The Corner

Re: Summers

Jonah, I’ve now read the transcript of the Summers talk,

although not yet the Q & A. I agree with you that the campaign against

Summers is an outrageous inquisition. Summers’s talk is very

thoughtful. It makes a perfectly reasonable case that biology might play

a role in career choice. Summers has been attacked for using the weak

anecdotal example of his daughters’ reaction to toy trucks, but he in

fact invokes a number of important arguments for a biological role in sex

differences¬the Israeli kibbutz experience, separated twin studies, our

changing views on the causes of autism, and divergent career outcomes in

spite of a growing pool of women with graduate educations in mathematics

and engineering. All of these arguments can be challenged, and Summers’s

admits that. But if it is illegitimate even to put this sort of argument

forward, then free speech at Harvard is a thing of the past.

Something else emerges from these transcripts that I think helps

to explain this whole flap. I don’t doubt that those who are complaining

about Summers are infuriated at biological explanations. But it’s pretty

clear from this transcript that their deeper goal is to get rid of

Summers because he is asking too many uncomfortable questions about the

way affirmative action works. In this talk, Summers calls for research

on whether affirmative action does what it claims to do. Do diversity

searches really find top quality professors who were only being

overlooked because they are minorities, or do these searches only yield

professors of middling or low quality? Summers also points out

contradictions in what diversity advocates are asking for. Some of them

want faculty picked on purely objective criteria like number of papers

published. This will supposedly eliminate subtle hiring

discrimination. But other diversity advocates want the opposite. They

call for choosing minority candidates based on subjective considerations

like potential and collegiality, supposedly to overcome the

discrimination built into “objective” criteria. Summers asks, which is

it? He also wants data to back up the choice of strategy.

So in this talk, Summers is subtly but clearly exposing the

contradictions and secrets of the campus diversity industry. By calling

for objective proof that diversity searches really produce faculty equal

in quality to color blind or sex blind searches, Summers is laying out a

standard that he knows diversity proponents can’t meet. And the

contradictory criteria thrown up by diversity advocates are just

different ways of getting to the numbers they want. By calling for

objective studies of which strategy actually works, Summers is exposing

the failings and contradictions of the whole diversity enterprise. I

think this is the deeper reason why Summers is in trouble. His

pro-affirmative action opponents can’t openly condemn him for asking

these questions, so they’ve focused on the biology issue instead.