A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Oh THAT Ivory Tower: Churchill vs. Summers, Part IV-- Faculty Reasoning

All right, now that we have a baseline for the two letters circulated, let's take a closer look at the reasons some of the faculty gave for not signing the Summers letter. While I will not include names (this is not about who did what, but rather the overall issue of faculty thinking), I will indicate whether the faculty member endorsed the Churchill letter or not. I find it much easier to accept faculty who chose to endorse both letters (there were three) on the basis of academic freedom, or neither letter, on the basis that while they have the right to say whatever they wish, there are other issues that make endorsement in both cases problematic, than those faculty who endorsed Churchill but not Summers. Before proceeding, I should also note that the staff and students that signed the Summers' letter did not sign the Churchill letter.

First, a sample from those that signed neither letter:

I didn't sign the Churchill letter from Ethnic Studies. Although I am a firm believer in free speech and academic freedom, I felt uncomfortable with the text of the letter and my discomfort wasn't eased by the various emails I read.

I don't think the Summers case is comparable, however. Churchill is an ordinary faculty member, not the leader of the university. He is entitled to his views, however repugnant many find these to be. He should not be fired for his views.

Summers' remarks are not necessarily more defensible or sophisticated and cannot, in my opinion, be so easily dismissed as an innocent "hypothesis" about the position of women in higher education. That is why he has been roundly criticized, and why I assume he has also apologized. Be that as it may, Summers is in a position of leadership. In order to be an effective leader, he must depend on the good will and support of the faculty. Pressure for Summersto resign is not, I think, a curtailing of his free speech, but an indication that he has lost, to what extent is unclear right now, the support and trust of the faculty in his role as leader of the university. Ultimately, it is up to the faculty, and whatever board oversees Harvard's President, to determine whether he can continue to be an effective leader. Certainly his apology goes a long way towards doing just that. But this is ultimately up to Harvard.

Okay, fair enough. There is a case to be made for not supporting Summers completely separate from his comments at the NBER confence. I find that case to be unconvincing, but the above points are thoughtful and on point. I also disagree that the two cases aren't comparable, and my reasons for that will be expanded on in the next email, which contains the text of an earlier email from a faculty member that signed the Churchill letter, but not the Summers letter as well as my email response. Got all that? No? Well, hopefully it'll make sense shortly.

So, here's that email. My comments are in green. The faculty member's, whom I am responding to, are in blue:

A not so brief response to xxxx's perspective on the Larry Summers' case and why she won't be signing my letter of support. Fair warning-- it really isn't brief. But hopefully it will capture a bit more of my reasoning for sending the letter in the first place, as well as why I did not sign the Churchill letter.

I wish to respond to the e-mails defending Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University who said that the cause of women's underrepresentation in science is that women have less natural ability than men.

At the risk of escalating this to a level that is beyond its importance, and with all due respect, that is not what he said. He said that men seem to have a greater variation in aptitude in science at the extreme far ends of the bell curve, which, at a top 25 research facility like Harvard, would likely be sufficient to explain, in part, why there is a larger number of men than women. Summers also said that social factors and discrimination were the other two major reasons for the under representation of women in science, though he did list the intrinsic factors as the likely most significant of the three. In addition, Summers noted, several times, that he was trying to be provocative, that he did not have a complete grasp of all the issues, and that he hoped to be proven wrong. After the furor his comments raised, he wrote a letter of apology and explanation to the faculty, in which he admits that he should not have attempted to speak on such a controversial topic without a thorough understanding of the research, that he was sorry for any offense caused, and that he has since talked with a number of experts in the field who agree that his conclusions were not supported by the data. I refer you once again to his actual comments, and his subsequent apology:

No, the Churchill case and Larry Summers cases are not all that similar at all. I do not think that Summers' case can be defended on the basis of academic freedom.

After further consideration, I tend to agree with you. They aren't thatsimilar, but not for the reasons you list below. They aren't that similar because Summers, once he realized he had gone too far in making his point--which, by the way was to prompt more discussion of why women are under represented in science, not to imply that this was as it shouldbe--backed away from his overstated conclusions, apologized for any offense given, and promised to work more closely with the faculty in the future. Ward Churchill has steadfastly refused to step back from his overstated and repulsive conclusions, has refused to apologize to any that he has offended, and has instead belittled anyone who has taken serious issue with his statements. Both used excessively provocative rhetoric to bring public attention to the central issue they wished to be discussed--why women are under represented in the sciences in Summers' case, and whether U.S. foreign policy is partially or completely to blame for the attacks of 9/11 in Churchill's case. One realized he stepped over the line with his rhetoric, accepted responsibility for that, apologized, and promised to try to avoid such circumstances in the future. The other appears to glory in the firestorm, refuses to apologize, and not only does not mitigate or retract his rhetoric, he repeats it and expands upon it.

