Disinviting Larry

Larry Summers is an extremely smart guy who said some extremely stupid things about women and science at a conference. For this and many other reasons (mostly “other,” but it’s a messy story), he lost the confidence of Harvard’s faculty and eventually resigned. And good riddance; for all of his talents and all the good he did for Harvard, he caused more harm by antagonizing people and generally playing the autocrat when the office of university president calls for something more subtle.

Which doesn’t mean that he should be banned in perpetuity from giving talks to university audiences. A recent invitation from the University of California Regents has been rescinded after a group of UC faculty circulated a petition demanding that Summers be disinvited. Whether or not you had any sympathy for what Summers said at the NBER conference (I certainly don’t), he is a serious academic, and should be accorded the usual protections for saying what he thinks. Bitch PhD is wondering about the situation, and here’s the comment I left at her blog:

I think the disinvitation was a bad idea, on substantive grounds as well as for the bad image it projects.

For one thing, the proposition that innate differences play a large role in determining the distribution of genders (and races) throughout academia is certainly controversial — it’s not just a matter of scholarly vs. otherwise. There are smart and well-informed people who believe that innate differences are the most important thing suppressing the number of women in science; Stephen Pinker is an obvious example. I personally think those people are crazy and wrong, but won’t deny that they are smart and well-informed.

Second and more importantly, it’s just wrong to think of Summers as symbolizing prejudice. Although there are smart and well-informed prejudiced people per above, Summers was certainly not well-informed when he made his comments at the NBER conference. He has since apologized profusely and allocated millions of dollars toward making things better. It all may be perfectly insincere, but when there are plenty of actual sexists out there who are willing to defend such positions even when they are well-informed, it seems like a mistake to hold that the only possible role Larry Summers can play is buffoonish sexist. He does have other things on his CV.

Finally, I haven’t seen any evidence that Summers was actually invited to talk about gender or science or anything like that. If he were, that would be evidence of rank stupidity (of which the Regents are of course well-known masters).

Among the “image” problems alluded to above, stuff likes this makes it possible for conservatives to beat the drum of leftist intolerance of other people’s views. Ironically, the incident comes on the same week of a much more serious violation of academic freedom: UC Irvine’s withdrawal of a the offer of the job of Dean at its brand new law school, to Duke constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky. That act, which has apparently been reversed so that Chemerinsky can in fact be the Dean, resulted from right-wing pressure against a professor who they thought was too liberal. Becoming the Dean is a noticeably bigger deal than giving a dinner-time talk to the UC Regents. Nevertheless, the Summers flap has given conservatives the chance to argue that “the primary challenge facing academic freedom in American universities” is “the rise of an academic far-left establishment that seeks to use universities as a base for political activism, and is perfectly willing to violate accepted standards of academic freedom to achieve that goal.” And they’ve taken it!

Well, if we go around disinviting speakers because we disagree with their views, we deserve what we get. In the wake of Summers’s original speech, there was much heat, but also a good deal of light — data and arguments were produced that showed to any reasonable person that women interested in science face extraordinary amounts of discrimination at all steps of the process. Let’s stick with the “data and arguments” approach.

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97 Responses to Disinviting Larry

  1. Michael T says:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    -Voltaire

  2. Elliot says:

    It’s like loading the gun before handing it to the conservatives. I think there is an even greater burden on the left to preserve the free flow of ideas and discourse because of course that’s what we stand for.

    To me this type of thing is reminiscent of the unjustified attacks by the left on sociobiology because it didn’t fit their model of nurture over nature. This isn’t China or Russia. We need to let information flow and people make up their own minds. And ultimately, the scientific evidence should be the final arbiter of truth.

    e.

  3. Andy says:

    Apparently this petition got circulated around all the UC campuses and attracted 150 signatures, which doesn’t seem a lot, although we at Davis were having an email meltdown last week.

    I can see why some female faculty would feel personally insulted by Summers’ comments, but I can’t get my head around wanting him excluded from the campus. But I also can’t understand why the Regents caved to one petition of just 150 people.

    Personally, I think women should stick to doing things like flying jet fighters, commanding Space Shuttles, running for President and being Secretarys of State, and leave tough jobs like being a university professor to the boys.

