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Summers Releases Controversial Transcript

By Sara Rimer and Patrick D. Healy



Bowing to intense pressure from his faculty, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers ’75 on Thursday released a transcript of his controversial, closed-door remarks about the shortage of women in the sciences and engineering. The transcript revealed several provocative statements by Summers about the “intrinsic aptitude” of women, the career pressures they face, and discrimination within universities.

Summers’ remarks, which have only been described by others until now, have fueled a widening crisis on campus, with several professors threatening to hold a vote of no confidence on the president next week -- the idea alone being unprecedented at Harvard in modern times.

Among his comments to a conference of economists last month, according to the transcript, Summers -- a former U.S. secretary of the Treasury -- compared the relatively low number of women in the sciences to the numbers of Catholics in investment banking, whites in the National Basketball Association and Jews in farming.

He theorized that a “much higher fraction of married men” than married women are willing to work 80-hour weeks in order to attain “high powered” jobs. And he suggested he believed that, in the sciences and engineering, the innate aptitude of women was a factor behind their low numbers in the field.

“My best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon -- by far -- is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity; that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude; and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination,” Summer said, according to the transcript.

“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 added.

Over and over in the transcript, he makes clear that he may be wrong in his theories, and challenges the researchers to study his propositions.

Several professors said Thursday that they were only more furious after reading his precise remarks in the transcript, interpreting them to mean that Summers believes women are intellectually inferior to men.

But Summers seemed to back away from those theories Thursday in a letter to the faculty released with the 7,000-word transcript. In it, he said he should “have spoken differently on matters so complex” and he said that he had “substantially understated the impact of socialization and discrimination.”

“The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments,” he said in the letter.

The senior member of Harvard’s governing Corporation, James Houghton, released a letter shortly after the transcript was made public, offering praise and support of Summers.

With the timing of the release of the transcript, at 2:15 p.m. on a class day, faculty members were still studying it and trying to digest its meaning on Thursday evening. But some faculty members said they were already drawing the conclusion that Summers believed that innate differences were a significant reason for women’s lack of success in math and science careers.

“What bothers me is the consistent assumption that innate differences rather than socialization is responsible for some of the issues he talks about -- in particular the differences in standard deviations of distributions of various measures,” said Howard Georgi, a physics professor who has been part of a successful effort in Harvard’s physics department to recruit more tenured women.

“It’s crazy to think that it’s an innate difference -- the difference in standard deviation,” Georgi added. “It’s socialization. We’ve trained young women to be average. We’ve trained young men to be adventurous.”