BOSTON – Harvard President Lawrence Summers (search) said he relented and released a transcript of his provocative remarks on women in science to help his school get beyond the furor the comments created. But heading into a potentially contentious meeting with faculty on Tuesday they seemed to spark another round of debate.
The transcript of Summers' remarks, given at a National Bureau of Economic Research (search) conference last month and made public Thursday, shows him arguing that intrinsic differences between the sexes, along with family pressure and employer demands, probably play a bigger role than cultural factors and discrimination in explaining why fewer women than men have top science jobs.
Summers got a vote of confidence from the Harvard Corporation (search), the university's governing body, as the transcript was release: The board's senior member posted a letter Thursday expressing support for the school president. Summers could face a no-confidence vote by faculty next week, though only the Harvard Corporation could fire him.
Harvard faculty — both critics and supporters — said there were few surprises as they read the transcript, but that both sides would likely find support for their arguments in Summers' exact wording.
"Even though he mentions certain things as hypotheses, by even mentioning them he's broken a few taboos," said Steven Pinker, a prominent Harvard brain chemist who has publicly supported Summers. "But I thought it was a very careful and analytical treatment of the problem."
But psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke said in reading the remarks she found them "wrong point by point," though she welcomed the release of the transcript.
In Harvard's science center Friday morning, a number of students said they hadn't digested the 6,700-word transcript but planned to. One who had read it said she thought it cast Summers in a slightly more favorable light.
Sopen Shah, a pre-med undergraduate, said she had come to believe "Summers didn't mean to be offensive, maybe he's just misinformed." Still, she added, "the fact that he said it doesn't reflect well." She added: "He's the president of Harvard. When you're in that position you can't say controversial things without controversy."
Summers' comments have had an impact well beyond Harvard's campus. The presidents of Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have criticized him, and graduate students at Yale protested Thursday because their school's president, Richard Levin, has not spoken out on the Summers matter.
Summers said in a letter posted on Harvard's Web site that he released the document reluctantly, at the request of faculty members and in the hope of helping two committees he has appointed to explore gender issues get on with their work.
The transcript appears to support Summers' contention that he was discussing how, in the general population, men are more likely to have science and math test scores in the highest and lowest ranges, while women's scores are more clustered in the middle.
But in explaining why fewer women scientists rise to the top, Summers said he was inclined to favor family pressure and biology as explanations over discrimination and social factors.
In his Jan. 14 remarks, Summers repeatedly emphasized that he was "guessing," attempting to provoke and hoped to be proved wrong.
"So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity," Summers said at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in Cambridge.
"In the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination," he said.
Summers, who has apologized repeatedly for the way in which he addressed biological factors, reiterated in his letter that "if I could turn back the clock, I would have spoken differently on matters so complex."