‘The Economist’ on Summers

By on February 28, 2005

There is an outstanding article (link requires subscription) in The Economist summarizing the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard. While acknowledging that faculty discontent with Summers predates his speech that mentioned possible innate gender differences at the high end of the math and science world, the article properly notes the chilling effect of the p.c. backlash. Money quotes:

Reading the transcript…one begins to wonder what kind of examination of female scientists would not offend some people. Mr Summers does not blame anything on anything; instead, he advances—with plenty of caveats and an uncharacteristic dose of humility—three hypotheses. First, that discrimination and social pressure might hold women back; second, that 80-hour-a-week science careers might be harder for women to take on; and third, that the outcome might be related to findings that men tend to be over-represented at the top of science-aptitude tests.

Mr Summers said that out of the three explanations offered, he thought discrimination was probably the least important. This last judgment, even allowing for Mr Summers’s protestations about his lack of expertise, was gauche: after all, in his day job the provocateur has to help decide whom the faculty should hire, and the number of female scientists has gone down. Against that, there is no evidence that Harvard’s president has ever acted in a discriminatory manner. And the firestorm is not about one judgment, but about his right to raise the issue of innate differences at all.

In the end, the debate about Mr Summers comes down to a simple choice. On one side sit short-term expediency and censorship; on the other, freedom of speech and long-term effectiveness. If Mr Summers’s foes manage to sack or gag him, they may have a happier university in the short term. But they will have snuffed out an invigorating source of criticism in a cosy world. And they will also have endangered the fundamental right of an academic to ask questions. This should be enough to make liberal opinion everywhere start gasping for air.

My thoughts on this controversy were perfectly summed up by a FIRE supporter at dinner recently: “If the most powerful single person in academia can’t question mainstream opinion, what message does that send to an individual student?”

Schools: Harvard University