BY MITCH WEBBER
1. No matter what your politics, you have to admire the nerve of the National Organization for Women. For years, NOW spoke out against the most misogynistic regime on Earth, calling on the United States to overthrow the Taliban. Then, just days after Sept. 11, NOW reversed its position, insisting that America respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and refrain from retaliation. It was an astonishing confirmation of many conservatives’ belief that feminist groups are often more interested in political posturing than in honestly addressing women’s rights and equality issues.
Two weeks ago, NOW revealed itself once again. Days after Harvard president Lawrence Summers said that there might – might! – exist innate differences between men and women, impacting our math and science aptitude, NOW president Kim Gandy wrote, “Summers must go, and Harvard must start with a clean slate.” Gandy was not alone. Right here at Harvard, professors signed petitions, students passed resolutions, and alumni threatened to cut off donations. Outside campus borders, though, a consensus of scientists and journalists has formed in Summers’s defense, endorsing both his underlying assertion – that more research needs to be done – and his prerogative to assert it. The New York Times has published two pro-Summers op-eds, and none in opposition. (A good rule of thumb for liberal activists: when your views are too extreme to air in The New York Times’s opinion page, you’ve really gone off the deep end.) NOW, though, remains stubbornly committed to ousting Summers, which – credit where credit is due – takes a lot of nerve.
2. A brief synopsis of events: On January 14, Summers spoke at a National Bureau for Economic Research conference about female under-representation in university math and science departments. He proposed three possible explanations for the disparity. First, Summers said that women might be more committed than men to their families, so that some women are unwilling to devote the hours required in pursuit of tenured faculty positions. Second, Summers insisted that discriminatory hiring practices remains a very real problem. Finally, Summers wondered if genetics might account for an aptitude gap, minor but noticeable on the margins. He pointed out that some studies have already been done, such as those presented at the conference, but said that more research is certainly required. Midway through Summers’s lecture, MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins rose to leave, explaining later that had she stayed in the room, she would have either “blacked out or thrown up … that kind of bias makes me physically ill.” As George Will quipped, behaving like a Victorian maiden with a case of the vapors may not be the best strategy for combating perceived gender bias.
3. Hopkins’s hyperbole aside, sensitivity to Summers’s remarks is certainly in order. When we hear genetics, some of our first thoughts are of eugenics and physiognomy. More generally, junk science and pseudo-technical lingo have been used throughout history to justify discriminatory programs and attitudes.
But Summers emphatically rejected differential treatment (except in the form of affirmative action-type hiring programs). The conference coordinators specifically asked Summers to speak provocatively, and all he noted was that genetic differences have been advanced as one possible explanation – note: not rationalization – for a lower rate of women to men in science and math positions than in humanities and social science departments. Discrimination, Summers emphasized, remains a more credible explanation. (In NOW’s press release, Kim Gandy asked, “How can [women at Harvard] trust that Summers is committed to equality for women when he doesn’t seem to believe that discrimination exists?”)
4. Let’s put these proposals in perspective. Even if Summers had endorsed the genetics argument (he didn’t), it wouldn’t be all that radical.
Two decades ago, Harvard’s Professor Carol Gilligan emerged as a feminist darling for suggesting that men think in terms of cold impersonal logic (think: calculus, physics), whereas women’s thinking is more “relational” (think: sociology). Male morality is “justice oriented”; females are all about caring and sharing.
Two weeks ago, Summers suggested that maybe – but hopefully not (“I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”) – genetic differences between the sexes make one gender, taken as a whole, marginally better suited to the study of math and the sciences.
So why the uproar? Why do women’s groups embrace Gilligan but abhor Summers? Summers proposed that exact same line of thought as Gilligan, only the object of his cognitive speculations leads to fewer women professors, whereas Gilligan sought to aggrandize women for their warmer, more humane mode of thinking.
Summers’ sin was to acknowledge certain politically suspect studies, even while all but disavowing their findings! The same people who rightfully abhor the religious right’s campaign to interject Creationism into biology classes would now silence any scientific investigation that could potentially reach a politically undesirable finding. As Charles Murray wrote in the Times, “Against the cost of the new knowledge is the far greater cost of obliviousness, which can lead us to pursue policies that try to make society conform to expectations that conflict with what human beings really are.”
5. But I leave it to others to comment on the strength of studies into genetic gender discrepancies. A more immediate concern is the sense that, despite its shrillness, NOW unintentionally makes a good point. Larry Summers should resign.
The modern American university president is a glorified fundraiser, and the best way to make money is never to spark controversy, never to incite controversy, never to offend anyone. The university president is expected to do what no thoughtful, curious person can possibly do – please everyone all the time.
Since arriving at Harvard, Summers has made national headlines three times. First, he questioned Cornel West’s questionable scholarship. Next, he spoke out publicly against an anti-Semitic divestment campaign. And a few weeks ago, he asked economists and scientists to consider – and debunk – genetic evidence that men and women sometimes think in ways that are not perfectly identical. These positions are little more than intuitive, let alone intelligent. But the one form of radicalism elite universities will never tolerate is a reliance on common sense.
Summers is a highly-regarded economist and a curious thinker. He cares about ideas and education more than he cares about what he was hired to do – namely, to mindlessly increase Harvard’s already obscene endowment.
It’s time for Summers to leave Harvard and find an institution that values dispassionate intellectual inquiry.
Mitch Webber is a 2L who does not believe there are any innate differences between men and women.