  4. Mike Crowley says:

    Sorry: Off Topic:

    Is there any chance you could do another “Ask A String Theorist”? That was a wonderful idea and there are so many of us non-scientists out here with questions. I regret I missed that.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  5. Sean says:

    Mike, we never did “Ask a String Theorist,” as none of us is a string theorist; we just pointed to a guest poster at another blog. You might try Asymptotia.

  6. Mike Crowley says:

    Oh, sorry.

  7. Mike Crowley says:

    By the way, my parents and I just ordered your new Teaching Company lectures and are looking forward to them.

  8. Belizean says:

    Sean wrote:

    That act [the withdrawal of to Chemerinsky be dean of the UCI law school] resulted from right-wing pressure against a professor who they thought was too liberal.

    I don’t believe that this has been established. Especially as right-wing was as at least as vocal as the Left in expressing its outrage at the withdrawal of the Chermerinsky’s job offer. As your own link points out, “The decision [to re-extend the offer] follows controversy and widespread outrage from both liberals and conservatives over Drake’s rescinding the original deanship offer.”

    Elliot wrote:

    It’s like loading the gun before handing it to the conservatives. I think there is an even greater burden on the left to preserve the free flow of ideas and discourse because of course that’s what we stand for.

    Freedom of speech has long ago ceased to be a leftist value (if it ever was one). How many times have you read of leftist academics, who without the slightest embarrassment proclaim that they use their scholarship as means of furthering their political activism? How many times have leftist students shutdown conservative speakers on campuses, even resorting to physical assault to do so? What can we make of the fact that it’s about a billion times easier for a leftist to speak on right-wing talk radio than it is for a rightist speak on left-wing college campuses?

  9. Ian B Gibson says:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    -Voltaire

    Nope. I fact, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

    Truth matters!

  10. Ben says:

    You know what, I think I disagree. I don’t completely care if Summers addresses the Regents, but I don’t think it is wrong to want him disinvited. It is not a violation of freedom of speech to disinvite someone from giving a speech at the Regents dinner. It would be a violation if people said Summers couldn’t talk anywhere on a UC campus. It would clearly be a huge problem if people didn’t let Summers give a talk at a UC on, say, economic policy. But an invitation to address the Regents carries an imprimatur and prestige that giving a 4 pm talk in Classroom 201 does not. Most of us will never get anywhere near addressing the Regents. I guarantee that if someone wilth controversial political views on an explosive issue (like say Israel and Palestine) was invited to address the Regents, there would be an uproar. The Regents want to hear from bigshots and leaders; the Regents deal in university governance, and that reminds us of what Summers failed spectacularly at, leadership and governance.

    Summers did a bad job. Most of us without tenure protections who did that bad a job would get canned. And we wouldn’t get invitations to speak at a Regents dinner. Let’s see Larry Summers rehabilitate his reputation starting from the 4 pm talk in Classroom 201.

  11. Elliot says:

    Belzian wrote:

    “What can we make of the fact that it’s about a billion times easier for a leftist to speak on right-wing talk radio than it is for a rightist speak on left-wing college campuses?”

    If that is in fact the case (please provide evidence), it should not be that way.

    Can you please identify those “left wing” college campuses”? When I attended Caltech, Robert McNamara was on the Board of Trustees. Not exactly left wing. Many institutions, including Caltech and MIT, get/got hundreds of millions in DOD research money. Hardly left wing institutions in my view.

    My particular brand of left includes the ACLU who I believe has stood solidly for freedom of expression on both sides of the aisle.

    Elliot

  12. Sean says:

    Ben, I know what you mean. This is not really a “freedom of speech” or even “academic freedom” issue; I shouldn’t have used the latter term at all. It’s a matter of “how do we express disapproval when someone who once said something with which we strongly disagree gets invited to give a dinner speech by our governing body” issue, whatever you want to call that. I’m not defending the original choice to invite Summers, just questioning the petition calling for his disinvitation.

