Nature, Nurture and Politics

Settlement talks again have broken down among lawyers for Harvard University, its economics professor Andrei Shleifer and US attorneys, as they prepare to address the question of what had been gained and what was lost when Harvard’s government-sponsored mission to Moscow collapsed in the mid-1990s amid disclosure of Shleifer’s many financial conflicts of interest.

A month-long quiet period ordered by US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock ended February 14 when the government renewed its request for an extensive period of discovery. Harvard and Shleifer want a brief and narrow trial.

The government’s case for massive damages now seems very likely to go before a jury, though not before this autumn and perhaps more than a year from now. (Harvard could still surrender to the government’s demands.) Already the judge has found fraud and breach of contract as a matter of law and a jury ruled that Shleifer was indeed bound by the rules of the government contract. That the matter in all likelihood now will be thoroughly ventilated is a good thing.

Meanwhile, quite a different sort of imbroglio has enveloped Harvard University president Lawrence Summers.

A meeting of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is scheduled for Tuesday, possibly to put Summers to a vote of confidence. With many more than usual of the nearly 700 members of the faculty expected to attend, the venue has been moved from grand old University Hall (where 250 persons pretty much fill the room) to nearby Lowell Lecture Hall.

The Arts and Sciences faculty oversees Harvard College, the university’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a continuing education program.  Harvard’s eight professional schools have faculties of their own.

The fracas has been building since Marcella Bombardieri of The Boston Globe reported   last month that several women who attended a workshop meeting at the National Bureau of Economic Research on diversifying the science and engineering workforce had become infuriated by Summers’ remarks to the closed-door session.

Summers had speculated that biological differences in between men and women may be part of the explanation of why women with “high-end aptitude” for math and science are hard to find and hire. A general reluctance on the part of women to work the 80-hour weeks that such success requires probably accounted for more of the explanation, he ventured; patterns of socialization and discrimination for somewhat less.

He thus waded deep into an issue that had been contested for years by cutting-edge ideologues, including journalist Cathy Young, psychology professor Judith Kleinfeld and the Wall Street Journal editorial page (subscription required).

“Here was this economist lecturing pompously [to] this roomful of the country’s most accomplished scholars on women’s issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying the kinds of things we had refuted in the first half of the day,” Denice Denton, chancellor-designate of the University of California at Santa Cruz told Bombardieri.

Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist (and 1964 Harvard College graduate) who has been extensively in the campaign for broadening female participation in science said she left the room for fear she would vomit or black out as Summers spoke.

After a month of steadily growing controversy at Harvard and in newspapers, the seven-member corporation that governs Harvard issued an unusual statement of support last Thursday, in the form of a letter from its senior fellow, James Houghton, chairman of Corning Inc. (Earlier, Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago and another corporation member, had said much the same.) And, after a month’s delay, a transcript of Summers’ remarks finally was made available.

The furor has been aggravated by the appearance of a book by Richard Bradley, a magazine writer and former graduate student in history at Harvard. Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University excoriates Summers for being “arrogant, patronizing and disrespectful” toward faculty members, Prof. Cornel West in particular.  West left for Princeton University after Summers admonished him for making a hip-hop recording while failing to meet his classes.

Summers’ supporters among the FAS faculty have begun a determined counter-effort.  More than 70 signatures supporting him have been collected. And even if Tuesday’s meeting spins completely out of control, Summers is unlikely to quit. There have been a couple of high profile resignations of university presidents in recent years, David Baltimore at Rockefeller University in New York City in 1990, and Hugo Sonnenschein at the University of Chicago in 1999. Strong faculties prevailed in each case.

Harvard’s governance, however, is substantially different. Its faculty is a strictly deliberative body; to note just one practical difference, on tenure decisions, Harvard’s  president has the final word. And America’s oldest self-selecting corporation is small and well-insulated from outside pressure for a reason.

The Harvard Corporation chose Summers four years ago because it expected that American universities in general were in for turbulent times in a changing world, and that he would prove to be a master strategist. He had just stepped down as the youngest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton. So far he has done what was expected of him, shaking the collection of decentralized satrapies wide-awake after a relatively get-along-go-along decade under president Neil Rudenstine.

Much is made of Summers’ abrupt and abrasive manner. It is true that he is somewhat insecure. But as Houghton noted in his letter for the Corporation, Summers has had a good three-and-a-half years, reorganizing undergraduate education, expanding Harvard’s campus into the Allston neighborhood of Boston across the Charles River, extending its international reach, recruiting more students from low-income families, upgrading its faculty and focusing its interdisciplinary research.

Most important to Harvard, however, is what Houghton did not say: that, as a man of stubbornly liberal imagination, the 51-year-old Summers has an extremely promising record of grappling, close at hand and at many levels, with the lack of confidence in government that has been such a prominent feature of the present age. In Republican times, he is a social democrat, the mirror opposite of the man who, fifteen years ago, Harvard denied its presidency: his friend and colleague, economist Martin Feldstein. 

It is not surprising that, as an executive who is ultimately responsible for Harvard’s massive Mind/Brain/Behavior inter-faculty initiative Summers should indicate an interest in what part, if any, of the uneven distribution of opportunity among men and women is owing to hardwiring of the brain. He is a son whose mother is a university professor, and himself the father of daughters and a son.

Whatever its failings as a prospectus for action — it is a little too bold in its assessments for a policy-maker charged among his other tasks with managing the integration of women into senior positions — Summers’ talk to the NBER conference reveals a powerful, agile and, in fact, deeply considerate mind at work on an intricate problem. His regret has been sincere. (“I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields.”)

All the more reason, then, to look forward to what Summers has to say, when he finally says it, about the case of his old friend and student, Andrei Shleifer.