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Harvard Creates Task Forces For Recruiting Female Faculty

By Sam Dillon and Sara Rimer

The New York Times -- The president of Harvard, moving to counter widespread criticism of his comments last month on women’s science capabilities, announced initiatives Thursday to improve the status of women on the faculty, including a commitment to create a senior recruiting post.

The president, Lawrence H. Summers ‘75, appointed two task forces, one on women faculty and one on women in science and engineering, and charged them with developing recommendations on how to recruit, support and promote women more effectively. The committees are to complete their work by May 1 so that the university can act on their recommendations by the fall term.

In an interview, Summers declined to say how many new women the university might hire as professors in the short term, or how much the initiatives would cost. But in a public statement announcing the measures, he said, “It is time for Harvard to step up and affirm in strong and concrete terms its commitment to the advancement and support of women pursuing academic careers.”

Summers’ actions Thursday echoed his handling of the outcry that followed his dispute in 2001 with Cornel West, a prominent member of Harvard’s African-American studies department. At that time, Summers publicly affirmed his commitment to affirmative action, and Harvard later created several new positions in that department.

Barbara Grosz, the dean of science at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study who has long been active on women’s issues at Harvard, was named to head the task force on women in science and engineering.

She said she had accepted the leadership post only after receiving “assurances from the president and the provost that our recommendations were going to be taken seriously and that they were willing to act immediately on the suggestions.”

“There is now an opportunity that didn’t exist before, and I am willing to put effort into grabbing that opportunity and doing what I can to see that the changes at Harvard get made,” Grosz said.

The chairwoman of the other task force, on women faculty, is Evelynn Hammonds, a professor of the history of science and of African and African-American studies. Altogether, Summers named 27 professors and senior administrators -- 22 women and five men -- to participate in the two task forces.

Summers’ announcement came as his remarks suggesting that innate gender differences might explain the lack of women in math and science careers continued to stir international news coverage and controversy.

Scientists, feminists and hundreds of members of his own faculty have criticized Summers for seeming to ignore years of research showing that societal and cultural obstacles, including discrimination at universities, are the most significant impairment to women’s advancement in academic math and science careers.

A smaller number of people, including some prominent conservatives, have praised Summers for what they call his defiance of political correctness. Summers has apologized repeatedly for his remarks, which were made on Jan. 14 at an academic conference in Cambridge and were intended to be off the record. He has said his remarks were misconstrued, but he has declined to release a tape recording of them.

Harvard’s announcement Thursday referred only obliquely to the outpouring of criticism: “Recent public discussion about women and science has brought renewed attention to long-standing issues concerning the representation of women in the faculty,” the statement said.

Several prominent women professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been expressing their concerns since June over the sharp decline in offers of tenured professorships to women during Summers’ tenure.

While Summers said publicly that he took the decline seriously and would take steps to remedy it, many of the women professors have said they were skeptical of his commitment. At a meeting in October, some 50 women professors presented Summers and William Kirby, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, with proposals to improve the number and status of women professors, including the appointment of a dean of faculty diversity within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“The task force on women faculty will be charged with making recommendations for a series of specific institutional measures -- including the creation of a new, senior position at the center of the university -- to strengthen the recruitment, support and advancement of outstanding women faculty,” the Thursday statement said.