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Harvard women's group rips Summers

Page 2 of 2 -- 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.

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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 bombardieri@globe.com. 

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