The Last on Larry?

Well, I’ve read through the transcript fairly carefully now. My one overwhelming impression is that Summers isn’t an expert on brain chemistry or learning styles, nor is he an expert on gender differences, real or perceived. In other words, he chose to speak at a conference on a topic about which he knows little and about which he has read little. He did so in simplistic terms calculated to “provoke” (read: offend). It was irresponsible. I guess the only good that can come of it is that people are talking about why fewer women are successful in academic careers in the maths and sciences. I think anyone who suggests that the main reason (or even a secondary reason) for this can be traced to innate differences is a moron. While psychologists have long known that differences in brain chemistry mean that girls and boys learn differently, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that these differences denote inferiority on the parts of girls or boys. When one speaks of innate differences, one is harkening back to the age of scientific racism, in which “innate differences” between blacks and whites connoted the superior intelligence of whites. No one believes that kind of racist analysis anymore; there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should entertain the sexist version of that postulate either. I don’t think Larry Summers actually believes that girls are inferior to boys–but in his ignorance his language suggested it. That is what made people so angry.

I also think that a lot of the rage directed at Larry was for other reasons–being angry about his thoughtless comments masked anger about his management style. One wonders why, when the endowment has reached record highs, research librarians are being laid off, the library budgets are falling, and the graduate students’ dental insurance is being cancelled. The reason, as I see it (and as many others see it) is that Summers is so focused on the expansion of the university into Allston that university resources that would otherwise be spent on, say, libraries and grad students, is being poured into that effort. There’s a lot of subsurface anger at budget cuts that hurt the university’s mission–teaching and research–and that came to the surface when Summers made a fool out of himself.


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