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The Case for Shrill

On one level, I think it actually is fair to say that a lot of the heat Larry Summers took after the whole "girls can't do science" thing was a bit shrill and over-the-top. But it was shrill and over-the-top with good reason. It's like the Social Security debate. I'm a boring dork, so I'd love to have an endless, calm, rational discussion of the ins-and-outs of retirement policy, budget balancing, asset building, etc. I even have calm, rational discussions of these things from time to time. But the task is not merely to understand the world, but to change it. Sometimes you need to get a bit over-the-top in order to get a decent outcome, especially when you're dealing with serious powerful differentials. That's true in academic administration and its true in congress, too. I observed a while back that for all the talk of people "trying to shut down debate" it was the initial yelling that, irrespective of intention, actually created the atmosphere in which a rather enlightening debate about the issues Summers was addressing was brought before a wider public. And now I got an email from the Dean of the Faculty (apparently Harvard feels it can just spam alumni at will) saying that there's going to be a task force, etc., to start addressing gender issues at the university. Sometimes, you do what it takes to get results. Full text beneath the fold in case you're interested for some reason.

Dear Alumnae and Alumni,

        As you are no doubt aware, there has been considerable public discussion in recent weeks about gender diversity at Harvard, particularly in the sciences and engineering.  President Summers and I have sought to turn the heightened attention on issues of gender into an opportunity to make concrete progress in the time ahead.  Towards this end, the President has announced the formation of two task forces, one focused on women in science and engineering, the other focused on broader issues affecting all women faculty, and has asked that they develop concrete proposals and recommendations that can be acted upon in the coming months.  I welcome this step, and will work closely with the task forces to ensure that we succeed in addressing the concerns of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

        I write today to tell you what we are doing, right now, in the FAS, to address these issues.  I want to look forward, not backward.  I write in the hope that you will share with me your comments, suggestions, and criticisms as we move ahead.

        The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is fully committed to supporting and advancing the careers of our women faculty, and to encouraging our female students to pursue careers in every discipline.  As Dean, and as colleague to so many outstanding women faculty, I truly believe that the strength of the FAS, and our collective effectiveness as mentors, depend on a faculty that is talented and diverse.

        The FAS is similar to its peer institutions.  We share, and not to our glory, records of less than stellar achievement in recruiting, supporting, and promoting women faculty.  Academia has its own long history of discrimination, complacency, and even well-meaning, but insufficiently effective efforts at genuine change.  The institutional temptation for self-reproduction in faculty hiring is strong.

        I believe in change; the quality of our collective intellectual endeavor depends on it.  Not just in the past month, as public debate has swelled, but in the past two years, my colleagues and I have worked hard to change the policies and the culture of hiring, support, and promotion of faculty in the FAS.

        Let me describe the actions we are taking to ensure that we create in the future a faculty that is more diverse along many dimensions.  As the list below indicates, we are instituting policy changes at the departmental, divisional, and decanal levels.  Beyond policy, there are sizable cultural issues to address.  

        At the departmental level, we have revised our search procedures to encourage faculty to throw the net far and wide, to keep a "watching brief" for talent in any field, in every search.  If Harvard seeks the best faculty, we can only find them through the most thorough and open searches, not by looking only in narrowly-defined subfields.

        My colleagues who serve as divisional deans (for Humanities, Social Sciences, and Physical Sciences) and the chair of the Life Sciences Council are monitoring search procedures at every level.  If a non-tenured search is not sufficiently broad or thorough, we will not authorize the appointment.  They and the larger body of academic deans are reviewing every tenured search, with the same purpose in mind.  Women scholars will also serve on every ad hoc committee for tenure appointments in the FAS. 

        I have asked the Academic Deans to review FAS policies in several important areas:  maternity leave, parental teaching relief, extension of the "tenure clock," increased support for child care, and related issues. 

        The FAS already offers strong programs in these areas.  For instance, a colleague may be excused from teaching obligations for a semester or a year following the birth or adoption of a child.  Non-tenured colleagues with substantial parenting responsibilities may delay the "tenure clock" for up to two years.  Even so, we know that the demands of balancing work and family are great, and we wish to support our colleagues as much as possible.

