Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

February 23, 2005

Larry Summers and Betsy Hoffman

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:07 pm

As discussed in this post, last month, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made some remarks at an NBER conference on the under-representation (meaning, less than 50%) of women among tenured science and math professors. He had the temerity to suggest that there might be factors in addition to blatant sex discrimination at work here, including perhaps that (a) more men than women are interesting in becoming science and math professors, and (b) while the average test scores (SAT, IQ, etc.) for men an women are similar, the variance for men is higher, which means there are more men at the upper end of the ability distribution (and more men at the lower end, too). If science and math professors are from the upper end of the ability distribution, the pool will have to include more men. (Sidenote: After claiming for a month that these were private off-the-record comments to an invited group, last week Summers finally posted a full transcript of his remarks on his website here.) It should surprise no one familiar with universities these days that this is heresy, and provoked NOW to call for Summers resignation.

Now, however, we have another university president who — accidentally, I am sure — appears to have endorsed similar views. University of Colorado President Betsy Hoffman was speaking before a meeting of the Colorado House Republican Caucus and was asked about the fact that nearly all colleges these days have more female than male undergraduates. As reported by Joshua Sharf:

Probably the most interesting moment came when one representative asked about the man/woman imbalance at college, with almost all schools having many more women undergrads than men. Hoffman replied that CU has a 51/49 male-to-female ratio, so they hadn’t entered that world yet. “And,” she continued, “in a school with a stronger science and math component, you’re less likely to see that sort of imbalance.”

In other words, Hoffman is pointing out that with strong science and math programs, they attract more men, thus overcoming the fact that non-science and non-math programs attract more women. In other words, Hoffman has implicitly taken the same position as Summers — there are more men in science and math for reasons other than discrimination.

Any chance that NOW will call for Betsy Hoffman’s resignation?

6 Responses to “Larry Summers and Betsy Hoffman”

  1. romy Says:

    i haven’t joined the pseudo-hysteria over summers’s remarks, precisely because they haven’t been available for public interpretation, and the mere fact of keeping them “classified” or however he managed to qualify them for the past 15 days has added more mystery and more weight, and done more damage and left the door open to more sinister innuendo, than if he had said them on, say, letterman. in fact, i think he makes an intriguing point, and one which requires further study : is the math/science imabalance between men and women more about education? or about biology? i don’t have the answers. in my own case, i suspect i suck at math for a combination of the two factors. i do wish that summers had been more transparent and forthcoming about his remarks sooner. apologies are all well and good when you still rely on the cover of confidentiality to keep people from seeing clearly what you’ve done.

    as for the CU president’s comments – well, they just aren’t as blatantly essentializing, are they? though it’s true that there are more women undergrads than men in the humanities. i think that’s true the world over. it’s taken our fair sex a long time to catch up with the tradition of education, and humanities are perhaps more accessible than hard science. (not to mention, less *hard*!) ah, well, thank god i’m not a public figure. i’d probably be asked to resign daily. gets expensive. ;)

  2. Different River Says:

    I’m not sure the CU President’s comments aren’t as blatant — then again, to me the comments in the Summers transcript don’t look that blatant, either. There are two essential differences.

    First, Hoffman was using the over-representation of men in math and science to overcome the “problem” of under-representation of men (over-representation of women) in college generally. This made it both (a) sound positive, and (b) clear to listeners that the over-representation of men in math and science is “balanced” by over-representation of women in other fields. Summers was speaking at a conference about under-representation of women in math and science, at which the over-representation of women humanities and social sciences was not considered on-topic.

    Second, Hoffman was not speaking to a room full of hypersensitive academics. And no one in the room immediately ran off to call the biggest newspaper in the city what she said. Granted, press was in the room, but press in the room may not “realize” it’s as big a story as if they are handed a “scoop” by a professor about something said in a “private” meeting.

  3. romy Says:

    interesting. you think the NBER meeting was “a room of hypersensitive academics”? i don’t get that from their site …

  4. Different River Says:

    No, I wouldn’t get that from their site, either. I got that from the account of the meeting in the Boston Globe which includes the following reaction of a participant:

    Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’ talk, saying later that if she hadn’t left, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended … .

    I think Nancy Hopkins’ reaction qualifies as hypersensitive. She herself has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is a tenured professor at MIT, and so obviously was not subject to any of the factors Summers listed. However, her reaction — and claim of weakness in the face of opposing opinions — is itself arguably a slander on women scientists.

    If a man attending the meeting had said, “When presented with views they don’t like, women need to leave the room or they are going to black out or throw up,” he would be roundly condemned as a sexist. But when a top woman scientists says that about herself, it’s considered evidence that the view she is reacting to is sexist.

  5. Different River Says:

    Ward Churchill and Larry Summers
    Following up on the this post, I think it’s worth contemplating why, in the view of the professoriate, Ward Churchill’s fraud, plagiarism, and comparison of the September 11 victims to Nazis are all protected by academic freedom, but Harvard Presiden…

  6. Different River Says:

    Betsy Hoffman Resigns
    Betsy Hoffman, president of the University of Colorado, has announced her resignation “effective June 30, 2005 or whenever the Board names a successor.”

    I’ve only heard of her in connection with the Ward Churchill controversy and a seemingly off-…

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