Thursday, January 20, 2005

A university faculty committee chastised Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers on Tuesday for remarks he made at an off-campus conference last week that suggested he does not think women have the same “innate” or “natural” ability in math and the sciences as men.

In a letter released by the university yesterday, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Standing Committee on Women, chaired by English professor Marjorie Garber, told Mr. Summers that his remarks “reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty … and impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars.”

Last night, Mr. Summers said in a statement posted on the Harvard Web site that he regretted not considering his remarks more carefully.

“I was wrong to have spoken in a way that was an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women,” he said. “I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.”

Susan Ganter, executive director of the District-based Association for Women in Science, said the committee’s rebuke comes just three months after it met with Mr. Summers to complain about the sharp drop in the percentage of tenured job offers made to women during the four years he has led the Ivy League university.

Mr. Summers said he found the fact that only four of 32 tenured job offers went to Harvard women last year unacceptable and promised to work on the problem. Miss Ganter called it “distressing” that the Harvard president now seems to be “implying that women are innately unable” to fill top jobs in science and mathematics.

Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. and one of the nation’s top feminists, said Mr. Summers’ remarks “show how deeply rooted in our culture these biases and prejudices [about women’s intellectual capabilities] are.”

The flap stemmed from comments Mr. Summers made at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Researchers in Cambridge, Mass. An organizer of the event told the Boston Globe that Mr. Summers was asked to be “provocative” and was invited to speak as a leading economist, not a Harvard official.

The newspaper said Mr. Summers repeatedly warned audience members that he would “provoke” them, and he did. Some female scholars walked out when Mr. Summers offered speculation about why there are small numbers of women in high-level posts in math, science and engineering at most universities.

Some in attendance said Mr. Summers noted that fewer girls than boys achieve top scores in math and science tests in the late high school years. He said no one is sure why, but several listeners said he explained that women lack the “innate” or “natural” ability of men in some fields.

“Despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, nor do I believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science,” Mr. Summers said on the Web site last night, reiterating earlier comments.

However, the Globe said Mr. Summers told a reporter that he “might have made some reference to innate differences” between the sexes. He explained that new research shows genetics is more important than socialization as a barometer of scholastic achievement.

Donna J. Nelson, chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, who was present for Mr. Summers’ address, criticized his comments and said he now “seems to be backpedaling.”

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