Pity the president of Harvard. He's stuck at an institution of learning in the 21st century where to question innate "gender" differences risks the abuse that Galileo took in the 17th century, when he questioned the notion, politically correct for his day, that the earth was the center of the universe.
The cry, predictable enough, went up from the women of academe who regard themselves as the guardians of revealed truth: "Retract. Repent. Resign. The sun revolves around us."
Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, was invited to speak at an off-the-record economic conference to consider why minorities and women are not more successful in careers in math and science at the nation's top research universities. He tried to be provocative by examining the various reasons suggested by the data compiled by those who study such topics. Silly man.
He first said what has long been obvious to many women, including feminists who observe the obvious - that fewer women than men want to put in the long hours it takes to struggle to the top. Women sometimes prefer allotting more time to family life, even including having babies. He stepped into something resembling a badly soiled diaper when he noted that some studies suggest there may be innate differences between the male and female of the human species.
He cited scores on standardized math and science tests that show more high school boys than girls at the highest and at the lowest levels of achievement in various disciplines. Some studies suggest that this may stem from biological differences.
"I felt like I was going to be sick," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She walked out in a state of shock, we hope to seek professional help. "My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I was extremely upset."
Could her reaction have been caused by an innate biological difference from the men in assembly, none of whom walked out? Had she left home without putting a vial of smelling salts in her purse? Other women and men present were more measured in their reactions. Quite a few expressed shock that anyone was shocked. Others felt the bluntness to be undiplomatic. Those most offended decried Larry Summers' use of personal anecdote. He told how his own daughter once received two toy trucks and spontaneously gave them personalities, calling one a "daddy truck" and the other a "baby truck." (He didn't say: "Isn't that just like a girl?")