Summers Draws Fire


Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, came under a flurry of criticism recently for comments he delivered regarding women in math and science. Speaking before the National Bureau of Economic Research conference, Summers speculated as to why it was that women were underperforming in the math and science fields. Among the reasons offered, he included the suggestion that innate differences between men and women could account for the discrepancy in the numbers of female mathematicians and scientists.

When confronted by the media about the comments, Summers defended himself by stating that he was merely speculating, not offering a viewpoint he necessarily believed in. After a flurry of calls for his resignation, Summers took a more contrite tone, issuing a public apology. “I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully,” wrote Summers. “Despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science.” Summers also met with female faculty, addressing their concerns and seeking to alleviate the situation.

The debate over whether Summers’ comments were appropriate or not extended beyond the walls of Harvard, with the National Organization of Women calling for his resignation, while op-eds in the New York Times and other media defended his actions as part of academic inquiry. “Summers’ suggestion that women are inferior to men in their ability to excel at math and science is more than an example of personal sexism, it is a clue to why women have not been more fully accepted and integrated into the tenured faculty at Harvard since he has been president,” said National Organization of Women President Kim Gandy in a statement.

Writing in the New York Times, Charles Murray defended Summers, arguing that the “reaction to remarks by Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, about the differences between men and women was yet another sign of …the wholesale denial that certain bodies of scientific knowledge exist.”

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, also defended Summers in the pages of the New York Times, noting that “it seems a shame if we can’t even voice the question” of innate gender differences.

The criticism leveled at Summers comes at an inopportune time for the Harvard president, who has also been criticized for the declining number of senior female faculty at the University.