Makin’ Some Harvard Lemonade

By on March 8, 2005

As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It looks like Harvard President Larry Summers is trying hard to do just that with the lemons being pelted at him after making what some believe are pretty sour remarks about the possibility that innate gender differences explain the lack of women in the field of science.

While at the Alumni of Color Conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) this weekend, I got the vibe on campus that the anger is not just over what Summers said, but his having said it in light of the historical context of the campus. This context includes strong institutional traditions’ preventing a more innovative and democratic faculty hiring process combined with rising frustrations that the administration has not sufficiently addressed the importance of developing clear ways of increasing and maintaining faculty diversity. While president of the HGSE student government, I wrote about this very issue last year. I noted that a lack of diverse viewpoints are linked to a lack of faculty diversity—and how this can lead to a less diverse student body as well.

When I came back to Philly yesterday, my email inbox greeted me with a message from Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean William C. Kirby—a welcome message after I had just experienced first-hand the buzz that Summers’ comments have brought about on campus and I had wondered what, if anything, would be done to alleviate the concerns recently voiced by faculty and students about creating real change in the campus culture. (See my previous post on the student activism this controversy sparked.)

Dean Kirby wrote that President Summers “has announced the formation of two task forces, one focused on women in science and engineering, the other focused on broader issues affecting all women faculty, and has asked that they develop concrete proposals and recommendations that can be acted upon in the coming months.” Though I am skeptical about the power “task forces” have to significantly change the centralized, often tedious system of faculty hiring (in particular senior faculty hiring, i.e., giving tenure to professors), at least this is a first step.

Furthermore, Dean Kirby highlighted major issues about “institutional temptation for self-reproduction” and “cultural pressures” that impact faculty hiring and retention—issues that he acknowledges also similarly impact Harvard’s “peer institutions” (such as Columbia).

“Academia has its own long history of discrimination, complacency, and even well-meaning, but insufficiently effective efforts at genuine change,” Dean Kirby also stated. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s encouraging to see that the administration has made an effort to address the potential root causes of sexist cultural practices in faculty hiring on campus.

But, of course, all these efforts make me wonder: If Summers had never made his infamous statements last month, would there be this push to make “genuine change” now?

After all, Harvard can’t make lemonade if no one throws it some lemons.

Schools: Columbia University Harvard University