BY RAFFI MELKONIAN
As a male law student with no discernible skills in either math or science, I admit that I may not be ideally placed to determine whether President Larry Summers’ recent comments on women and their relative absence in scientific academia could be construed as offensive. But I’m going to try anyway, for one reason – this whole episode is making Harvard look even sillier than usual in the public eye, and it would be a shame to let the opportunity pass without saying something about it.
After having carefully read Summers’ recently published remarks, and the criticism he received from people angry with him, two things seem pretty clear. First, Summers doesn’t deserve the firestorm that has surrounded him since his speech, and second, he should probably have known better. I think Summers will survive, but only because he’s shielded by having served in the sainted (around here) President Clinton’s cabinet. Had Summers worked for George H.W. Bush instead, he would almost certainly have been doomed, and his triumphant vanquishers would have seized on his comments as an example of some nefarious conservative agenda to maroon women in their kitchens. Thankfully, we’re spared that episode, but it’s an interesting point to keep in mind.
Getting back to the comments at issue, though, even if delivered nakedly, Summers’ speech wasn’t offensive. Though I certainly understand why people would bristle at the assertion that women are congenitally less numerous at the high range of scientific ability, the corollary to that observation is that there are more really inept men. I don’t think being accused of consistent achievement is uncontroversially offensive, and in any case the claimed offensiveness is so weak that one would expect Harvard University professors to have skins thick enough to withstand such an impotent jab. But Summers didn’t make the troublesome claim as an assertion of fact. Rather, the speech is so littered with caveats that it sounds like it was written by a committee of exceptionally risk-averse transactional lawyers – Summers called his ideas hypotheses, broad, and possibly wrong, even while couching the whole speech in a variety of apologetic language, including an odd discussion of how Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking. I suppose it might be a better world if this kind of open discussion were limited, and only misogynist discrimination were admitted into the realm of explanatory possibilities, but I think that a great university like Harvard should be able to countenance at least the suggestion of alternative theories. For an academic profession which has justly been protecting the right of a truly execrable person like Ward Churchill to call the victims of 9/11 “Little Eichmanns,” the fanatical reaction to Summers’ speech is at best odd, and probably worse.
It might be true, as Richard Posner has recently commented, that even though Summers’ comments weren’t offensive, the President of Harvard shouldn’t allow himself to get distracted from his work to make such plainly tangential hypotheses. To some extent, I think Posner is right. But Summers, like the presidents of all major universities, isn’t just a bright technocrat charged with enlarging the university’s already bulging pockets. This is a country, after all, that elected a university President as national President – albeit almost a century ago. In that context, Summers might have felt an obligation to lead the debate on what is undoubtedly an important issue – the representation of women in a wide range of important careers. But he should have known that a national climate obsessed with inoffensiveness, combined with the Harvard faculty’s apparent anger over his attempts to impose intellectual discipline, would turn anything he said other than the blandest mimicries of conventional wisdom into a club to beat him with. It might not be fair, but he should probably have left the hypothesizing to an expert, or at least someone who had less to lose.
I recently read one commentator who wondered whether the Harvard President might have a mild form of autism. While that sounds pretty implausible, and a bit mean-spirited, I do think he would probably benefit from a quick course in public relations. Sometimes, people are actually out to get you, and the best thing to do is to avoid their clutches. After a rough couple of months for the university in the press, one hopes this is the last debacle we’ll need to deal with for a while. But, as we’ve seen before, you never can tell.
Raffi Melkonian is a 3L with no discernible skills.