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Susannah Kroeber '11: Unfortunately, Harvard doesn't always get it wrong

Five years ago, Lawrence Summers, then-president of Harvard University, made a remark at a conference that ended with his resignation from the post. Many students now in their junior or senior years of college might remember this as the mar on Harvard's name at the time they were applying to colleges — the suggestion that "differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers."

It may seem to many women that Dr. Summers has not received his just deserts. He is now a senior economic advisor to President Obama, and is probably just as famous within intellectual, political and economic circles as he was during his tenure as President of Harvard University. But men who do not have any respect for a woman's place in the sciences should not have a place in public discourse.

But what if Dr. Summers' comments actually had been an all-too-calculated move, so calculated that many missed his intention at the time? Dr. Summers made a very valid point about the stark underrepresentation of women in the math and science fields. As any good president of an elite research university should, he called on researchers from all disciplines, including those in the biological sciences, to determine why this is the case.

Had Dr. Summers only called on social scientists to determine what societal pressures force women to abandon aspirations in the sciences, no one would have noticed. Instead, he attracted a media frenzy, eager to point out the blatant sexism in the president of the most famous American university. In the following years, there was a parallel frenzy in research, as institutions around the country poured dollars into disproving Dr. Summers' ignorance.

Many of those dollars were put into investigating the biological differences between men and women, particularly in terms of excellence in education. Many of the questions include what structural features of current educational practices benefit women — not only in terms of how women have been socialized, but also in terms of how women learn from a neurological angle. Is this discrimination framed by science? Is it any different from the questions Dr. Summers was asking?

The only difference today is that we have more data, and some scientists believe that they are closer to answers, closer to understanding how much societal barriers as opposed to biological factors are limiting the number of women in the sciences. Maybe Dr. Summers was just one of the first people outside a science field asking these sorts of questions.

In a more tangible way, Dr. Summers' departure from Harvard heralded many new changes at the institution. In 2005, only 13 percent of tenure offers at Harvard went to women, while in 2009, 39 percent of tenure offers went to women. A three-fold increase in four years suggests a massive change in attitude and priorities beyond simply appointing a woman as president of the University.

Five years ago, America was gloating that Harvard — the bastion of liberalism, tolerance and egalitarianism — was in fact run by a sexist man no different from many other men in the country. It was a moment where intellectuals and average Joes united behind the idea that Harvard, and the men there, were not morally better than the rest of us. In 2005, Dr. Summers personified the faults that America's leading educational institutions possessed, and represented the failure of academia to rise above institutional and societal biases.

Five years later, Harvard has not fallen from its pedestal. It is still one of the most selective institutions in the country, and over the past several years has been there alongside Brown in seeing a dramatic rise in applicants. Harvard no longer has the lowest percentage of female tenured faculty, vacating that position to Princeton University last year.

The numbers are still low. Columbia leads with women representing 38 percent of tenured faculty. Princeton hovers at barely above a quarter. But instead of these numbers only being released by the American Association of University Women, college newspapers like the Daily Princetonian are interested in gender discrepancies, along with national papers like the New York Times.

Dr. Summers was doing his job. He increased visibility and funding for projects relating to women in academia and gender-related differences. He upheld the academic standard of being open to answers from any field, no matter how unsavory society might think them.

And for those who still think he has not received his comeuppance, they just might want to reconsider just how easy a job as an economic analyst in a political administration is in today's world.

Susannah Kroeber '11 didn't want to go to Harvard anyway.


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