Stop Apologizing; The Women Flap at Harvard

It is OK to say women are from Venus

Say you are a clever university president named Larry. You have an old friend, Marty, whose own institute is situated just down the road from you. You have a few problems at your university, and when you get an invitation to hash through them at Marty's, you zip right over. After all, the arguments at Marty's are provocative, intense and factual. There is nothing you love better than such rip-roaring exchanges. Besides, some good may come of it. Anything that is debatable is soluble.

The Larry in this instance is, of course, Larry Summers of Harvard, former US Treasury secretary during the Clinton presidency. Marty is the economist Martin Feldstein of the National Bureau of Economic Research. And the conference, hosted by another economic eminence, Richard Freeman, did not turn out well for Mr Summers. For - as is known by now - one challenge that Mr Summers sought to address was that women today are not winning as many tenured posts in the "hard" sciences, such as advanced maths or physics, as might be expected in the post-feminist era. Another was that more males than females tend to score in the very top range of maths aptitude tests. Mr Summers also touched on the proposition that there might be a genetic difference between men and women when it came to performance in hard sciences.

This last little hypothesis was enough to bring the entire educational establishment down upon Mr Summers' head. A week ago, Mr Summers issued his first apology, and he has been apologising ever since.

The controversy is part of a Larry pattern. While at the Treasury, he angered plenty of people with his handling of the Mexican bail-out of the mid-1990s; he angered others - and apologised - when he charged citizens who supported repeal of inheritance taxes with "selfishness". At Harvard, he infuriated law school teachers by reasserting the president's authority over the choice of dean. Eminent professors departed for other universities after he assailed departments for grade inflation. Yet more outrageous - at least from the point of view of some senior professors - was his requirement that academic stars should do more teaching. His call for a patriotic response from Harvard following the attacks of September 11 2001 angered left-leaning faculty. And now, the woman gaffe.

One might conclude from this record that Mr Summers is too arrogant for his current job title. Controversial arguments are fine when they come from a whizz-kid. And Mr Summers, the nephew of two Nobel Prize winners in economics, was a whizz-kid - an irritatingly high scorer. His doctoral dissertation won him a tenured spot a Harvard before he was 30.

A university president is like a chief executive. There are clearly things he can and cannot say.

But this argument misses the point. The trouble is not that Mr Summers is too self-satisfied. It is that Harvard is. Harvard - and US universities like it - tend to promulgate a set of views - global warming is a crisis; the US is to blame for the world's troubles; governments of developed nations ought to be large; and quotas or some form of affirmative action is required when it comes to the advancement of women and minorities. These same universities often shut out, or look away from, arguments that do not support these beliefs. The result is not "neo-Stalinist" monoliths - novelist Michael Crichton's description of universities in his current bestseller, State of Fear. But it is universities that are boring, provincial, shut in.

Mr Summers was trying to kick open doors - to recapture for Harvard the sense of intellectual possibility that leads to progress. The "woman" controversy is a good example. The fact that more maths prodigies are boys is not even hypothetical; the data have been out there for decades. When tested in hard sciences girls tend to clump in the middle of the statistical range. Boys, by contrast, are more spread out - hitting stellar highs and humiliating lows more frequently.

If, after decades of promoting girls, boys still do better, it is not crazy to wonder whether the difference is hardwired. And since the Harvards of the world tend to take only the tip-top scholars of hard science, it stands to reason they would hire more males than females. As Steven E. Rhoads, the author of a new book* on sex differences points out, to acknowledge this specific hard science difference is not to deny the advance of women in other fields, even those once perceived as patriarchal: the law, medicine.

What is more, this knowledge does not necessarily mean that women physicists will never get tenure. It also does not mean there is no discrimination against women. If statistics dictate that you will never meet a woman Einstein, you may not be able to recognise her when you do meet her. The reality - as most working adults know - is that modern universities and corporations are both sexist and sanctimoniously politically correct. Such are the nuances Mr Summers and colleagues might have been able to work through - if the prissier among them had not walked out and called The Boston Globe.

After all, everyone can agree that if you deny a problem, you ensure that you cannot correct it. In short, places such as Harvard need people such as Mr Summers. Larry: stop apologising.

*Taking Sex Differences Seriously (Encounter Books)

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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