Thursday, February 17, 2005

Unifying the Harvard community

Update: if you're a professor at Harvard, you should consider to sign a letter by Claudia Goldin and David Laibson whose content is similar to the second part of this article - the PDF file with the letter is at
Not only because Harvard and Princeton are usually the top two ranked universities, many people are obviously interested in the developments surrounding the world's most famous university president, namely Lawrence Summers.

On Tuesday, professors Grosz, Hammonds, Skocpol, and maybe others have asked Lawrence Summers to publish the full text of his remarks at the conference in January to "clean the air". Although it initially looked as a bad idea to many of us, president Summers has now released
and informed his colleagues about these issues; he has also issued new apologies. As far as I see right now, these speeches are even more brilliant than I previously thought. And the air is almost certainly clear right now. You can see that many statements have been exaggerated. It's my private opinion, but I believe that restricting Summers's freedom of speech - and his bright ideas - is a highly counterproductive suggestion.

You can also see that the "scary" comment about "genetic features of the Jews" was actually just an observation that the Jews are underrepresented in farming and agriculture.

Some observers have claimed that Tuesday's FAS faculty meeting was the most emotional meeting since the Vietnam war. Eight out of ten speakers were critical of president Summers; approximately two speakers endorsed Summers and criticized the critics. All topics that have been viewed as politically controversial by a segment of the Harvard community since Lawrence Summers became the boss of Harvard in 2001 - including Cornel West, the co-operation with Israeli scholars, the insufficient use of the third world's capacity to absorb pollution - have been freely raised. The media have covered this meeting in detail - well, they copied the information from The Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper - the only media allowed to report on the meeting.

The meeting will continue next Tuesday. Some colleagues of ours want (or wanted) to push for the no-confidence vote. As far as I know, more than 80 percent of the faculty attending the meeting would have to agree with a new item before it's added to the program of the meeting. However, no one can stop anyone from adding this "referendum" to the meeting in March. Such a vote is expected in March even if it already takes place on Tuesday: a regulation requires to repeat such votes so that everyone has time to prepare for a repeated vote.

FAS - the Faculty of Arts and Sciences - is by far the largest of 10 schools at Harvard and includes hard sciences, social sciences, as well as most humanities. Others are Law, Medicine, Government, and so forth. The FAS vote about the confidence would have no direct implications, but it could potentially create a pressure upon the Harvard Corporation - a rather mysterious body of 7 V.I.P.'s - the only group that has the power to change the presidents of Harvard.

My understanding of the reports is that most of Harvard Corporation endorses Summers. Also, the physicists usually believe that this story is overblown (using the words of Cumrun Vafa) and it is a strange decision to discriminate against president Summers who has said what he said, but who is clearly no chauvinist (using the words of Nima Arkani-Hamed).

Also, many people feel that the gender topic is being abused by several colleagues of ours who have other reasons to dislike president Summers (using the words of the first female tenured Harvard's physics professor, Melissa Franklin). Let me try to summarize these voices that - I believe - represent the majority's opinion of Harvard's "hard science" faculty:

• This controversy is a topic that has the ability to divide the Harvard community, and it would not be a helpful development
• So far there exists no serious tension between the individual professors at Harvard, and this situation should continue
• There is no universal agreement whether Summers' statements were legitimate, true, or not; most of us want to preserve the diversity of our opinions about these issues
• There is a widespread consensus that Summers is a nice man - certainly not a chauvinist or something like that - and my liberal colleagues still consider him a liberal, by the way; politically, he represents the mainstream and it is hard to imagine that this mainstream approach would become untollerable at Harvard just because a certain segment of Harvard thinks that the freedom to propose hypotheses should be restricted
• President Summers is an exceptionally strong president. His strength may sometimes be unwelcome according to various people who are positioned lower in the hierarchy, but the same strength is also very beneficial for Harvard in many contexts
• President Summers is doing a lot of useful work for Harvard and for its expansion, and his centralized approach simplifies many things, while it also seems to agree with the opinions of the academic community
• At this moment, it seems that no one - neither the Harvard Corporation nor the professors - have a realistic plan how to replace Summers with someone else, and destabilizing Summers's position could bring very negative consequences to the school
My estimate is that roughly 30% of the people were applauding after the critics had their say on Tuesday, and roughly 10% of the participants were clapping their hands after the speeches of Summers's supporters. The relatively low percentage of convinced critics is another reason why I believe that the no-confidence vote probably won't gain the support of 50% of faculty.

If a colleague of ours is reading this text and he or she is uncertain what the mainstream opinion is gonna be on Tuesday, let me answer: the bulk of the FAS faculty wants Summers to continue.

