Insensitive, Uninformed, or Right? The Education of Larry Summers


Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Dear Dr. Clemmons,

With all of the recent attention and controversy surrounding the comments made by the president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, I have become confused. Since I was in kindergarten, I have been told that Harvard was the crème de la crème of institutions of higher education. In fact, I have been planning most of my life to attend Harvard and have studied extremely hard to assure that I gain admission. But when I learned Summers thought there might be a "genetic" explanation for a lack of scientific capability on the part of women and people of color (especially African-Americans), I began to think twice about whether Harvard is the place for me. For that matter, where can I go to get away from this type of thinking?

I am asking myself as an African-American college-bound teenager what real progress has been made in terms of the elimination of palpable discriminatory thinking and practices since the days my mother was denied the types of educational opportunities I have access to today? If Harvard's president believes this type of nonsense in 2005, when will discrimination be overcome, if ever?

Should I even put myself through the ringer and pursue a career in science or engineering if at the end of the day I am still going to be considered a second-class citizen for no reason other than discriminatory or patriarchal thinking?

Sincerely,Disappointed for my Mother

Dear Disappointed,

I understand your pain, and you have every right to be disappointed, but I would never encourage you to forego a Harvard education based on this unfortunate, overblown incident. In fact, Lawrence Summers should be applauded for publicly encouraging a discussion on such a sensitive topic. He has provided an opportunity to discuss the issues that continue to diminish the equality of women and minorities in this country. Society will only gain from it.

Interested in reading how others reacted to Summers's speech and his responses? Check out the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Ugly Truth

Many people still inherently believe in the inferiority of women and people of color when it comes to their ability to perform well in science and engineering, but they don't have the guts to admit it publicly for fear of being politically incorrect. Instead they stereotype people based on race or gender, but Summers's remarks add weight to what many are thinking.

Yet, if you read the transcript of his speech closely, you'll see he raises valid points about the culture of the American workforce and possible causes for low numbers of women and minorities in science and engineering posts. He notes, for example, that family commitments might make it harder for women to work the expected 80 hour weeks than it is for men, and that it's natural for members of the predominant group--white males--to choose people who look like themselves. But, this message is lost because he makes the mistake of introducing genetics as a likely factor for the differences, even though he admits there are plenty of other plausible explanations for the dearth of minorities in high-level scientific or engineering positions.

Race and Gender

Summers clouds the issue further by separating minorities into two groups, people of color and women. In regard to science and engineering positions, underrepresented minorities include women, so separating the two is divisive and nonproductive. Everyone needs to have access to equal opportunities. I bring up this important point because most, if not all, of the press coverage focuses only on his comments regarding women. He also discusses how African-Americans are maligned as a group and are not able to fully access opportunity in certain career fields for a variety of reasons.

What's All the Fuss?

Lawrence Summers's comments drew fire only because he is the president of Harvard University. Similar comments made by a president of a college that is less well known may not have been noticed by even the local press, much less the national media. As a result of my experience in the business world, I know that similar statements are made in corporate America all the time. The consensus among men in power is that minorities do not and cannot perform as well as they--the men in power--can, whether that assumption is substantiated by scientific evidence or not. They fail to realize that Harvard, along with other colleges and universities around the country, have produced a nice crop of women and people of color who can run scientific and engineering circles around them, if given the chance to prove themselves.

Ancestral Knowledge

To honor your mother and all of our ancestors who fought for our legal rights in this country, you need to understand that you owe it to us and to yourself to continue the good fight. If you give up now, I can guarantee that our offspring will be expected to bear more of the same burdens. Yes, the world isn't as it should be. But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Honorable Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others carried the torch for African Americans, using the legal system to gain a foothold for us in American society.

We must follow in their footsteps by ensuring the ENFORCEMENT of these legal rights obtained through their blood, sweat, and tears. By the same token, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, and others opened the doors during the women's suffrage movement and for women in science. There are many more heroes and sheroes from other cultures who have also carried the burden for us. Continue the tradition and carry the torch proudly.

The Harvard Brand

It is a shame that Harvard and other top-quality colleges and universities have been churning out minority scientists and engineers for years, only to deny them access to the next stage of the game. Still, earning a Harvard degree will open many doors for you, even those shut to white males who attend other colleges. Don't let Lawrence Summers's remarks dissuade you from your dream of becoming a Harvard grad. I encourage you to attend Harvard and become one of the many exceptional African-American women the institution produces. You may even be able to attend free of charge! Check out the Harvard Financial Aid Incentive (HFAI) Web site or pdf document to see if you qualify.

The battle between right and wrong is still being fought in America, but we really need brilliant young women like you to continue to volunteer for combat. Continue to fight to make sure top-level opportunities in science and engineering are available to everyone regardless of race or gender. If this ever truly happens one day, we will have realized the American dream. Keep the faith.


Resources for Minorities in Science and Engineering Disciplines

Resources are available to help you break barriers that exist for minorities interested in pursuing engineering and science careers. This list is not exhaustive, but these groups should provide guidance at different stages of your career.

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