The president of prestigious Harvard University in the US has come under attack on his own campus for saying that innate differences might explain why women lag in science and maths.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Standing Committee on Women told Lawrence Summers in a letter, signed by 50 professors, that his remarks at a conference did not “serve our institution well".
“Indeed, they serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars,” the letter said.
“They also send at best mixed signals to our high-achieving women students in Harvard College and in the graduate and professional schools.”
Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is regarded as one of the top university’s in the world.
In a return letter, Summers wrote that he did not believe “that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science".
He continued: “I apologise for any adverse impact … on our common efforts to make steady progress in this critical area.”
Summers also said that when he spoke at the National Bureau of Economic Research’s conference, he was presenting hypotheses based on the research of others, rather than offering his personal views.
However the committee said it its letter: “It is obvious that the president of a university never speaks entirely as an individual, especially when that institution is Harvard and when the issue on the table is so highly charged.”
About 50 professors added their name to the committee’s letter.
Summers told the panel it was “clearly right in suggesting that I misjudged the impact of my role as a conference participant".
He said he had hoped to stimulate research on the “many interrelated factors that bear on women’s careers in science. I surely could have done a better job of framing that inquiry".
Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins walked out on Summers’ talk, and other conference participants said they were offended. Others, however, were not.
Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, called the comments “extremely interesting” and said academics need to “look under every rock they can find for the answers to difficult problems".
Conference organisers said Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary, was asked to be provocative, and that he was invited as a top economist, not as a Harvard official.