When Harvard president Lawrence Summers wondered aloud whether "intrinsic aptitude" contributed to the paucity of women scientists and engineers, his critics had a field day. Sickening, sexist, clueless-those were among the more polite insults aimed his way. Summers initially defended his comment as a "provocation," a sport at which he is expert. But that attempt at sangfroid made his antagonists mad, and his subsequent acts of presidential contrition only made them madder. During two "emergency" Harvard faculty meetings, the proud president was obliged to stand in the pillory as distinguished professors pelted him with the rhetorical equivalent of rotten apples. Later, the faculty of arts and sciences expressed a lack of confidence in Summers.
These events were as scripted and predictable as a Noh performance-in academe, you know you're in trouble when your most prominent defender is Charles Murray of "Bell Curve" infamy. The stunner, though, was a public statement, issued by the presidents of Princeton, MIT and Stanford, calling Summers to task for his remarks.
"The question we must ask as a society," that statement reads, "is not, 'Can women excel in math, science and engineering?'-Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago-but, 'How can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?'" Summers' observations about the power of "innate differences" might "rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases."
What is startling isn't the substance of this message-it reflects the conventional liberal wisdom-but rather its source. Public chastisement of a fellow member of the presidential club is unprecedented. Academic leaders are generally allergic to controversy, since stirring the waters risks offending donors, which is why their declamations are usually so forgettable. But the Summers spanking is hardly forgettable.
So what's going on?
Partly it's a matter of principle. There is no reason to doubt that these presidents are telling the truth as they see it. All three are scientists, and that gives them a certain claim to expertise. And two of them are women, who may well know at first hand the impact of Summers-style patronizing.
Yet academic leaders rarely say anything controversial without calculating the consequences. In this case they had everything to gain by speaking their minds. Their missive doubtless made them local heroes (Yale's president, who didn't sign the letter, was taken to task by 100 women scientists, mostly graduate students, at his home university).
Most likely the presidential trio didn't fret overmuch about whether Summers would take the dressing-down personally. To speak out this way is "very rare, and it's new," said David Ward, president of the American Council of Education, "but in some ways Larry (Summers) himself has established the idea of being quite open and controversial." Club members usually protect their own, but in this crowd Summers is about as popular as George Bush is among the leaders of "old Europe." To borrow a line from old grade school report cards, he doesn't work and play well with others. "You know, sometimes fear does the work of reason," he told a Guardian reporter last fall. And when he came under fire, schadenfreude rather than sympathy must have been an irresistible temptation.
There is more to this story than principle and politics. It is also a tale about the blood-sport competition among institutions at the top of the academic heap.
Elite higher education is a classic winner-take-all game, and no school is more fiercely competitive than Harvard, which was recently ranked number one in the world by the Times of London and annually competes for top status in the crucially important U.S. News & World Report rankings. These rankings are how the score is kept. To win this game-to reach the top of those charts-requires a stable of academic superstars. Their presence, and the reflected glory they represent, is as critically important to a prestige-driven university like Harvard as Barry Bonds is to the San Francisco Giants.
If you pose Cicero's classic question, cui bono?-that is, who benefits?-when the presidents of MIT, Stanford and Princeton bash Harvard in the name of principle, the answer is clear: those three schools are the big winners. Their presidents' statement sends a clear signal to disaffected women academics: Our universities value your contribution.
When it comes to recruiting top-flight professors, this is a powerful message. Many of my female colleagues tell dispiriting stories about the impact of chauvinism on their careers. Why should they fight for respect at Harvard, where the old boys are still in charge, when they can go elsewhere and receive the unreserved welcome that they deserve? Nor is this just conjecture. Since l'affaire Summers began, the Harvard Crimson reports, "universities appear to have been stepping up efforts to recruit Harvard faculty members." Caroline Hoxby, an African American economist, has confirmed that she is one of those being wooed-by Stanford.
To talk openly about how universities seize every opportunity to sell themselves is as infra dig in academe as to be "provocative" about biological cognitive differences. If the PR offices of these three schools are on the ball, they'll be sending furious letters of denial. Shocked, shocked-but in an era when smart marketing is essential to win the game, the anti-Summers missive simply shows that these three presidents are doing their job. In this instance, doing good also turns out to mean doing well.
David L. Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education" (Harvard University Press), which has recently been issued in paperback.