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Harvard's evolution

HARVARD UNIVERSITY is heeding a call for change. Reports from two task forces say the school should do more to help women and minorities thrive. Harvard plans to invest $50 million to do this essential work.

The task forces -- one on women faculty and one on women in science and engineering -- are part of Harvard's response to the controversy ignited in January when President Lawrence Summers speculated that women might lack an ''intrinsic" aptitude for science. Summers, who has apologized, says he was trying to be provocative. But his comments took a step backward instead of forward. Now, he deserves credit for appointing the task forces, helping to turn the controversy into creative progress.

Harvard's quest for change can double as a quest for excellence. Ask how a campus can do more for women, and the answers can have a resonant echo that makes the school more welcoming to new faculty, new parents, and students and professors in interdisciplinary fields.

The task forces' recommendations are sweeping. A senior vice provost for diversity and professional development would provide needed leadership -- and officials have already decided to create the position. Collecting data on hiring, working environment, and other issues is essential to tracking progress, clearing away misperceptions, and giving junior faculty an additional way to talk to the administration. Extending the tenure clock for women on maternity leave is a simple, effective step. With a deep commitment, Harvard could become a role model for helping women balance work and family.

Under the recommendations, new programs would be created for women and men, including study centers for science courses, an undergraduate summer science program, and mentoring for junior faculty.

These efforts would dovetail with Summers's goal of making sure undergraduates get a solid scientific education, whether they choose to major in physics or English.

The reports call on Harvard to be agile and quick: setting up programs as soon as possible and requiring immediate administrative action. It's a blueprint for swift, positive change that does not sacrifice quality but capitalizes on the campus's heightened awareness of the need for change.

Success requires Harvard to maintain its commitment over decades. More money will be needed. And like its peers, the school will have to keep hashing out more effective ways to discuss, debate, and act on controversial campus issues. Bruising disputes should not be the only road to improvement.

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