    My thing is, although Summers was radically off-base in his original speech, he has not compounded his mistake by taking up the banner of pretending discrimination doesn’t exist, as for example Pinker has. Quite the opposite. And he does have things he’s recognized for other than that one speech. It’s not a stretch to imagine why the UC Regents might want to hear what he has to say.

    Besides which, there should be an extremely strong presumption against trying to get speakers disinvited, no matter what they have to say. If they represent a viewpoint with which you disagree, use the opportunity to explain the disagreement.

  13. Ben says:

    Sean, I pretty much agree with your strong presumption. If I were on the UC faculty, I might not sign the petition, but I wouldn’t regard its existence as a threat to the ideal of a university, either. Possibly the best resolution would be to have Summers speak on whatever he wants to speak on, and at the next dinner, the Regents should invite a prominent woman scientist to speak on the problems facing women in science and what the Regents might be able to do about it. (By which I mean not just overt discrimination, but retention, family/work issues, and so on – which affect everybody, but seem to fall especially hard on women scientists.) Because it’s possible or likely that nobody’s ever given that talk at a Regents dinner.

  14. jd says:

    “Among the “image” problems alluded to above, stuff likes this makes it possible for conservatives to beat the drum of leftist intolerance.”

    That seems like an important consideration. I often wonder why my fellow progressives are not very pragmatic in these matters. In any case, if we need to find right-wing targets to ostracize, Larry Summers would not seem to be high on the list.

  15. Belizean says:

    Elliot wrote:

    If that is in fact the case, (please provide evidence), it should not be that way.

    [Italics added.]

    Are you kidding me? Are we not discussing a distinguished liberal who, as a consequence of momentarily deviating from the leftism line, has spent months groveling for forgiveness, has publicly excoriated himself, has steered millions of dollars toward leftist programs to atone for his sins, and was nevertheless still dis-invited to speak at a college campus?

    If Larry Summers isn’t welcome, do you think that Dick Cheney would be?

    Meanwhile, right-ring radio eagerly invites guys like Howard Zinn. These radio shows actually rely on the lively debate that results. It makes their shows more interesting and thereby boosts their ratings.

    Also, because Caltech and MIT are both dominated by the hard sciences and engineering, leftist rule — spreading as it does from the sociology, anthropology, womens studies, and other woolly-headed departments — is relatively weak on their campuses.

  16. Blake Stacey says:

    Whoa. There’s a difference between woolly-minded, quantum-spirituality-spouting “leftists” and scientists/engineers who espouse liberal social and economic views. At MIT, the latter weren’t very hard to find, but the former are only present in homeopathic quantities.

    Larry Summers managed to piss off the latter kind of leftist, too (I was there, I watched), by talking bad science and generally being a doofus about an issue which matters to scientists.

  17. Elliot says:

    I guess we could go on but wasn’t it the University of Chicago school of economics who ….Chile…. oh never mind… I can see this is going to be a case of 2 hound dogs trying to cover the same fire hydrant. My comment that everyone left and right should be able to speak freely on college campuses stands independent of what may or may not be the reality in the world.

    One final point. I think the Summers/Harvard case may have been more complex than right/left. From what I have “heard”, he threatened the faculty power structure and that was his undoing. Now is it a liberal faculty at Harvard. Sure but there may be more to the story than external politics. It’s the internal politics that’ll kill ya.

    Regards,

    Elliot

  18. Sam Gralla says:

    Well Sean, I don’t know how much you know about UC politics, but if there’s a place in the US where “an academic far-left establishment [seeks] to use universities as a base for political activism,” it’s there.

  19. Chanda says:

    I think that there are plenty of reasons to disinvite Larry that have nothing to do with his comments about women.

    One might be that upon starting as President, he told a group of Latino students that there was no need for a Latin American studies department, and the reason for having an AfAm department was because Blacks were relevant to the civil war. This was never reported on, but several people know the story. I heard it from one of the students who went to petition him.

    Another might be his famous World Bank memo, which many people in academia, particularly the social sciences know about. Several of us who were at Harvard when he was selected to be president were completely horrified upon reading the note that they would choose such a man to represent them. The memo can be found here.

