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Controversial Remarks by Harvard President Continue to Spark Debate

  • Amy Katz

A controversial remark by the president of one of the elite universities in the United States has generated considerable public debate over the differences between men and women, and freedom of speech on college campuses. What happened and the reaction to it, is the subject of Amy Katz's report.

Lawrence Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, is the President of Harvard University in Massachusetts, America's wealthiest, and arguably greatest, university. In January, he said during a conference that genetic differences between men and women account for the lack of women in the so-called hard sciences at acclaimed colleges and universities.

Many groups reacted negatively and called for his resignation. Kim Gandy is the president of the National Organization for Women. She says it is Mr. Summers attitudes about women that got him in trouble. She says it is reflected also in the number of women offered tenure, or permanent teaching positions.

"NOW called very early on for his resignation, not because of what he said, but because he finally revealed why women were doing so badly during his tenure at Harvard. In the three years that he's been president of Harvard, the number of women offered tenured positions has gone not up, but actually down, ever single that year he's been at Harvard," says Ms. Gandy.

Roger Bowen is the General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors. He sees it differently.

"I don't think one resigns over that. I think if I were president of the National Organization of Women, I might call for his resignation. But speaking as the General Secretary of the American Association of University Professors I will say that Lawrence Summers enjoys first amendment rights. I think he's been appropriately contrite, appropriately apologetic," says Roger Bowen.

Mr. Bowen also says while Mr. Summers has a right to freedom of speech, traditionally a hallmark of American higher education, he also has to be very careful about what he says, because of his position as the president of such a large and well respected university.

"Sometimes, if you are in a difficult situation, a problematic situation, you self-censor, you don't say everything on your mind, because if you do, you're likely to antagonize important people, and I think what Summers has done is antagonize, unnecessarily, some people," says Mr. Bowen.

But Kim Gandy thinks the problem is worse than that. "It sent messages to a lot of girls, not just at Harvard, but in high schools across the country, that the president of Harvard thinks they can't do math, and maybe they can't. It's a message that has been dismissed, disproved by researchers," says Ms. Gandy.

Ms. Gandy says the message was so negative that it probably has undone years of work that has been done to bring more women into math and science. But many scientists say Lawrence Summers was right when he said men may have a natural advantage in science and engineering. Dr. David Geary, a professor of psychological sciences says he was on solid ground.

"He took a stand and he made a point and some people don't like to hear that. But universities are about discussing ideas that may not be popular," says Dr. Geary.

Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist says men and women have different brains, but that is caused by societal influences rather than intrinsic aptitude.

"I, as a young woman, was brought up to believe that I had greater verbal abilities, but that I couldn't do science and math. You know, here I am now, a very successful scientist," says Nancy Andreasen.

In fact, studies show that most male brains are better at visual, spatial activities, an ability that helps with physics and engineering. And female brains are generally better at using and remembering words and recognizing faces. Experts say reducing discrimination would lead to more opportunities for women in the sciences. And some also suggest that educators look for ways to teach girls that compensate for the advantage boys generally have.

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