In his now-infamous January speech, Harvard University President Larry Summers laced his arguments with insinuations that the lack of women in science and math-related research fields may in fact have a biological basis. Nearly two months later, he remains in the hot seat, vilified, as many Harvard students and faculty members continue to call for his resignation. But however predictable they may have been, the flurry of media and academic attacks against the besieged Harvard president are largely unwarranted.
While the Harvard president did indeed suggest the possibility that innate differences between genders help explain employment discrepancies in the sciences, he in no way dismissed the role of societal factors and gender discrimination in fostering the current situation.
Far more disturbing than his comments was the hostile way in which they were received by the academic community. Summers admits, and in fact initially disclaimed, that his remarks were meant in part to spark a healthy debate, but the opportunity to hold a constructive and open dialogue was lost when much of the Harvard community, the media and the nation decided to condemn the ideas in a hailstorm of political correctness.
Science is not always easy to stomach, especially when it challenges our most deeply held beliefs and our most entrenched traditions. Until the Scopes trial of 1924, it was considered radical to teach evolution in public schools. In mapping the human genome, we discovered that there is no biological basis for race. While there has been no conclusive evidence to support Summers’s suggestion that there is indeed a biological basis to the gender gap in the sciences, there has been no study completely ruling out the theory either. In fact, there have been recent studies suggesting that male and female brains develop, or have the predisposition to develop, differently. Until we are ready to support the free and open exchange of ideas, however, there will be no room for scientific research to investigate the validity of these claims.
It is also important to note that Summers is not popular with much of the Harvard community, in part because he has chosen to take a more interventionist role in the University than his predecessors. Harvard faculty members were among the first to call for his resignation, indicating that the politics of academia are very likely involved as well.
It is ironic that many of those first to attack Summers hail from an academic community that often prides itself on liberalism and open-mindedness. The very institutions that should be devoted to the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and truth are persecuting a man for espousing ideas that run against the grain of comfortable political discourse. In doing so, they are rejecting the academic freedom vital to the further pursuit of and deliberation over knowledge in institutions of higher education.