I've been reading about this Larry Summers controversy for a while. From 2002-2004, I was at Boston College for grad school and subsequently took a course at Harvard in my time there. I become infinitely fascinated with Harvard ethos and had heard on campus that the climate for women faculty was next to something atrocious. Harvard, at the time, was not known for its friendly atmosphere. In 2005, Summers made the infamous comments about women in math and science and, since then, I have gotten into countless nasty arguments with Adonis over it.
He doesn't think it's fair to write someone - anyone - off after one comment for which Summers apologized profusely.
I think that at certain levels of power and influence, you lose certain privileges to think out loud without suffering the consequence of demeaning, or thoughtless (at best), comments. If you're looking to stir things up, be ready to take the deepest burn possible: offended audience members.
I do get the feeling that a lot of people do not understand what he said and the context in which he said them. It's important to understand the situation (for as much as we can - only 50 or so invited people were in the room when he made his presentation that contained the controversial comments) before blasting this guy to smithereens.
Basically, I think he exercised extremely poor judgment. Consequently, as a prominent academic leader, what you say in public will haunt you for the rest of your public life. For me, it's not his words (people say ignorant comments all the time), but the CONTEXT in which he offered that suggestion is just incredible to me. And I think it's insulting and ludicrous for an economist and Harvard president to offer such a reasoning (that innate differences could be a possible reason as to why women are not as successful in math and science) when tested research and scholarship has proven that girls do equally well in math and science when they are supported and when fewer males are in the classroom. Additionally, those findings were supposedly JUST presented earlier that day, before he made his, what is now known as his goodbye, speech.
So, again, it's not just his words that were problematic, its that he didn't have the ability or grip to utilize (or acknowledge) modern research about women's achievements when addressing some of the most brilliant academic women in the world. And if that omission was intentional, then angering the conference participants is just downright counterproductive.
Supposedly, Summers has a history of stirring things up to provoke discussion and progress. I don't doubt Summers' brilliance or his capacity to do his job, but his history is far too controversial to ignore. Frankly, I'm a bit sick of political fireworks and would rather hear reports of our nation improving instead of more drama and e-apologies.
Contrary to reports, it is not "women's groups" that ousted Summers from Treasury Secretary. Whether he meant to or not, he burned that possibility in 2005, when he decided to offer three suggestions that would ultimately be the downfall of his public image and leadership.
Friday, November 14, 2008