Harvard President Lawrence Summers got into trouble by suggesting that one factor holding woman back in the sciences might be innate biological differences. Now, without any assist from Jesse Jackson, he has agreed to the PC shakedown:
The Harvard University president, Lawrence H. Summers, apologized personally on Thursday to a group of distinguished women professors as he battled to convince the university's faculty of his commitment to diversity after remarks suggesting that women may be innately less able to succeed in math and science careers.
"We cut right to the chase," said Lizabeth Cohen, a history professor who participated in the meeting. "He regrets what he said, and I hope that he will prove that by taking constructive steps. We're going to be in intense discussions with him over the next week."
..."Larry said it was a good meeting," said Lucie McNeil, Dr. Summers's spokeswoman. "He apologized, and then they moved on to a discussion of a variety of steps the university can take to address diversity issues in the coming days."
Other members of the Harvard community said in interviews that Dr. Summers was exploring ways of offering concrete concessions to women - perhaps guarantees of new hiring. But neither Professor Cohen nor Ms. McNeil would confirm such a discussion after the meeting.
OK, good job by the women's advocates - they seized on this political flap to move their agenda to the top of the list, so bully for them. As to what Summers actually said, the AP is quite interesting:
Summers insists his remarks about possible biological differences in scientific ability between men and women have been misrepresented -- that he wasn't endorsing a position, just stating there is research that suggests such a difference may exist. But his words have sparked wide discussion on Harvard's campus and a string of angry calls and e-mails.
In a letter to the Harvard community posted late Wednesday on the university Web site, Summers wrote: ``I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.''
``I was wrong to have spoken in a way that was an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women,'' he added in what was his third statement expressing contrition since the conference last Friday.
Summers, an economist by training, said in a telephone interview that he hopes he'll be able to participate in academic discussions in the future. ``But particularly on sensitive topics, I will speak in much less spontaneous ways and in ways that are much more mindful of my position as president,'' he said.
...Freeman and several other participants at last Friday's conference say Summers has been portrayed unfairly. They say he was simply outlining possible reasons why women aren't filling as many top science jobs as men.
``He didn't say anything that people in that room didn't have in their own minds,'' said Claudia Goldin, another Harvard and NBER economist who attended the conference. Goldin said Summers simply summarized research from papers presented at the conference. ``Why can they say them and he can't?''
The short answer -- because Summers is president of Harvard. Summers acknowledged the rules are different for him, and critics say Summers' influential position is precisely why they were so offended.
``We need to be drawing on all of the talent of our population,'' University of Washington engineering school dean Denise Denton, who confronted Summers about his comments, said in a telephone interview. ``The notion that half the population may not be up to the task, even remotely getting that idea out there, especially from the leader of a major university in the United States, that's of concern.''
Truth is no defense when your critics counter with "Not in front of the children". The public is simply not ready for a discussion of these issues - doesn't Summers understand the role of academia in these debates?
Of course, there is always a backstory:
Women comprise a majority of American undergraduates, but they have lagged in ascending to top university science jobs. The debate over why this is so was renewed at Harvard this year after only a few female scientists were put forward for tenure. Summers said bringing more women into the sciences is a top priority.
If people were already grumbling that too few women had been hired, Summers probably should have known better than to tackle this publicly. Well, he handed his critics a sword.