1. "Another way to put the point is to say, what fraction of young women in their mid-twenties make a decision that they don't want to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week. What fraction of young men make a decision that they're unwilling to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week, and to observe what the difference is. And that has got to be a large part of what is observed. "

----- Far from brilliance, the above reveals that Summers is utterly out of touch with today's workplace.

2. "If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available."

----- This is plausibly logical, but does not hold in the real world. Because women would not have been kept out of so many types of jobs till World War II - (and the US economy was more laissez faire back then!!!!) - if such logic held. Likewise with people of non-white races and non-European ancestry. Economics is not the sole driver of society.

3. I would bet that Summers has mixed support in the hard sciences and probably virtually no support elsewhere in the university.

As Lubos noted his speech is excellent - very nuanced - but still contains unacceptable patterns of thought for the far left wasteland that is Harvard.

Lubos - again I offer you a friendly wager - Summers will be gone, and soon. Maybe Cornel West or some other idiot can be the next President.

4. ti- Lubos - again I offer you a friendly wager - Summers will be gone, and soon.I would be astounded if that happened. I don't know who the VIPs of the HC are, but I doubt that they as far left as the faculty, and kicking out Summers for that speech would be intellectual sepuku.

first anon - Far from brilliance, the above reveals that Summers is utterly out of touch with today's workplace.I don't know that LS is brilliant, especially in that paragraph, but he just suggested that somebody should gather the data. I wouldn't expect him to be attuned to the work environment of twenty somethings - he hasn't been one for a long time, but you seem to think you know the answer. So what is it? If you are working at a job where you think about it 80 hours per week, what percentage of your similarly situated colleagues are male and female, respectively?

5. ti- Lubos - again I offer you a friendly wager - Summers will be gone, and soon.I would be astounded if that happened. I don't know who the VIPs of the HC are, but I doubt that they as far left as the faculty, and kicking out Summers for that speech would be intellectual sepuku.

first anon - Far from brilliance, the above reveals that Summers is utterly out of touch with today's workplace.I don't know that LS is brilliant, especially in that paragraph, but he just suggested that somebody should gather the data. I wouldn't expect him to be attuned to the work environment of twenty somethings - he hasn't been one for a long time, but you seem to think you know the answer. So what is it? If you are working at a job where you think about it 80 hours per week, what percentage of your similarly situated colleagues are male and female, respectively?

6. Come on Lubos, "brilliant"? I mean, agree or disagree with Summers' points, fine. And I agree that he shouldn't be run out of his post over what he said (though if what he said causes a perceptable drop in funding, that's another matter).

But "brilliant"? I'm not sure I'd call that speech brilliant. If you want brilliant conservative speeches, try Reagan. His final address at the 1992 Rebulican convention is good (and availible online).

As a fan of good speeches, I feel I must speak up :)

7. CIP, where I am, I see men and women working equally hard, long work hours and sacrifices of weekends, having meetings at 6AM and 11PM (needed because this is a global business). One key point is that no one entered this expecting to have to work like this, but that is the nature of capitalist competition for non-unionizable employees.

8. I don't think anyone here understand why Summers' remarks were wrong. They do not cross the bounds of academic freedom. But Summers is in a policy-making position, and people have to trust that he is not letting his half-baked ideas influence how he does his job.

A (extreme) analogy would be with the President of the United States (POTUS). What POTUS says in public is taken to be official US policy. People in executive positions in companies likewise have to be careful in what they say. A University President has more leeway, I'm sure, but still has to be careful.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A15182-2002Jul16

You might need to register to see this. So here is an excerpt:

On this chilly October morning she's merging onto Interstate 395, near her Shirlington apartment, and heading south on her daily 50-mile trek to Fredericksburg. It's 7 o'clock as her black Mazda Protege slides into the fast lane at 80 mph. She pushes hard on the accelerator and begins eating her toast. She needs to pass her first marker, the Quantico Marine Base, by 7:30--otherwise, she'll be late for her first English composition class at Mary Washington College. The clock doesn't stop ticking after that: She'll teach four classes at three different colleges today. And those are just some of the six classes she's teaching this fall term, double the normal load of a college professor. Or what used to be normal.

Tracy's itinerary today has the precision of a train schedule: English 101 at Mary Washington from 8 a.m. till 8:50 a.m. Office hours from 9 till 10 a.m. Another English class from 10 until 10:50 a.m. Back in the car by 11 a.m. Up I-95 to George Mason University. Another class from 12:30 p.m. till 1:20 p.m. Talk to students for a few minutes. Back in the car by 1:45 p.m. and race to Georgetown University. Grade papers and prepare for class while eating lunch. Class on Shakespeare and film from 3:15 p.m. to 4:05 p.m. Back in the car before the meter expires and head home. Then she grades more papers until midnight. Six hours later it all begins again.