        We also know that cultural pressures can affect our colleagues' ability to flourish.  Departmental attitudes can discourage women and men from "breaking" their career trajectory.  In addition to family considerations, non-tenured faculty deserve other forms of support that will help to make them successful candidates for tenure at Harvard.  Thus, I am asking each department chair to convene a departmental meeting to discuss best practices in the mentoring and career development of non-tenured colleagues.  We aim to create, for the FAS as a whole, practices that are more consistent, transparent, and respectful - and, within each department, a culture that conveys in every way the stake that we have in seeing our non-tenured colleagues flourish as teachers, scholars, and citizens of the University.

        In the longer run, building a faculty that is diverse as well as strong demands the rejuvenation of the faculty.  Over nine percent of the FAS are at or beyond the age of 70.  Almost every colleague who retires is male.  As I announced in my Annual Letter, two-thirds of our growth will occur in the non-tenured ranks over the next decade, and assistant professorships are now considered "tenure-track" positions.  We aim to give every assistant professor the time, support, and advice she or he will need to be competitive for tenure at Harvard.  There are many strong institutional reasons for hiring more scholars who are just beginning their careers, but I should note in this context that there is considerably greater diversity in younger cohorts of applicants.  Thus, last year, even as we had an unimpressive record in recruiting senior women to tenured positions at Harvard, we were very successful at the non-tenured level:  40 percent of non-tenured appointments last year went to women.

        Leadership opportunities, not just membership in the Faculty, deserve our serious attention.  I will continue carefully to consider female colleagues for every department chairmanship, center directorship, and academic deanship.  At present, 20 percent of our department or degree-committee chairs are women.  Thirty percent of tenured colleagues serving as FAS deans and associate deans are women.  Thirty-nine percent of the Faculty Council members are women.  But I also know that service in these positions places extraordinary demands on the time of a small number of colleagues, many of whom serve in multiple roles.

        We know that we can make progress because we have done it before.  In 1988, women represented 14 percent of all assistant, associate, and tenured faculty.  They now comprise 23 percent.  In 1988, women formed 7 percent of all tenured faculty.  They now form 18 percent.  In 1988, minorities represented 8.7 percent of all assistant, associate, and tenured faculty, and 6.8 percent of senior faculty.  As of January 1, 2005, 20.2 percent of our non-tenured faculty, and 9.2 percent of our senior faculty are members of minority groups.

        Take the case of my own department.  When I joined our History Department in 1992, we had one tenured female colleague out of a tenured faculty of 31.  Less than a decade later, there were 11 tenured women in History.  This did not happen by itself, waiting for applications to fly over the transom.  It was the result of a department determined not simply to replicate itself, but dedicated to searching aggressively for excellence in every field.

            In recent weeks, I have personally spoken to many faculty members - both current and prospective - to assure them of Harvard's commitment to diversity in general, and to each of them as individuals.  The measures I describe above must be part of a larger, ongoing effort, one that is embraced by all of us in the FAS - every faculty member, department chair, and not least, this Dean - in our greatest collective interest.  If the FAS strives to be second to none, richest in its intellectual resources, keenest in cutting that "edge" of knowledge, we can only do so if our faculty honors the contributions of all.  In this effort, Harvard should lead, not follow.

                                                            Yours sincerely,

                                                            William C. Kirby
                                                            Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
                                                            Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History

March 7, 2005 | Permalink


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"I'd love to have an endless, calm, rational discussion of the ins-and-outs of retirement policy, budget balancing, asset building, etc." throw some wine and walks in the beach in there and you've got yourself a personal ad ;)

But in general, I agree with you, and what's more, I think that Summers' somewhat ill-advised remarks probably will end up doing more to help the cause of women in the sciences and at Harvard than anything he could have directly done to advance women's cause.

But, what's with the "alumnae and alumni" business? We're all (male and female, I don't literally mean everyone is) "actors" now, or "flight attendants" so why do we need two different genders to say alumnae/i? Seems counter to the point, doesn't it?

Posted by: flip | Mar 7, 2005 6:13:54 PM

"Sometimes you need to get a bit over-the-top in order to get a decent outcome"

Exactly, which is why it is justifiable to refer to the Social Security 'crisis'.

