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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The winter of Summers’ discontent

    Editor’s note: Portions of this column were adapted from the author’s March 2 column, “”Can girls do math?””

    Yesterday, embattled Harvard president Lawrence Summers was forced to resign his post. The announcement was the result of a yearlong imbroglio with faculty members irate over a speech Summers delivered in January 2005, in which he advanced the scientifically supported idea that men and women have different aptitudes when it comes to math and science.

    Come June 30, Summers will unceremoniously slip back into the ranks of the university’s teaching staff and become a footnote in Harvard’s history, just what the brainless battalions of “”progressives”” calling for his ouster have long hoped for.

    Score: Intolerant, whiny liberals: 1. Academic integrity and freedom: 0.

    For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that decades’ worth of research on brain anatomy and chemistry is flat-out wrong, and that, despite the extraordinary differences on every other level between men and women, they process information in exactly the same way.

    Let’s pretend that we have no idea why fewer women than men perform phenomenally well in math and science, despite the fact that women fare better on average than their male counterparts at every level of education through college.

    Let’s pretend that Summers was misguided or misinformed.

    Even if we assume all that, were Summers’ comments appropriate? Absolutely.

    The disparity in the numbers of men and women -ÿand whites and minorities -ÿin academia is one of the most complex and important issues facing institutions of higher learning today. The academic establishment is in sore need of earnest, rational examinations of that disparity, such as the one Summers advanced. The last thing it needs is the kind of hysterical, nonsensical backlash his opponents offered.

    Since undoubtedly most people criticizing Summers’ speech haven’t listened to it, here’s a rundown: The lack of gender-based diversity in certain branches of academia is not due to discrimination or the “”socialization”” of men and women into different professions. Instead, it has its deepest roots in the fact that fewer women than men are willing to commit to 80-hour work weeks and in a disparity in ability among the top fractions of a percent of men and women.

    Why can’t we dismiss the difference as a symptom of discrimination?

    Summers’ justification was simple: If the women who apply for professorships at universities were as qualified as the men who apply for them, and women were hired for 20 to 30 percent of the positions – as women in science and math are – then there would be a surplus of highly qualified women in the job market.

    Put another way, the average female applicant would be more qualified than the average male applicant. If that really is the case, why isn’t there a single university – among the demonstrably liberal lot – that has tried to hire all of these above-average women, at enormous benefit to itself in terms of quality of faculty and students, as well as ranking?

    Summers rationally surmised that there must be fewer qualified women than men applying for those university positions. He attributed most of the difference to the fact that women are less willing to devote long hours to their professions, mostly because of familial obligations. But he also said that, yes, at the third and fourth standard deviations from the mean in science and math, there just aren’t as many women as men.

    Put more simply, Summers’ speech suggested a rather unradical idea: The smartest men and smartest women tend to do best at different things. (He notably remarked that, in addition to math and science, men excel in criminality.)

    He cautioned his audience that “”we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues, and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can”” – one part of his speech that his detractors seem to have overlooked.

    If we want to meaningfully address hiring disparities, it’s important that we not dismiss out-of-hand explanations that we find distasteful or inconvenient. Unfortunately, Summers’ institution, supposedly the best in the world, doesn’t see it that way.

    Summers knew he was walking into an intellectual minefield when he gave his speech; his bravery warranted a real debate, not a political ambush by his opponents

    Caitlin Hall is a non-degree-seeking student. In 2005, she received a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology from the UA with a minor in mathematics. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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