What Larry Summers Said

Bowing to faculty demands, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers on Thursday released a transcript of his controversial remarks on women and science. He did so while releasing yet another apology for those remarks and as the head of the Harvard Corporation released a statement backing Summers.

February 18, 2005

Bowing to faculty demands, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers on Thursday released a transcript of his controversial remarks on women and science. He did so while releasing yet another apology for those remarks and as the head of the Harvard Corporation released a statement backing Summers.

In his apology, Summers said that he had resisted releasing the transcript because he "was reluctant to reopen wounds." But he said he wanted to be "responsive" to faculty members who said at a contentious faculty meeting Tuesday that they needed to know exactly what he said.

According to the transcript, Summers does in fact suggest that one reason there are relatively few women in top positions in science may be "issues of intrinsic aptitude." And while he acknowledges that discrimination exists, he generally plays it down as a factor.

At the same time, the transcript backs up Summers's statements after the controversy broke that he was suggesting theories, not asserting definitive answers. "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," he said.

The remarks were made at a small seminar on January 14. When The Boston Globe reported on the remarks -- and the anger of some women who heard them -- the comments became the focus of an international debate. This month, in a highly unusual move, the presidents of MIT, Princeton and Stanford released a statement rejecting the views Summers put forward.

Summers opened his remarks by saying that he had been asked to be provocative, and he noted that women in science are not the only group "whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group." For example, he said that statistics would reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture."

Turning to the issue of women in science, he said that he believed that the most important reason for the gender gap was the same reason fewer women fill top positions in many "high-powered" professions: They are less likely than men to work the long hours expected for advancement in these careers. He noted that the women who are in senior positions are "disproportionately either unmarried or without children."

Noting the long hours of work required to move ahead, he said, "It is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women."

He said that noting these differences raises the question of whether organizations are making appropriate demands on people. But, he said, "It is impossible to look at this pattern and look at its pervasiveness and not conclude that something of the sort that I am describing has to be of significant importance."

On the question of aptitude for science, Summers said this: "It does appear that on many, many different human attributes -- height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability -- there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means -- which can be debated -- there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top 25 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."

Also, citing examples from research and from his own parenting, Summers said that  "there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization."

As for discrimination, he was far more skeptical -- applying economic theory to make his point. "If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap."

In the apology he issued Thursday, Summers sought to distance himself from the remarks he made last month. "My January remarks substantially understated the impact of socialization and discrimination, including implicit attitudes -- patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject," he said. "The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments, and my remarks about variability went beyond what the research has established."

He also used the apology to say that he was upset to hear that some faculty members said that they were afraid to criticize him -- on the current gender debate, or generally. "In this university, people who disagree with me -- or with anyone else - should and must feel free to say so," he said.

Some faculty members have also criticized the failure of the Harvard Corporation -- the top governing body at the university -- to say anything about the controversy, until Thursday.

The statement came from James R. Houghton, the senior member of the Harvard Corporation and the CEO of Corning Inc. Houghton said that corporation members have spoken with Summers "at length" about his January statement and "know that he genuinely and deeply regrets having spoken as he did, and that he is strongly committed, as we are, to Harvard's pursuit of focused institutional approaches to advancing opportunities for women in science and also in academic life more broadly."

Houghton went on to say that the corporation was "confident of his ability to work constructively with the faculty and others to advance the goal that all of us share -- ensuring that Harvard's academic programs are as good as they can be, and that our community of faculty, students and staff is as strong as it can be, now and in the future. We fully support him in that effort, and we know how devoted he is to its success."

Faculty reactions to the transcript have been mixed, according to an article in today's Boston Globe. Professors widely praised Summers for releasing the transcript. But the substance of the transcript reassured some and dismayed others, the Globe said.

The newspaper quoted Steven Pinker, a psychology professor, as saying that the Summers talk was "masterly" and that "All his claims were well supported in the scientific literature."

But the Globe quoted Elizabeth Spelke, another psychology professor, as saying: "I disagree point for point. There is not a shred of evidence for the biological factor, based both on my own research and my reading of other people's research."


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