Posted by: Monica | Mar 7, 2005 6:24:05 PM

Mr. Yglesias,

But after this, what researcher at Harvard would want to do any actual science (which is what ultimately really changes thinking - being able to make repeatable predictions) with respect to gender and the brain ?

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 7, 2005 6:45:50 PM

No scientist will be scared off doing research of this type because Larry Summers gave an insulting and half-assed presentation to a room full of experts.

Posted by: Atrios | Mar 7, 2005 6:51:40 PM

Mr. Atrios,

It seems to me that the quality of his presentation has nothing much to do with it.
It is the very idea of sexual dissimilarity in the practical world that made people angry. If the president of Harvard can be hounded into silence over the mere expression of the concept then who is immune ?

Many similar issues are also undiscussable.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 7, 2005 6:56:12 PM

It's not that you can't talk about gender differences... it's that there's little point to half baked discussions of gender differences that don't amount to all that much in the context of a larger conversation. Men and women may indeed be very different. That doesn't mean Harvard can't do better in finding more women to teach in the sciences.

As for the memo, it's all well and good, but off the top of my head, the gender breakdowns for the FAS as a whole and the History department sound low to embarrassing - does anyone with more of a head/or more time for this know where those stats fall in comparison to colleges overall? Just wondering...

Posted by: weboy | Mar 7, 2005 7:09:31 PM

Luisalegria- Summers' presentation had everything to do with it. Summers is not an academic with anything to say about the scientific basis of gender inequality. He is an economist with no expertise in genetics, human biology, sociology, or anthropology. On the other hand, he is an administrator with the legal responsibility for enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Summers' talk was enraging because it reeked of bad faith. He claimed not be speaking as President of Harvard-- an impossibility anywhere except perhaps his bedroom. He claimed to be unsure of his conclusions when he clearly had full confidence in them. He claimed to be sorrowful when every sentence radiated smug pleasure. He claimed not to be making policy when he clearly intended to apply his beliefs to policy decisions.

Genuine investigation into gender difference will not be stifled by the uproar against Summers. But perhaps the thinly veiled expression of sexist views will be.

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 7:21:39 PM

Mr. JR,

Even granting all that you say is true(and I have no idea whether it has merit), it seems to me that people do not have nuanced responses to this sort of brouhaha.

You may want to make a great noise to scare the pests from your front porch, but you may end up annoying your neighbors as well.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 7, 2005 7:29:07 PM

If you consider a commitment for Harvard to hire more members of a special interest group regardless of their academic merit a good outcome, then this had a good outcome. However this is the sort of thinking which leads to the hiring of Ward Churchill types which is very bad for the reputation of universities and academic values in the long run.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Mar 7, 2005 7:30:56 PM

I believe we have a new corollary to Godwin's Law -

As an online discussion about colleges grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Ward Churchill approaches 1.

Posted by: Atrios | Mar 7, 2005 7:34:52 PM

"Sometimes you need to get a bit over-the-top in order to get a decent outcome"

So implying that critics of Israeli settler colonialism are anti-semites is fair game? All in the name of a decent outcome?

Posted by: Otto | Mar 7, 2005 8:01:05 PM

Help! not only Ward Churchill but Israeli settlers!

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 8:44:19 PM

“ . . . what researcher at Harvard would want to do any actual science . . . with respect to gender and the brain.”

Well, knowing some Harvard researchers, I’d say Summers' remarks would have no effect at all on their research plans. But even if it did, it turns out that perfectly good research gets done at other Universities besides Harvard, Luis. Get a grip.

Posted by: Joel | Mar 7, 2005 9:05:52 PM

Mr. Joel,

I actually have a grip, but as I don't often travel it doesn't get used much.

Harvard has influence far beyond its property lines.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 7, 2005 9:53:14 PM

Dear Alumnae and Alumni?

Huh? Does this mean it's ok to star saying "actors and actresses" again? Kirby ain't much more PC than poor Larry. What an evil den of racism, sexism and homophobia that once proud institution has become.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Mar 7, 2005 10:22:33 PM

Huh? Does this mean it's ok to star saying "actors and actresses" again? Kirby ain't much more PC than poor Larry. What an evil den of racism, sexism and homophobia that once proud institution has become.

Has become? I think the problem is that Harvard hasn't changed a whole lot, while the rest of the world around Harvard has changed somewhere between somewhat and a great deal, depending on whom you ask. Or perhaps you were being facetious.

