Summers storm still raging at Harvard

February 25, 2005

The uproar following Harvard University's president Lawrence Summers'

comment at an academic conference that "issues of intrinsic aptitude" may account for the fact that fewer women than men succeed in maths and science shows no sign of dying down.

Despite his apology, a major feminist group, the National Organization for Women, has demanded that he step down. Now two critical books question Mr Summers' capacity to lead the institution and claim that although it is hard to get into Harvard, it is also easy to get out without learning anything.

Faculty pressure has mounted, and while calls for Mr Summers' resignation were initially considered overly dramatic, they have become more serious. A faculty vote of no confidence has been threatened, although some 70 professors have signed a petition in his support and university trustees have announced that the president has their confidence.

For 90 minutes last week, Mr Summers faced 250 mostly critical faculty members. Mr Summers apologised for the comments for at least the second time. He said: "I may be all wrong (but) I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields."

Faculty unhappiness forced Mr Summers, already under criticism for his record of promoting women very slowly, to release the transcript of remarks he made on January 14 at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He had initially refused to provide the transcript.

"It does appear that for many, many different human attributes - height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability - there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means, which can be debated, there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population," he told the conference, according to the document.

Mr Summers "ignores the impediments to women's progress posed by long-standing patterns of prejudice, unwelcoming environments and unequal resources", Harvard psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke said.

The two critical books by alumni are the next hurdle for Mr Summers, an economist by training and a former US Secretary of the Treasury. Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class , by recent graduate Ross Gregory Douthat, says intellectual rigour is eclipsed at the university by personal ambition and political correctness.

In Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University , Richard Bradley, former executive editor of George magazine, argues that under the former Treasury Secretary the university's undergraduate curriculum has been weakened, the faculty have concentrated on their own careers rather than mentoring students, and the university has surrendered to external political and economic forces.

Mr Bradley's book was written despite official opposition from the university, and it blames Mr Summers for at least ignoring, and at worst creating, the problems that the institution faces.

Features, page 20

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