LOS ANGELES – Former Harvard President Larry Summers, a noted economist who served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, was supposed to speak at last week’s dinner for the members of the Board of Regents at the University of California, Davis. His name was on the invitation. Then a group of mostly women faculty members started circulating a petition protesting the invitation, and Summers was uninvited to speak.
It is one crazy world when the man who rules Iran with an iron hand, denies the Holocaust, and vows to destroy Israel can speak at Columbia University, but the former president of Harvard and former Secretary of the Treasury can’t speak at U.C. Davis.
Larry’s mistake, and it certainly was one, was to suggest two years ago at a conference on women in science that perhaps the continuing gender gap in the sciences might be biological rather than social; that perhaps women were innately less interested or less talented when it comes to science and math.
Larry Summers isn’t the first person to have such thoughts, even if science itself doesn’t establish the existence of these differences, and if he weren’t the president of one of the leading educational institutions in the world, he would not have been fired for expressing them. But he was, and given Harvard’s rather disappointing record of hiring and promoting women to tenured positions, the comment became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back in his strained relationship with his faculty.
OK. So now he’s back to being a professor, and a smart one at that, and someone with a fair amount to say about education and the economy and political correctness on campus.
But if my liberal feminist friends have their way, he won’t be allowed to say it out loud, at least not at any branch of the University of California.
What’s liberal about that? Since when is censorship part of the feminist agenda?
I always thought we liberals were supposed to be in favor of free speech, open discussion, the marketplace of ideas, the notion that good ideas can defeat bad ones. I don’t think Larry Summers is right about women (he has since described his comments as intended to be provocative, and a mistake) but he is right about some things. As president of Harvard, he used his bully pulpit to take on the rising tide of anti-Semitism on campuses, pointing out that when anti-Israel advocacy becomes extreme and overblown, it may well reflect underlying antipathy, conscious as well as unconscious, for Jews.
It was an important position for an educational leader of his stature to take, both because I believe it’s true and because the dominant attitude of liberal political correctness in academia has lead too many faculty members and administrators who agree with Larry to nonetheless remain silent in the face of what amounts to hate speech. As president of Harvard, he actually challenged the University’s most "titled" faculty, university professors, to contribute more to scholarship and academic life, and he wasn’t afraid to do it just because one of his targets happened to be black.
As president of Harvard, he presided over striking changes in the University where I used to teach, changes that have reduced the size of classes and brought senior professors back into contact with undergraduates, making Harvard not only the place to meet the future movers and shakers of one’s generation, but also a place to get a first-rate education.
These are subjects he could — and my guess is would — have addressed with the Regents, making for a worthwhile discussion. As for his views on women, had he chosen to raise them (something I highly doubt) I know a number of the women on the Board of Regents, and I have no doubt they could have handled it just fine.
The world is still full of sexism, conscious and unconscious. Even if Larry no longer holds the view (if indeed he ever did) that women are in some respects innately lacking, there are plenty of people who did. Every university I know of that has done the sort of careful, scientific study of itself that Prof. Nancy Hopkins was the first to demand at MIT has found, as MIT did, a clear pattern of mostly unconscious discrimination reaching to the highest levels where, even among tenured faculty, men are favored over women in the distribution of grants and lab space, appointment to prestigious committees, all the "goodies" that determine who gets to the very top in the academic world.
It does us no good to forcibly silence those who say out loud what others believe in private. It teaches our daughters the wrong lesson when we block the message rather than confront it and win the argument. The challenge for women is not to see ourselves as victims, but to have the courage to fight for what we deserve and have yet to achieve.
The success of the petition drive in getting Larry Summers uninvited to the University of California Regents meeting wasn’t a show of strength for women, at least not in my book, but a sign of weakness, of lack of confidence in themselves and in the Regents and lack of commitment to the academic freedom and open debate that should be at the core of any great University.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.