Posted by: SarahLiz | Mar 7, 2005 10:28:03 PM

Careful luis, Someone may actually be doing research on gender and racial differences in intellect. What will you cling to if they find no significant differences?

Posted by: pablo | Mar 7, 2005 10:40:32 PM

Mr. Pablo,

Well, many very substantial gender differences have already been found between brain structures and physical mental functioning (patterns of electrical activity under different stimuli for instances); and then there are statistical results on various types of tests, academic or not.

Now, the gender difference is an interesting case whereby, maybe, the link between different modes of thinking can be linked to different physical phenomena in the brain. I'm no brain researcher, just some guy with a subscription to Scientific American, but it seems clear to me.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 8, 2005 12:26:06 AM

Summers had the audacity to suggest male/female differences might explain the differences in math ability at the top. Whereupon, MIT professor Nancy Hopkins said: "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow," she said. "I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill." If she hadn't left, Hopkins said, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up."

Oh, dear, she certainly was all a twitter!

Shouldn't your outrage be directed at dolts like Hopkins, whose inane comments demonstrated she has no place being anywhere near the top of anything, lest she get dizzy and fall off.

Posted by: Bruce Small | Mar 8, 2005 12:45:09 AM

I don't think Churchill should be fired, unless for cause unrelated to his inflamatory comments, and whether or not Summers should be fired is a subject that shouldn't be based soley on his comments at the meeting that stirred all the controversy. I am also a math challenged male and at first blush I don't find much to admire about Summers comments.

I do find the cries for freedom of academic expression in the case of Churchill and the idea's that can not be mentioned in the case of Summers a little odd. It may be true that the math and science departments at Harvard may be filled with males who dicriminate against women but I think some actual cases of discrimination should be brought up before labeling the low female ratio automatically the results of discrimination. I am not discounting the fact that the charge might be true. Our host seems to be defending over the top rhetoric for himself yet denying that option for Summers.

If you are going to defend Churchill's absurd political ramblings as vital to a wide spectrum of idea's that make Academic life in America valuable then how can you put a muzzle on the leader of a university. I believe that Summers has apologized three times and yet that doesn't seem to be good enough for those who want his head on a pike. If you compare Summers musings that there could possibly be a reason other then sexual discrimination for the low female ratio in the science and math departments and Churchill's theory that the US should be violently overthrown and given back to a Tribal form of leadership, which idea would you say is more absurd? Which idea should be protected and which idea should be cause for firing? Which idea is "shrill and over the top" for a good cause and which is "shrill and over the top" but cause for firing?

Posted by: kevinpeters | Mar 8, 2005 1:04:55 AM

"Harvard has influence far beyond its property lines."

As a research scientist and grant reviewer for NIH and NSF, I find no evidence that the president of Harvard has had any influence whatsoever on the national biomedical/scientific research agenda. Do you possess such evidence, Luis? Please share.

Posted by: Joel | Mar 8, 2005 6:04:27 AM

As far as I can see, it looks like the letter promises to think hard about the issues, while leaving blank the question of what actual actions will be taken. This is a sop thrown to appease the most rabid members of the pro-affirmative-action fringe. Its only consequence will be the imposition of a little more non-academic work on those obliged to attend these "departmental meetings" which are being held -- a small price to pay in order to quiet this issue so the university can return to more important issues.

Posted by: sammler | Mar 8, 2005 8:16:27 AM

By the way, I hear from friends that Summers was heckled at a parents' weekend event a day or two ago. The chance that he will be forced out is in fact quite high.

Posted by: Otto | Mar 8, 2005 8:45:11 AM

Harvard has influence far beyond its property lines.

Aha! Luis is an Allston community activist!

Posted by: Brittain33 | Mar 8, 2005 9:36:31 AM

The "alumnae and alumni" comment may have to do with the forced inclusion of Radcliffe alumnae into the Harvard alumni community. Many of them were referred to collectively as alumnae for most of their adult lives, never asked to be assimilated into the greater community, and would find a catch-all phrase jarring.

I'm no Latin scholar and I hope I got the references correct.

Posted by: Brittain33 | Mar 8, 2005 9:38:46 AM

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