President Lawrence H. Summers was a source of controversy at Harvard, but he always made science a top priority.

summers.jpg Summers surrounded by students sad to see him leave. They must all be science majors.  Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

During his time at Harvard, Larry Summers made George W. Bush look like a unifying president.

Summers’ five-year term—according to the Harvard Crimson, the shortest of a Harvard president since the Civil War—was marred by strong, often politically incorrect statements that caused deep rifts between faculty, students and the Harvard Corporation, one of the school’s two governing bodies. Say what you will about the few notable comments that, as he admits in his resignation letter, could have been made “in wiser or more respectful ways,” but when Summers tendered his resignation last week, Harvard lost a steadfast advocate for the sciences.

“Summers is very pro-science,” said Harvard physics professor Melissa Franklin via email. “The science faculty had far more interaction with Summers than with either of the two previous presidents. And there was strong support for Summers among the science faculty. He was fun to talk to about science and he was very respectful on a one-to-one basis.”

In a February 2004 speech to the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Southern California, Summers emphasized the need for the university’s students to be well-versed in the life sciences. “If you didn’t know the name of five plays by Shakespeare, you would be embarrassed to admit it,” he said. “But if you didn’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, that’s a technical subject.”

“I don’t think that’s going to work for the next 50 years,” he proclaimed. “I think science is too important to leave to scientists.”

Still, Summers took steps to ensure the sophisticated research ultimately left to scientists was well tended. In 2003, under his leadership, Harvard joined MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research to form the Broad Institute, a center that aims to use genomics to a clinical end, gaining greater understanding of diseases and searching for cures.

“When the history of our era is written, the fundamental understanding we have gained of human nature through genomics and all that follows from that understanding will be one of the major stories,” Summers said at the Institute’s launch.

Summers also planned and launched the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which aims to realize the medical potential of stem cells. According to a report in the Crimson, Summers created the center, in the 2003-2004 academic year, partially in response to Bush’s restrictive policy on federal funding for stem cell research, hoping that Harvard could obtain private money for the work. In his speech at the inauguration of the institute, Summers announced that, in order to be successful in stem cell technology, there would need to be collaboration not only between scientists, but also among experts in different fields, including law, ethics and theology.

In addition, Summers planned the development of new science buildings in Harvard’s North Yard and across the Charles River in Allston, MA, the latter of which will span the area of 25 football fields. The first phase of construction is already underway and includes the Northwest Science Building, the Biological Research Infrastructure and the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering.

While Summers has fed science with planning, funding and verbal support, the blank between the terms “Larry Summers” and “science” will most frequently be filled by a phrase that says something like, “thinks women aren’t good at,” because of a lecture he gave in January 2005.

At the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and the Engineering Workforce, Summers famously posited that the dearth of women in science professorships may, at least partially, be explained by innate differences in aptitude between the sexes.

“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability,” he said, “there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.” He noted that physicists working at any of the top 25 research universities would be three and a half to four standard deviations above the mean and that “even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially.” In other words, even if women have the same mean aptitude for math and science as men, their science aptitude distribution is less spread out, so there are fewer extraordinarily inclined women than extraordinarily inclined men.

Summers’ comments prompted MIT biologist and Harvard grad Nancy Hopkins to walk out of the lecture in disgust and subsequently report his comments to the Boston Globe. That scoop precipitated heated editorials and widespread denunciations of Summers in major newspapers all over the world. In March of last year, 253 members of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to say they lacked confidence in Summers’ leadership.

“As to the remarks last winter, I think they were unfortunate and unhelpful,” said physics professor Franklin. “But I don’t think they were the reason he was forced to resign. The faculty used these remarks as a springboard to launch a broader campaign against him.”

The “campaign” dealt its final blow shortly after Summers apparently forced William C. Kirby, the dean of the faculty, to resign. In response, 13 professors verbally railed on Summers for an hour at a February 7 full meeting of the faculty. Nobody came to his defense. The enraged professors also planned a vote on a “no-confidence motion” for their next meeting.

On Tuesday, February 21, Summers announced he would resign effective June 30, saying, “The rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future.”

On Wednesday February 22, an editorial in the Crimson praised Summers’ commitment to the sciences:

“Given the occasion to address a crowd, Summers rarely failed to mention his belief that this era would be defined by a revolution in the life sciences and by the quickening pace of globalization,” the editorial read. “It is the prerogative of and, more, the duty of a university president to shift a university’s focus when the demands of the era require it.

“Harvard’s greatest leaps of progress have come when its presidents have fought to modernize the University and redefine its role in accordance with the progressive goals of their respective eras.”

A football game t-shirt from Yale, the author’s alma mater, very subtly mocking Summers’ speech on women in science. Credit: Ian Tattersall, Rumpus Magazine.

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Originally published February 26, 2006

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