and several other participants at last Friday's conference say Summers has been portrayed unfairly. They say he was simply outlining possible reasons why women aren't filling as many top science jobs as men.
"He didn't say anything that people in that room didn't have in their own minds," said Claudia Goldin, another Harvard and NBER economist who attended the conference. Goldin said Summers simply summarized research from papers presented at the conference. "Why can they say them and he can't?"
The short answer - because Summers is president of Harvard. Summers acknowledged the rules are different for him, and critics say Summers' influential position is precisely why they were so offended.
However, University of Washington engineering school dean Denise Denton, who confronted Summers about his comments, said in a phone interview, "We need to be drawing on all of the talent of our population. The notion that half the population may not be up to the task, even remotely getting that idea out there, especially from the leader of a major university in the United States, that's of concern."

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