Harvard Acts on Diversity Concerns

Harvard President Lawrence Summers (search) committed his university Monday to spending $50 million over the next decade on a range of programs — from mentoring to child care to late-night transport — aimed at improving the climate for women scientists, many of whom were angered by his remarks that questioned female aptitude for top-level math and science.

Summers said he would implement recommendations made by two committees he appointed in February, at the height of the outcry over his remarks at an academic conference a month earlier. The recommendations range from better advising for students to earmarking money for developing a more diverse faculty.

They also call for graduate students in the sciences to be instructed on gender bias before they are given teaching assignments.

"Universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men and for men," Summers said during a news conference call. "To fully succeed on these issues we're going to have to address issues of culture."

Summers said he would begin working immediately on some of the initiatives, including the appointment of a senior administrator on faculty diversity — something he had already endorsed. But he also said details of many of the proposals remained to be worked out.

"I guess the question is, 'Is there really going to be some meat to this or is it all window-dressing?"' said Mary Waters (search), the chair of Harvard's sociology department and an outspoken critic of Summers.

At a conference in January at the National Bureau of Economic Research (search), Summers said that innate differences in ability between the genders may partly explain why fewer women are in the pipeline for top science jobs.

Summers apologized repeatedly for his remarks, and appointed the two task forces — one on women at Harvard, one on women in science more generally — though many academics, alumni and students defended him.

On Harvard's campus in Cambridge, the controversy became part of a more general debate about Summers' leadership style, which supporters call bold but critics say is blunt and imperious.

Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the central body of the university, passed a symbolic no-confidence vote in Summers' leadership in March.

Among the recommendations are funding for departments to hire outstanding scholars even if there is no departmental opening. But Harvard officials denied the university would pursue "affirmative action hires" who were not up to standards.

"We're not going to change or lower any of the standards that exist here at Harvard," said Evelynn Hammonds, a professor of history of science and of African and African-American studies, who chaired the task force on women faculty.

Harvard officials described the recommendations as touching on the pipeline of scientific talent at various points along the way — from undergraduate research to mentoring for graduate students and junior faculty — and said their implementation would benefit the entire university, not just women.

But one outside observer said Harvard remains far from path-breaking on the topic of nurturing women scientists and faculty generally.

"Mostly I see it as catching up," said Elizabeth Ivey (search), former president of the University of Hartford and president of the Association for Women in Science (search). "Much of what they're talking about has been done at other institutions for 30 or 40 years."