The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Vote of No Confidence in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Well, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Science has voted no confidence in current university president, Larry Summers. I have resisted saying anything about this issue but I guess at this point, as an alum, I can't remain silent any longer.

My first point would be, as a student who also attended the Kennedy School as well as Arts and Sciences, I would remind the faculty and the world that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, however much they like to think otherwise, do not speak for the faculty of Harvard University. There are actually 11 schools at Harvard and one research institute and they all have faculty with academic governance rights in the university. They are not just leasing their space from Arts and Sciences. Af-Am Professsor J. Lorand Matory has been quoted as saying, "There is no noble alternative to resignation." Well, I can think of several honorable alternatives at this point so I have a suggestion for Dr. Matory. How about asking the rest of the faculty their opinion?

Of course, another alternative is to ignore the faculty and I think that is pretty honorable as well. I just came from serving on a panel on Academic Freedom here on campus and one of the things we were asked was about ideas that are considered outside the pale and whether academic freedom did a poor job of protecting scholars who wanted to but were prevented from looking at these ideas. I suppose that academic freedom does fail those scholars in some respects. There have been a few articles recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education which suggest that scholars who specialize in genetics have been discouraged or afraid to use the mapping of the human genome to investigate the possible genetic bases of differences among races and gender. It certainly seems, judging from the Summers' controversy, that members of the academy are supposed to embrace as an article of faith the idea that there are no innate differences (other than anatomical and cosmetic) whatsoever among genders.

I haven't been comfortable talking about the content of what Larry Summers said in the forum on women in the sciences but let's review. He suggested that there were three possible explanations for the difference in representation of women among the science faculty at the most elite research institutions (and that is an important distinction since he was not discussing women's representation in general). One hypothesis was that most women prefer not to work intense hours in such an intensely demanding profession. Another was that there is still a fair amount of discrimination in the structure by which tenure and promotion are awarded. And the third possible explanation was that there may be innate differences in the aptitudes for high level science work between men and women. The phrasing is important. Let's focus on what he did not say. He did not say men are better than women in science or that men are smarter than women. Either proposition would require that men are on average better in this area and I am not sure the data indicate that. What he did say was, "Whatever the difference in means, there is a difference in standard deviation." This means that the means (or averages) could be the same or that the average woman could be more able than the average man, but that in the upper ends of the distribution, there are likely to be more men than women. In other words, the variance in scientific aptitude, if it is greater among men, would suggest that men outnumber women at the bottom of the distribution (more men are dumb at science than women) and at the top.

It's also important to note the caveats that Summers interspersed throughout his presentation. Summers made clear, at the start of his remarks, "I am speaking unofficially." He further added this caveat before he began. "I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality" (my italics added). Finally, he said, "I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them." In other words, he would prefer that the differences we observe and worry about are just due to discrimination and family unfriendly labor policies.

Where Summers went wrong was he drew a preliminary conclusion regarding his hypotheses which suggested to people that he really didn't have an open mind with regard to the explanations and had already prejudged the question. He stated, "So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is...that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination." So he said that aptitude was the most important explanation without really providing a way of evaluating the three possible hypotheses in combination. If Summers said anything for which he should apologize, than this is it. A further problem for Summers hypothesis work is that women are also underrepresented in sciences and math across the board in academe, not just in the elite universities, which suggests that the variance hypothesis as the central explanation has some weaknesses.

But I have to say I was sorry to see that he went beyond this in his public statement of apology. And I was even more sorry to see the President's of three major universities publicly criticize Summers for his comments as being entirely wrong, especially when I noted that two of them were prominent scientists.

I hope that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard based their voted of no confidence on Summers' overall leadership and the likelihood that he would not be able to continue to lead the institution because his brash style alienated people or the controversy might irreparably harm Harvard's ability to recruit top faculty, top students, or wealthy donors. Absent this, voting no confidence entirely on his public comments amounts to the worst kind of violation of academic freedom. Central in this concept is that competent peers would judge a person's statements and scholarship according to standards of the field, and (other than a somewhat presumptive conclusion) Summers' well-qualified (no pun intended) speculations certainly met the standards of social science scholarship. It almost makes one wonder how much statistical training do some of the critics of Summers, including those from the sciences, actually have, since his comments were an entirely reasonable speculation about the shape of a statistical distribution. I know from talking to some of the faculty at the Kennedy School that there is open speculation that Summer's critics, and not just those from the arts and humanities, do lack a good training in statistical analysis. Which is a shame. Worse still, the vote of no confidence is sure to be used and interpreted by those on the Right as another example of the degree to which the academy is captured by a narrow dogmatic Left. And there is not a lot of evidence in the current controversy that they would be wrong.

Happy St Paddy's

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