Harvard pres. under fire for comments on women
By Rebekah Rombom, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, January 20, 2005
Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' controversial comments at a conference last week about women in math and science have elicited a swift and fervent response from both male and female academics across the country, including those at Dartmouth.
At a Friday conference entitled, "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities and their S. and E. Careers," Summers made remarks implying that the lower number of females in the sciences could be due to innate differences between the sexes.
In statements that he said were meant to be provocative, Summers suggested that women are often unwilling to commit to the long hours and demanding work schedules required of top academic positions in the sciences. He also cited research showing that late in high school, more males than females have high standardized-test scores in math and science.
Several female professors in attendance at the conference were angered by Summers' comments, and at least one woman walked out midway through his speech. Others, however, thought that Summers was simply attempting to inspire discussion.
Dartmouth's Women in Science Program, which has placed over 1,000 female undergraduates in science-related internships since its inception, was created to address the issues brought forth by Summers' comments.
A public letter expressing disagreement and discontent with Summers' statements was initiated by WISP co-founder Carol Muller and signed by 80 prominent men and women in the sciences.
"As leaders in science, engineering and education, we are concerned with the suggestion that the status quo for women in science and engineering may be natural, inevitable and unrelated to social factors," the letter states.
Dartmouth physics professor Mary Hudson believes that there is no situation in which Summers' remarks could be helpful.
"I just can't imagine the context of the Harvard president's comments at this meeting. It just seems entirely inappropriate for the president of any university to make comments like this that would be perceived to be discouraging to women pursuing the sciences," Hudson said.
Hudson said that while she does not believe comments like Summers' will discourage women from studying or pursuing careers in the sciences, she does think the president's remarks may deter females interested in the sciences from applying to or attending Harvard.
Summers has not retracted his statements but said that he regrets that they may have been misinterpreted. In a letter responding to the Harvard arts and sciences standing committee on women, Summers said, "I apologize for any adverse impact ... on our common efforts to make steady progress in this critical area."
The Harvard president's controversial comments were not transcribed, as the meeting was intended as a forum in which attendants could converse freely about controversial issues. A tape of Summers' remarks does exist, although he denied requests for a copy on the grounds that the conference was off the record, the Boston Globe reported Wednesday. The text of Summers' speech was reportedly not prewritten.
Although Summers' remarks have garnered much criticism, they have certainly provoked discussion on the matter, filling WISP's BlitzMail inboxes with responses.
"At minimum, the controversy focuses attention on the issue that WISP and many others have been working on for a number of years: the under-representation of women and minorities in science, math and engineering," WISP directors said.