BOSTON AND CHICAGO – In the two weeks since Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggested that innate differences between the sexes may partly account for male dominance in science and math, the ensuing frenzy of discussion has become a kind of national Rorschach test.
Editorialists excoriate his sexism or applaud his candor. The National Organization for Women has called for his resignation. Academics are poring over studies that deal with nature, nurture, and gender differences.
Dr. Summers’s comments – which he said were intended to provoke discussion about why women were underrepresented in top science posts – have ended up raising an even larger question: Have universities become so steeped in sensitivities that certain topics can’t be openly discussed?
Historically, ivory towers have been society’s bulwarks of free intellectual exploration. But critics say that role is jeopardized on issues ranging from gender and race to religion and the politics of the Middle East.
"I could give example after example where speech that is considered offensive by any particular group that has a disproportionate amount of power on the campus is subject to censorship and repression," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties organization that works on college campuses. "It gives the most sensitive person the veto power on debate and discussion."
Many disagree with that assessment. But the Summers flap has revived a longstanding debate on the subject – often waged along ideological lines over whether campuses are hostile to those with conservative ideas.
At Columbia University, for example, a different sort of controversy has been brewing about what can and can’t be said. In this case, it’s not an authority figure who’s ruffled feathers, but students. The tensions came to a head this fall when a documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," filmed Jewish students alleging that pro-Palestinian professors, particularly from the school’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), were intimidating them.
In the film, one student who had served in the Israeli Army says a professor asked him how many Palestinians he had killed when he stood up to ask a question.
The charges have angered both students and professors, with both sides waving the banner of academic freedom. Columbia President Lee Bollinger has formed an ad hoc faculty committee to investigate the student complaints, while one professor in MEALAC has likened the situation to a "witch hunt."
While teachers say they feel threatened (one has canceled his most controversial course), the students say theirs is the speech that’s being suppressed – and that the pro-Palestinian professors have crossed a line into unacceptable territory. "I don’t think I can go before class and say something blatantly racist," says Ariel Beery, a Columbia senior who appears in the documentary. "Creating a collegial environment in order to work together is what a university is about."
Others have more sympathy for the professors. The controversy "raises concerns that political disagreement is being conflated with intimidation and harassment," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who calls the student attacks a throwback to the McCarthy era. The fact that the students have so publicly denounced the professors and administration, she says, shows that students are "quite empowered" to express opinions.
The controversies at Harvard and Columbia are, of course, quite different in terms of both the complaints and who’s making them. But both touch on the question of whether academia is increasingly unfriendly to vigorous debate.
Summers’s repeated apologies, in particular, angered many op-ed columnists who felt they were evidence of academic orthodoxy being enforced.
"It would be interesting to know what would have happened if Larry Summers, after the controversy first emerged, had called a press conference and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is what the university is all about,’ and stopped there. I think he would have been a national hero," says Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Murray caused a similar storm a decade ago when he co-wrote "The Bell Curve," suggesting that there might be innate differences among races regarding intelligence.
That idea of inequality, he says, is still one of the biggest taboos. "There’s just a part of the dogma in the university that centers on equality as a good in and of itself, not just equality of outcome, but equality of the raw material. It’s something we didn’t really anticipate when we wrote ‘The Bell Curve.’ "
Evalyn Gates, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, sees it differently. It’s the not that the idea of studying innate differences is so offensive, she says, referring to the Summers’s remarks. Rather it’s that other, larger reasons exist for women’s poor representation in scientific fields – documented gender bias both early on and within academia, and a culture that makes it hard to balance family life and work. Biological nature, she says, is "a red herring" compared to these issues of nurture.
In addition, there’s the issue of who’s making the comments. "If some researcher at a conference says he wants to study this possibility [of gender difference], that’s fine," Dr. Gates says. "But the fact that the president of Harvard has said it I think has done damage."
The charge that universities are intolerant of ideas that clash with the accepted line of thinking has been around at least since the 1960s, and gained traction during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Usually the complaints come from conservatives who consider academia too liberal.
One recent flash point involves bake sales at which items cost different amounts based on a student’s race, used to protest affirmative-action policies, that several universities have banned.
Another hot topic is religion. A question du jour: Do universities have the right to refuse to allow religious clubs to require that members hold certain beliefs?
But demanding free speech, some academics point out, cuts both ways. "On the one hand, professors should be free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry they think academically sound," says Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors’ program on academic freedom and tenure. "But they had best be prepared to deal with the criticism, no matter how acid."
At Harvard, Summers has faced such criticism numerous times since he took the helm in 2001. He’s angered some with remarks ranging from a rebuke of a celebrated black professor to praise of patriotism – a style that some call candor, and other see as evidence that he’s insufficiently aware of the power of his words.
At the recent conference, for instance, he only suggested that gender difference be studied as a possible reason for women’s absence in the sciences. "But the headlines say, ‘Harvard president says men are better at science than women,’ " says Gates, the University of Chicago professor. "That kind of phrase repeated over and over, especially when it reinforces an underlying concept people have already, can be extremely damaging."
Schools: Harvard University