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Harvard President Larry Summers on
Deserving and Undeserving Humans

by Michael K. Smith
March 17, 2005

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The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences has voted 218-185 that it “lacks confidence” in President Larry Summers’ leadership, the first such vote in nearly 400 years at Harvard. The rebuke came in the wake of an uproar caused by comments he made in January suggesting that women are less capable of high scientific achievement than men.


Long reputed to be brilliant, Summers is especially noted for bold defenses of dominant ideology. For example, as chief economist at the World Bank in 1992, he argued in a memo leaked to the Economist that African countries were “vastly underpolluted.” More specifically, he wrote that, “The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” His reasoning was that since premature death in low-wage countries entails less foregone earnings and lost productivity than elsewhere, “dirty industries” belong in the Third World. On the strength of such insights Summers was appointed Treasury Secretary by Bill Clinton.

While the poor deserve our toxic garbage, Israel has a permanent right to huge U.S. subsidies in carrying out apartheid and mass murder. In 2001, Summers contended that a movement calling for Harvard to divest from Israel was “anti-Semitic in effect if not their intent,” on the pretext that an aversion to funding a Jewish-supremacist colonial settler state can only be a reflection of irrational hatred of Jews -- who can do no wrong.

In January of this year Summers gave what would prove to be a controversial speech to a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce. He argued that the dearth of women in high university positions in math and science is largely due to the fact that: (1) far more girls than boys are interested in becoming mothers; (2) fewer women than men desire high-powered careers requiring 80-hour work weeks; (3) more men than women are intrinsically capable of the highest performance in math and science. In short, the relevant female talent pool is smaller than its male counterpart to begin with and that pool dries up altogether as women choose less intense employment commitments in order to raise children.

Ah, yes, women are choosing their lot and may lack the intellectual tools for the highest success in any case. A sterling example of Summers’ “originality”.

Decent man that he is, Summers confessed that he yearned to believe women weren't inferior but that the facts forced him to conclude otherwise. He quickly headed off charges of sexism by observing relevant analogies like Catholics being underrepresented in investment banking, white men in the N.B.A., and Jews in farming and agriculture. No doubt it's all that anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-white imagery in the mass media.

Summers nowhere revealed how he arrived at the quaint conclusion that intellectual performance determines whether one rises or falls in the university hierarchy. But according to Lawrence Soley, author of Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia, the nimble brain is far less important than the greased palm in academic career advancement.

“Professors who cultivate corporate ties get perks, promotion, and endowed professorships, and move up the university hierarchy. They determine whether other, younger professors will also get promoted and tenured. Thus young professors’ academic records are evaluated by full professors, endowed chairs, administrators, and trustees whose criteria for granting tenure are whether the professor has brought in corporate or government grant monies, not whether the professor's scholarship is original or whether she or he is an effective teacher.”

Therefore, Summers’ forthright opposition to quotas on the grounds that they might stigmatize new (female) hires as intellectually unqualified makes perfect sense. Obviously, only the most intellectually gifted candidates are properly able to prostitute the university to corporations. So hit the books and keep a double set to record the bribes.

As for science and math disciplines specifically, Soley has this to say:

“The real story is about university physics and electrical engineering departments being seduced by Pentagon contracts; molecular biology, biochemistry, and medicine departments being wooed by drug companies and biotech firms . . . universities . . . will turn a trick for anybody with money to invest.”

It sure sounds like an intrinsic female incapacity for high level math and science achievement is the main problem here, doesn't it? But let's see, if women are opting out of advancement in totally degrading circumstances like these, might not simple disgust be a likelier explanation? Yes, I know, why would women opt out more frequently than men? Maybe because they are less tolerant of the crippling effects of hierarchy? I'm sure Summers will come up with the data substantiating this thesis any day now.

To be fair, Summers concedes that women scientists and mathematicians are equal in mediocrity, asserting their inferiority only in excellence. So we've come a long way since 1916, when Stanford professor Lewis Terman discovered females of all ages outscoring their male age mates by an average of 2 to 4 percent on the original version of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, an unacceptable result for the perfectly sound reason that the male ego couldn't tolerate it. Naturally, Terman and his colleagues had little choice but to delete test items that females scored better on and add ones that males found easier to answer. Presto! Males and females were intellectual equals. Thank God for affirmative action.

One can only hope that women will continue to resist efforts to help them perfect the obsessive compulsive advancement disorder that delivers the ulcers, heart attacks, and chronic anxiety men routinely enjoy as they ascend the ladder of excess. Maybe we could even consider abolishing the punitive conditions of “high powered” careers altogether, so that men and women alike could enjoy some recognizably human existence. Granted, this option has the drawback of undermining round-the-clock production, but if decent conditions of work were allowed to prevail, a more cooperative and leisured pattern of productive achievement might emerge, with a corresponding decline in the importance of individual “merit”, followed by a well-rounded, satisfying, less pecuniary life for all. But only in a worst-case scenario.

The same year Summers praised the economic advantages of burying the poor in toxic waste, Fortune magazine editorialized on gender pay inequities as follows: “At the same level of management, the typical woman's pay is lower than her male colleague's -- even when she has the exact same qualifications, works just as many years, relocates just as often, provides the main financial support for her family, takes no time off for personal reasons, and wins the same number of promotions to comparable jobs.” Say, you don't suppose ethical incompetence is intrinsic to corporations, do you?

Incidentally, after his remarks occasioned such a stir, Summers generously conceded that his allusions to female inferiority in math and science went beyond what evidence shows.

And all it took was a simple clubbing over the head.

Michael K. Smith is the author of Portraits of Empire, The Madness of King George, and Rise To Empire (forthcoming), all from Common Courage Press.

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