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Former Harvard president Summers disinvited to avoid controversy

Some consider Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among the world's most dangerous men, but Columbia University has resisted calls to rescind an invitation for him to speak there Monday.

However, for the University of California's governing body, another prominent figure was apparently too controversial -- former Harvard President Lawrence Summers.

Summers, who drew worldwide attention for his comments that biological differences may partly explain the dearth of women among the very highest achieving scientists, was supposed to speak about pursuing academic excellence to university chancellors and the UC system's board of regents at an informal dinner last Wednesday. But the invitation angered some faculty at UC's Davis campus, who circulated a petition opposing Summers' visit and collected more than 300 signatures.

"Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the University community and to the people of California," the petition reads.

A few days before the dinner, the invitation was rescinded, Summers said.

"I was looking forward to speaking and exchanging views with the regents on a wide range of higher education issues," Summers told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Saturday. "I talk frequently with groups involved with higher education and find I always learn from the exchange of views. I am sorry that the regents do not feel the same way."

UC spokesman Trey Davis said he could not say why board chairman Richard Blum decided to invite another speaker. He said Blum was unavailable for comment.

Blum told a press briefing last week a controversial appearance by Summers "is not an issue I want to deal with" and "there are important things to deal with and this isn't one of them," according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Summers said: "I was told the reason was the avoidance of controversy." He said nothing similar had ever happened to him before.

The situations aren't totally comparable. Ahmadinejad has been invited to give a public speech -- part, Columbia says, of an academic tradition of allowing even unpopular speakers to express their views. The UC event was a private, informal talk.

Still, reports of the snub have enraged many commentators, ranging from conservative bloggers to liberal free speech activists, many of whom believe Summers was unfairly driven from Harvard.

Said Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil rights lawyer and Summers supporter: "It doesn't occur to them in an academic environment ... there's something very wrong with vetoing somebody because you disagree with or are offended by their viewpoint."

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