Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, endured this week what the Cultural Revolution called a self-criticism meeting. "I am committed to opening a new chapter in my work with you," he said at a meeting of 500 faculty members. "I pledge that I will seek to listen more and more carefully and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work together more harmoniously."
Summers, who served as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and became Harvard's president in 2001, is today a proud man brought low. The tone of his apology will be familiar to anyone who knows Xing Lu's recent book, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which she discusses denunciation rallies, study sessions and something called "the loyalty dance." As she notes, in the 1960s China's rulers deployed heavily moralistic terms, political jargon and ideological cliches -- just as at Harvard.
The smell of the Red Guards has been hanging over Harvard Yard since Jan. 14, when Summers addressed a conference on "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers." In a 7,000-word talk, he suggested three reasons why relatively few women reach the heights of academe in science. The most important, he said, is the conflict between family and job. Major positions, like it or not, demand an 80-hour work week, and fewer mothers than fathers will accept that requirement. He gave third place among causes to discrimination at work and parental discouragement of girls interested in science.
But it was his second explanation that proved inflammatory. He suggested that at the highest end of the IQ scale, innate differences separate men and women in mathematics. This isn't news. Differences in the abilities of men and women are widely acknowledged (and always acceptable when they explain women's higher levels of empathy and other qualities). But in universities the possibility that women might bring to sciences an inborn handicap is unmentionable if not unthinkable. Howard Georgi, a Harvard physics professor, stated this iron law: "It's crazy to think that it's an innate difference. It's socialization. We've trained young women to be average." But, as Summers said, research keeps demonstrating that people "attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization."
Before the text of Summers's Jan. 14 remarks was made public, one of his critics wrote in Slate that he should have been more tactful. But it turns out that he thoughtfully qualified every idea he uttered. Reading that document also explains why he was reluctant to release a transcript. He spoke without a text and was often wordy and unclear.
The faculty has decided not to demand his immediate resignation, but it's obvious that he's been unfairly treated. As Margaret Carlson of Time magazine asked: "Should Summers lose his job because he said something similar to what most of us say when the subject turns to women and work?"
He seems to have made several serious mistakes. He thought the Harvard president should act like a president instead of a diplomat. He imagined that his liberal credentials would help him in the academy; instead, he was condemned as an enemy of progress. And he believed, foolishly, that a university is a place to ask difficult questions.
Since his views became public, his enemies have realized they have an issue that will strengthen their position. They have done all they could to torture him and make sure that no future president ever dares to say anything similar. Some professors have tried to defend him quietly, and his bosses on the Harvard Corporation have issued a statement of support, rather late in the day. But most of the Harvard community has avoided being publicly associated with Summers and his sacrilegious opinions.
The incident adds up, one way and another, to a defeat for free speech and honest inquiry at the heart of American academic life. To paraphrase a famous statement about the persistence of evil: All it takes for stupidity to triumph is for those who know the truth to remain silent in the face of proud ignorance.
On Tuesday, as 500 faculty filed into the meeting room where Summers was to be discussed, they walked past 60 or so demonstrators carrying signs that read, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay! Larry Summers, you must pay." Could the Red Guards have put it better?