You can make the argument that neither man deserves support from anybody. You can make the argument that both men deserve support simply from the perspective of free speech. But if you make the argument that only one or the other deserves support, I simply don't see how you can say Churchill is entitled to his offensive positions, but Summers' isn't. I do think a case can be made in support of Summers' while still refusing to support Churchill. Which is good--as that is the position I find myself in. As to xxxx's specific points as to why it is okay to support Churchill but not Summers:

1. Churchill is a faculty member at the University of Colorado, Larry Summers is the president of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. As an administrator he is in a totally different position of power compared to faculty. And with this power comes responsibility! His opinions about women's ability carry a different weight than do the opinions of faculty. He has the power to affect hiring decisions, promotion decisions, pay, research resources, set policy, etc for Harvard University. In other words, one may worry that his stereotypes about women have contributed to gender discrimination, an illegal practice.

I don't disagree that with power comes responsibility, but if power and responsibility are the issue, then I don't really see how you can support Churchill, but not Summers. Churchill is also in a position of power and responsibility-- with every student he teaches or advises. Arguably, his position is more important and influential than that of a top administrator, as he has regular contact with the students and has the huge responsibility of being one of the forces influencing their intellectual, social and moral development. Additionally, part of being responsible is admitting you made a mistake, apologizing for it, and working to avoid similar mistakes in the future. This Summers has done. Churchill has yet to even pretend to be contrite or apologetic.

As to Summers' power and your "worry that his stereotypes about women have contributed to gender discrimination, an illegal practice," well, in the first place, I think you are mischaracterizing President Summers' "stereotypes about women." From what he has written, granted a small sample, it would seem to me that he is more interested in finding the roots of those stereotypes then with perpetuating them. In the second place, is there any evidence of Summers practicing gender discriminationin hiring or resource allocation? Has Harvard shown a significant or systematic tendency to exclude or inhibit women or minorities under Summers' leadership? If so, then by all means, let's get rid of Summers and prosecute him. If not, then it seems a stretch to me to conclude from a speech that was meant to be provocative, in which the speaker expresses the hope that he is proven incorrect, to conclude that the speaker's opinions of women are so reprehensible that he is no longer capable of being the president of a major research institution and may well beactively involved in illegal activities.

2. I emphatically state that his statements about women are not those of a scholar. He has not conducted any research on the subject! As someone who has devoted her professional life to researching the causes of women's underrepresentation in science and IT I am in a position to evaluate the scholarly nature of his statements. To put it bluntly, his statements revealed his stereotypes and a profound lack of understanding of the complexities of the underlying issues.

Well, Summers never claimed to be an expert or a scholar in this field, and he expressed the hope that he would be proven wrong. It appears he has been. He has withdrawn his conclusions--is this not how these things are supposed to work? Summers' offers a hypothesis, it is proven to be wrong, or overstated, and he says, "sorry, my mistake" and everyone goes back to the drawing board. Hopefully, they go back to the drawing board with a fresh perspective on the issue and hopefully with a much broader awareness amongst non-academics that there even is an issue. As a researcher that has devoted your professional career to researching the causes of women's under representation in the sciences, I would think that Summers' faux paus would be an excellent opportunity to tout the counter-argument. Instead of reprimanding and condemning the messenger, let's prove the message to be incorrect, and highlight the other explanations for the situation. Isn't that what academic research and academic freedom are supposed to be all about?

Well, anyway, I've blathered on rather a lot longer than I intended, and I hope that what I have written causes no offense or indignation to any or all concerned. If you do not wish to sign a letter of support for President Summers, that is perfectly fine, and you are easily amongst the majority. To date, only three others besides myself have indicated that they wish to be included. Despite this, I still intend to send the letter to the Harvard Fellows either tomorrow or Monday, and I thank everyone who has volunteered to sign onto the letter. If you do wish to be added to the letter, simply email me or the list.

Best regards to all,
Nick Weber

Okay, so that's there's the reasoning of faculty opposed to supporting Summers, but in favor of supporting Churchill. 1. Summers has more power and they think maybe he's abusing that power because he challenged the standard perspective on things. His apologies, apparently, carry little or no weight. 2. He isn't a researcher and doesn't know what he's talking about. Again, apparently, his acknowledgement that he overstated his conclusions carries little or no weight.

To date, no one has responded to my contention that Churchill bears a large, albeit slightly different, responsibility since he is in direct contact with students. To date, no one has responded to my contention that leaders should be willing to admit their mistakes and try to make amends. To date, no one has emailed me to acknowledge that perhaps Summers' handling of a provocative issue has been far, far superior to Churchill's and because of that if either man deserves support from academia, it is the adminstrator, not the faculty member, we should be siding with. To the contrary, faculty here continue to denounce Summers and support Churchill. Frankly, I find the position that Summers' case can not be defended on the basis of academic freedom but Churchill's can be quite, quite mind boggling. And disheartening in the extreme.

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