Sunday, September 16, 2007

University of California System Meltdown

As if UC-Irvine's firing of Erwin Chemerinsky weren't bad enough, now the UC Regents have disinvited Larry Summers from a dinner speech.

Here's what the Chronicle of Higher Education said about the invitation and its subsequent revocation:

The move followed a petition drive by female faculty members on the university’s nearby Davis campus, where the board is meeting.

The faculty members said it was inappropriate for the regents to have Mr. Summers as their guest at a time when the university is struggling to diversi[f]y its faculty ranks. Mr. Summers resigned as Harvard’s president in 2006, after an epic battle with the faculty over a range of issues that came to a head when he suggested that women’s innate differences from men might explain why relatively few women reach the top in mathematics and science. He also criticized the work of Cornel West, leading that prominent scholar of religion and African-American studies to leave Harvard.

The petition, which drew 150 signatures, said, “Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the university community and to the people of California.” Replacing Mr. Summers as the dinnertime speaker will be Susan Kennedy, chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I find this whole episode shameful. Shame on those faculty members who protested having a different viewpoint (from a distinguished speaker) at a dinner.

Frankly, I doubt that many of the professors signing the petition against Larry Summers have read his remarks that caused so much controversy. Those remarks are easy to find (see here). I've read those remarks, and I can't find anything offensive in them. Read his remarks yourself, or take a look at this excerpt I've done:

[One] prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to ... 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....

[T]he most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect—and this is harder to measure—but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women. That's not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.... Now that begs entirely the normative questions—which I'll get to a little later—of, is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs? Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men? Is our society right to ask of anybody to have a prominent job at this level of intensity, and I think those are all questions that I want to come back to. But it seems to me that it is impossible to look at this pattern and look at its pervasiveness and not conclude that something of the sort that I am describing has to be of significant importance.... So I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who wants to do high-powered intense work?

[Summers then discusses the hypothesis that there might be differences in abilities between men and women in math and science.] Because if my reading of the data is right—it's something people can argue about—that there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well. So my sense is that the unfortunate truth—I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true—is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem [the disproportionate underrepresentation of women in math and science departments at universities].

.... The most controversial in a way, question, and the most difficult question to judge, is what is the role of discrimination? To what extent is there overt discrimination? Surely there is some. Much more tellingly, to what extent are there pervasive patterns of passive discrimination and stereotyping in which people like to choose people like themselves, and the people in the previous group are disproportionately white male, and so they choose people who are like themselves, who are disproportionately white male. No one who's been in a university department or who has been involved in personnel processes can deny that this kind of taste does go on, and it is something that happens, and it is something that absolutely, vigorously needs to be combated. On the other hand, I think before regarding it as pervasive, and as the dominant explanation of the patterns we observe, there are two points that should make one hesitate. The first is the fallacy of composition. No doubt it is true that if any one institution makes a major effort to focus on reducing stereotyping, on achieving diversity, on hiring more people, no doubt it can succeed in hiring more. But each person it hires will come from a different institution, and so everyone observes that when an institution works very hard at this, to some extent they are able to produce better results.... And there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools, and that's the argument that one has to make in thinking about this as a national problem rather than an individual institutional problem. [Second, i]f it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, 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. 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.

(Emphasis added.) Larry Summers made it clear that he was discussing hypotheses, not facts, and that he intended to provoke discussion as a consequence of his remarks. At worst, perhaps he forgot that the President of Harvard is never "off duty" or out of his role as president. But he never said that women didn't belong in math or science departments. What he did offer as hypotheses included some very harsh truths: that being in a top position required near-fanatical devotion to one's job, that the people at the very top were several standard deviations above the norm, and that--even though it was likely that some passive discrimination was going on in hiring and retention--it was unlikely that discrimination was the only explanation.

For these statements, 150 faculty members protested his appearance at a dinner?

I remember when a handful of University of Houston Law Center students protested my decision to have Sarah Weddington speak at commencement. They politicized my decision immediately, without waiting for me to digest their one good argument (that I should invite her to speak at something that didn't require mandatory attendance), and I refused to disinvite her. Her remarks at commencement that year were delightful: all about how clients needed their lawyers to be their champions, much as her oncologists were her champions during her recovery from breast cancer. The protesting students wore insignia denoting their protest, but they didn't disrupt her speech. In fact, those students were more dignified in their protest than were the UC faculty members who are protesting Summers's presence at a dinner.

First Chemerinsky; now Summers. Who's left to speak at the UC System: game show hosts?


Anonymous said...

Yes, Nancy, I remember that incident at the UH Law Center (but I'm not sure what a Mixed Race Personals site has to do with it).

You make an excellent argument. Universities, as you know, are, and should be, forums for free expression and the exchange of ideas that some folks may find objectionable, even repugant.

Incidents as the ones you described are unfortunate but inescapable, because universities also are reflections of society. It is not unusual for segments of society to see the world only through their myopic view of things.

The faculty reaction without reason reminds me of last year's statement by the Pope during a university lecture in Germany, which the media and the Muslim world took out of context because no one bothered to read the text of what he said and to put it into context.

And now, for some crass self-promotion, you can read my commentary on that issue at

As I wrote in my piece: mundus vult decipi

John David Powell

Nancy Rapoport said...

Great to hear from you, John, and I love your blog!

jay said...

Interesting article, you make some interesting points.

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