Friday, February 18, 2005

Summers' tempest continues

Harvard released the transcript of remarks made by President Larry Summers which caused a remarkable, ridiculous and continuing furor leading some faculty now to ask for a nearly unprecedented vote of confidence in the President. The transcript of the remarks is available here.

The remarks cover five single-spaced pages but are well worth reading as it is a remarkably good academic treatment of differences in gender representation overall and particularly in the hard sciences.

The content of his remarks were never really in dispute but its always good to go to the transcripts. Here are the passages that caused poor MIT prof Nancy Hopkins to grow nauseous:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

Intrinsic aptitude, as Summers explained earlier, refers to studies done (Xie & Shauman) where the dispersion of test results in aptitude test was materially greater for men than for women. At the margin, this means could mean a lot:

If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out.

The Wall Street Journal, unsurprisingly, does much better coverage on the latest developments that the New York Times. The Times concentrates heavily on snippets of remarks that are catchy. The Journal, however, does an exceptional job of looking at Summers' overall tenure and his prickly relations with the faculty. It's subscriber only so a few excerpts:

Hired more than three years ago to retool Harvard for the 21st century, the former Treasury secretary has found the hierarchical management style common in corporations and cabinet agencies to be a tough fit for a storied university accustomed to decision making that is decentralized and collegial.
But the gender remarks proved to be only the catalyst that this week ignited a broader assault on Mr. Summers's performance since he took the helm in 2001, a period that has been marked by an unusual number of public rows with the powerful faculty, many of whom have nothing to fear from him because of lifetime tenure guarantees.
[B]attles with Harvard faculty broke out soon after Mr. Summers arrived. His confrontational style marked a sharp departure from that of his predecessor, Mr. Rudenstine, a soft-spoken Renaissance scholar.
Many at Harvard are still bitter that Mr. Summers singled out one of the department's stars, Cornel West, three years ago for a highly unusual presidential scolding of a tenured professor. Among Mr. Summers's issues, according to Prof. West's associates: making a hip-hop record and allegedly missing classes to help with a political campaign. At the time, a person close to Mr. Summers said he was only trying to encourage Prof. West to concentrate on scholarship and teaching. The incident inspired widespread publicity, and Prof. West ultimately left for Princeton University.
[Summers criticized West specifically for not having published a scholarly article in ten years. -ed.]

In the latest of several apologies, the Harvard president said in a letter sent to faculty yesterday that he would have spoken differently if he could "turn back" the clock. "Though my...remarks were explicitly speculative, and noted that 'I may be all wrong,' I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields," he wrote.
Harvey C. Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government, said Mr. Summers has also taken on such issues as grade inflation and the generally liberal leanings of the school's faculty. "He is being attacked for his strengths and not for his defects," Prof. Mansfield said. "The liberals of Harvard lost the election last November. They are taking it out on Larry Summers."
For many reasons, Harvard itself is difficult to govern because it has long had a decentralized power structure, in which the deans of each school within Harvard have unusual power, says Henry Rosovksy, a former dean of Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences. Each dean traditionally controls a share of the school's vast endowment -- or, as many at the school say, "each tub on its own bottom."
[O]ther professors maintain that Mr. Summers's main failing was running afoul of ideas favored by the liberal elite. Mr. Summers, for example, has expressed his support for Reserve Officers' Training Corps, which was banned from Harvard during the Vietnam era. While falling short of calling for a return, that stance has angered gay students because of the military's prohibition of openly gay soldiers.

This looks more like an excuse for revanche at a insurgent and powerful executive whose attack on the status quo is loathed. Thankfully the Harvard Corporation has made public its strong support of Summers. Nonetheless this is a sad defeat for academic freedom at universities and a sad, but not unexpected, sequence of events from my alma mater.

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