Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Harvard President Criticized for Remarks on Women, Not on Israel

March 25, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Is Harvard President Lawrence Summers being hounded because of his criticism of Israel-bashers? That’s the question Professor Alan Dershowitz asks in his analysis of the uproar surrounding Summers’ comments about women in the sciences. And the answer to this question is a resounding “no.”

In attacking Summers’ critics as enemies of free speech and Israel, Dershowitz misrepresents the breadth of concerns expressed by a large number of Harvard faculty, avoids key intellectual issues and trivializes the problems of women in science.

In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, only 13 of 164 tenured faculty in science are women, and tenured offers to women in all fields have plummeted in recent years. For someone who usually defends minorities, Dershowitz’s stance is a most surprising one.

In debating the situation, it’s important to stick to the facts. A broad cross-section, or over 60 percent, of more than 420 Harvard faculty members at a recent meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to express concern about Summers’ remarks on women in science.

Dershowitz notes that Professor J. Lorand Matory, who criticized Summers and put forward a “lack-of-confidence” motion, was a signatory to a petition calling Harvard to divest from Israel — but only a very small number of Summers’ faculty critics signed the divestment petition.

The vast majority of those who have expressed concerns about Summers’ leadership or “regrets” about his statements on women in science were not signatories to the divestment petition. In fact, many — including one of the authors of this op-ed — signed anti-boycott petitions expressing support for Israel and for Israeli scholars.

To attribute criticism of Summers to anti-Israel sentiments or to anti-Semitic roots sidelines honest debate, focuses attention on the wrong issues and does a disservice to Israel and American Jewry.

Dershowitz minimizes the inaccuracy of Summers’ claim that a lack of “aptitude at the high end” most convincingly explains the under-representation of women in science and engineering faculties, and he downplays the force with which the claim was delivered.

In arguing his case, Summers ignored a large body of research. The issue is not whether there are genetic differences between men and women, which obviously there are; the key question is whether those differences are the most crucial part of the causal chain leading to the under-representation of women on university science and engineering faculties.

At this moment, there is absolutely no evidence to make that case. Because socialization starts in infancy, it is not possible to attribute test results at 12 or 18 years of age to biological differences alone.

Much more research is required to understand the relationship between genetic differences and cognitive differences, as well as the development of the capacities required to be a leading research scientist. Available research speaks to the multiple and subtle ways in which environment affects gene expression and socialization influences cognitive development.

The criticism is not that Summers expressed an opinion that was “unpopular” with his audience, but that his opinion was knowably incorrect. Summers himself has subsequently acknowledged that he was inattentive to, or ignorant of, “what the research has established.”

The underlying question is not about freedom of expression, but about responsibility and judgment. University presidents are no less free than students and faculty to express opinions, but they must be mindful of the much greater influence their opinions can have.

When a university president voices an opinion that is poorly argued and ignores a vast body of relevant research — especially when the university in question is an institution known to have high scholarly standards and is home to many of the world’s most talented students and faculty — then that opinion can spread misleading conclusions around the globe.

With the vastly wider audience and far greater potential for impact available to a university president comes a responsibility to check the facts, consider all sides of an issue and craft statements with care.

Certainly, a university president may utter opinions that are controversial and unpopular; indeed, university presidents can help push not only their institutions but also the world in better directions. Provocative opinions, however, must be well supported by the facts.

We are saddened that a number of Summers’ defenders, Dershowitz among them, have resorted to personal attacks and vilification of critics rather than focusing on their ideas and concerns. The ideals of the university urge everyone toward a higher form of discourse — focusing on ideas, facts and well-reasoned arguments rather than name-calling.

Each of us is spending significant time this semester working on one of the task forces Summers established to improve the situation for female faculty and students at Harvard. We are paying particular attention to strategies aimed at strengthening the “pipeline” of women in science and engineering to create future candidates for faculty positions.

These task forces are looking forward, drawing on proven models from other institutions and proposing programs and policies that will strengthen Harvard by making it a better place for female faculty and students, in the sciences but also more broadly.

Summers himself has called for the attacks on his critics to stop. It’s time to focus our energies on fighting prejudice where it really exists, making scientific careers more attractive for all and transforming Harvard into an exemplary university that combines scholarly and pedagogical excellence with faculty and student diversity.

The historic demand for equal access is a Jewish legacy to American universities of which we are very proud.

(Barbara J. Grosz, a computer scientist, is Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at Harvard and Dean of Science at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. She also has been a visiting professor at Hebrew University and has had ongoing collaborative research projects with Israeli scientists. She is chairing Harvard’s task force on women in science and engineering. Lizabeth Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, is a member of the university’s task force on women faculty.)

Recommended from JTA