A suggestion by Harvard University's president, Lawrence H. Summers, that women may not have the same innate abilities in math and science as men has touched off an angry response from many Harvard professors, including members of a committee on women's issues who sent Summers a letter yesterday complaining that his remarks "impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars."
In response, Summers wrote that he did not believe "that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science."
"I apologize for any adverse impact . . . on our common efforts to make steady progress in this critical area," he said in a return letter sent within hours of hearing from the committee.
Summers has emphasized that when he spoke Friday at a conference in Cambridge he was presenting provocative hypotheses based on the research of others, rather than offering his personal views. But the Harvard professors who are upset say that the president of a world-famous university does not have the luxury of speaking as an independent researcher.
"It is obvious that the president of a university never speaks entirely as an individual, especially when that institution is Harvard and when the issue on the table is so highly charged," said the letter from the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Standing Committee on Women.
The Harvard campus was buzzing with reaction to Summers' remarks yesterday, and even as about 50 professors added their name to the committee's letter, some said it didn't go far enough in expressing their anger and disappointment.
Melissa Franklin, a physics professor, said she wished that Harvard had "a president who can add something positive rather than something negative." And while she didn't call for Summers to resign, she said his remarks constituted "a resignable thing."
"The biggest problem with female science students is confidence," Franklin said. "When they are sitting there constantly saying, 'Am I smart enough? Am I smart enough?' it doesn't really help when the president of the university says, 'Maybe you're not.' "
Summers' talk, first reported in the Globe, hit a nerve on campus because there was already widespread concern over the hiring record of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the main body of the university. Each academic year since Summers became president in 2001, the percentage of women offered tenured jobs has declined. In the last academic year, only four of 32 such offers were extended to women.
Summers has said numerous times that he wants to improve that record.
"Your letter is clearly right in suggesting that I misjudged the impact of my role as a conference participant," he said in his reply letter. "I had hoped to stimulate research on the many interrelated factors that bear on women's careers in science. I surely could have done a better job of framing that inquiry."
In his talk Friday at a conference on women and minorities in science and engineering, held at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers listed three possible explanations for the small number of women who excel at elite levels of science and engineering. He said he was deliberately being provocative, as he was asked to do by the organizers, and relying on the scholarship that was assembled for the conference rather than offering his own conclusions.
His first point was that women with children are often unwilling or unable to work 80-hour weeks. His second point was that in math and science tests, more males earn the very top scores, as well as the very bottom scores. He said that while no one knew why, "research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people attributed to socialization" might actually have a biological basis -- and that the issue needed to be studied further.
Several participants said that in making his second point, Summers suggested that women might not have the same "innate ability" or "natural ability" as men.
Summers' third point was about discrimination, and he said it was not clear that discrimination played a significant role in the shortage of women teaching science and engineering at top universities. However, he concluded by emphasizing that Harvard was taking many steps to boost diversity.
Summers' remarks were taped, but he has denied requests for a copy, saying it was a private, off-the-record meeting.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins walked out on Summers' talk, and other participants also said they were offended. Others, however, were not, and one attendee yesterday said she was bewildered by the angry reaction.
"What he said was extremely interesting," said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor who is doing research on women in academia. "As academics, everyone should look under every rock they can find for the answers to difficult problems. Sometimes the rocks are large boulders and sometimes they have scary things under them."
The Standing Committee on Women, which sent the letter yesterday, has about 20 members.
"Your efforts to 'provoke' your audience did not serve our institution well," the letter said. "Indeed, they serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars."
The letter is now being circulated more widely at Harvard to be signed by other professors, whose names will be sent to Summers later this week.
Physics professor Howard Georgi, who is active on the issue of women in academia and is helping to circulate the committee's letter, said he considers Summers a friend and has written him an e-mail expressing disappointment. He also suggested that Summers' "slightly pugnacious style" of speaking may have been partly to blame for the effect of his remarks on conference participants, and said it "could be useful" for Summers to say he would try to moderate that.
Mary C. Waters, chair of the sociology department, said students upset about Summers' remarks have been coming to talk to her. She said his comments left her speechless.
"Has anyone asked if he thinks this about African-Americans, because they are underrepresented at this university? Are Hispanics inferior? Are Asians superior?" she said. "That's the road he's going down and I don't want to see any university go down that road."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.