    Like his gross comments about the natural capacity of our female minds, he also claimed ignorance on this front — saying he had only signed the note but someone else had written it. I think we can all safely say we’ve heard enough excuses like that from another administration to question the logic and verity. Regardless, he either displayed poor leadership or gross judgment, neither of which reflects well on him.

    (And had Summers not been the president of the university, I am unconvinced that he would have not defended his comments. Perhaps I am jaded by working with too many lying administrators, but then again, why should he be any different? We are not required to believe in a man who would )

    Finally, I should add that before one gets on about UC and the liberal conspiracy, it ought to be noted that it was UC students and administration who lead the charge to an end to affirmative action, which has been a tragedy for the UC. I can’t think of anything more opposite to a liberal conspiracy than a strategy that has effectively reduced UCLA to begging Black students to attend their campus, after decades of being one of the most diverse universities in the US. I know one application reader for UCLA who quit because she simply couldn’t stand to watch the decline of the university’s enrolment anymore.

    Moreover, as a former member of the governing board of the UC Student Association, the statewide student government, I can say with some authority that measures such as the anti-affirmative action one are par for the course in the UC administration. Reguarly Governor Schwarzenneger and the regents attempt to cut funding from the only programs that support low-income students and students of colour as well as financial aid and a host of other items necessary for a public university to remain accessible to the larger public. It is the students themselves, both grassroots activists and UCSA, as well as their supporters, who have had to stand in their way.

    The fact that for once they actually showed some principled action gives me hope that they are not entirely a lost cause. Perhaps UC can be returned to its former glory as a university that was both high quality and accessible to all those meeting its entry requirements, as outlined in its original charter, not just the ones who can pay for it.

    As far as I am concerned, disinviting Larry was a step in the right direction.

  20. Chanda says:

    Sigh, my fantastic mousework lead to a sentence getting cut. My parenthetical comment should have read:
    (And had Summers not been the president of the university, I am unconvinced that he would have not defended his comments. Perhaps I am jaded by working with too many lying administrators, but then again, why should he be any different? We are not required to believe in a man who would send dirty industries to poor countries because they are poorer than the rest.)

  21. daisy rose says:

    It is true what Larry Summers said about women in science – there is a huge gulf – certainly there have been and are remarkable women – but the numbers speak. There is a real disconnect in mens thinking that makes the sort of cold analytical – minuendus thinking enjoyable. passing the ranks of the many.

    Larry Summers should not be censored – that is jut mean.

  22. John says:

    @Chanda… you write “Perhaps UC can be returned to its former glory as a university that was both high quality and accessible to all those meeting its entry requirements”

    Here is what was reported three years back: (“http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/education/20040309-9999-1n9admit.html)

    “Asian-American students are less likely to be admitted into the University of California than students from other racial groups with comparable academic qualifications, according to a UC study released yesterday.

    “Additionally, African-American and Latino students are more likely to be admitted than students from other ethnic groups, when most other factors are considered equal, the study said.

    “UC President Robert Dynes said yesterday that he is concerned about the unexplained differences in admission rates and called for further investigation before the 2005 admissions cycle begins.

    “Dynes noted that the differences in admission rates of similarly qualified students has dropped significantly since Proposition 209 was passed. The 1996 law dismantled many of California’s affirmative action programs.”

    According to this article, the UC President associated removal of affirmative action programs with lower “differences in admission rates of similarly qualified students.” I’m curious why your apparently anecdotal experience is different than the results reported above, given your position. Any ideas?

  23. Michael Bacon says:

    I’ve seen a lot of reporting, commenting and blogging on the Summers speach, but I’d never read it. So, inspired by this blog, I did. I think it would be useful for everyone commenting who hasn’t read the speach (and the Q&A session that followed) to do so. This should help inform the discussion. Here is the link:

    http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html

  24. Chris Crawford says:

    If I may commit minor topic drift, I’d like to ask a dumb question. I’ve seen plenty of evidence in support of the hypothesis that women in science are discriminated against. But I have not seen evidence against the hypothesis that innate differences play some role. Moreover, I would expect it to be extremely difficult to disprove that hypothesis — proving a negative has always been difficult. I have seen evidence that some innate factors do not play a role, but I have yet to see anything approaching conclusive evidence. Can anybody point me to such evidence?