It's not what she hoped her life would be like, but it's what she's gotten used to since finishing her PhD in medieval literature two years ago at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

.....

Somewhat dated:

"The share of both men and women who worked longer than 40 hours had increased between 1979 and 1998. For men, the percentage rose from 35.1 in 1979 to 40.2 in 1998; for women, the proportions were 14.0 percent and 21.6 percent over the same period, respectively.

A similar trend is evident among workers who worked 60 or more hours.5 In terms of occupation and hours worked, executives, officials, and managers work extended workweeks. Administrative support workers, service workers, and laborers were among those who had more conventional work hours.6 Longer hours reflect such factors as greater job responsibilities, higher skill levels, more education, and higher earnings. "

--------
The folly of long hours:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17752

"The culture of the Cavendish was strongly paternalistic. Rutherford took fatherly care of his students and imposed strict limits on their hours of work. Every evening at six o'clock the laboratory was closed and all work had to stop. Four times every year, the laboratory was closed for two weeks of vacation. Rutherford believed that scientists were more creative if they spent evenings relaxing with their families and enjoyed frequent holidays. He was probably right. Working under his rules, an astonishingly high proportion of his students, including Cockcroft and Walton, won Nobel Prizes. "

10. Dear anonymous, you wrote:

"They do not cross the bounds of academic freedom. But Summers is in a policy-making position, ..."

It's enough to look at reality - where the feminists and their friends effectively control all related decisions - to see that your speculation that his speech directly reflects Harvard's policies is a completely incorrect conjecture.

On the other hand, if you wanted to suggest that serious research - one that starts with rationally formulated questions, hypotheses, and that attempts to collect evidence that supports or opposes particular conjectures, in the same way as president Summers would imagine - SHOULD be influencing policymaking, then I definitely agree.

It's wrong that it's not really the case. If we don't understand the real mechanisms that determine various observed phenomena, or if we build on scientifically incorrect ideas that try to explain various phenomena, then it is likely that we will tend to design policies that don't work.

I personally find your comment about "Summers's half-baked ideas" impolite. They may be incompletely "baked", but they are still much more "baked" than the ideas of his critics combined, to say the least. Unfortunately, it is a part of the current atmosphere that various people can freely humiliate politically inconvenient people, including the top intellectuals, even though the critics have virtually no rational justification for such a criticism.

This is how it worked during Galileo's times, and unfortunately it is partially the case today.

11. Dear anonymous, you wrote:

"They do not cross the bounds of academic freedom. But Summers is in a policy-making position, ..."

It's enough to look at reality - where the feminists and their friends effectively control all related decisions - to see that your speculation that his speech directly reflects Harvard's policies is a completely incorrect conjecture.

On the other hand, if you wanted to suggest that serious research - one that starts with rationally formulated questions, hypotheses, and that attempts to collect evidence that supports or opposes particular conjectures, in the same way as president Summers would imagine - SHOULD be influencing policymaking, then I definitely agree.

It's wrong that it's not really the case. If we don't understand the real mechanisms that determine various observed phenomena, or if we build on scientifically incorrect ideas that try to explain various phenomena, then it is likely that we will tend to design policies that don't work.

I personally find your comment about "Summers's half-baked ideas" impolite. They may be incompletely "baked", but they are still much more "baked" than the ideas of his critics combined, to say the least. Unfortunately, it is a part of the current atmosphere that various people can freely humiliate politically inconvenient people, including the top intellectuals, even though the critics have virtually no rational justification for such a criticism.

This is how it worked during Galileo's times, and unfortunately it is partially the case today.

12. lumo, thank you for pointing out the rasistic content of Summers text ("white men", "Jews").

Race is apparently an unscientific concept (larger genetic spread than random groups) while phenotypes have some limited use versus medicine.

Summers is wrong on science as well as just wrong. He is also stupid since he wrought such a raucus. Why the wish to keep him?

13. Torbjorn, I can't believe you're serious. Race is an "unscientific concept"? Does it mean that you're usually unable to determine someone's race?

Concerning your approach to DNA analysis. Of course that if one analyzes wrong things, she will be unable to determine various features from the DNA code. But this inability of hers does not mean that others are equally unable to get the answers.

This story with Lawrence Summers is an important one to win because a loss could mean that we are marching towards a completely weird society where the very existence of races and genders is a tabboo, along the lines that you previewed as a demo. I don't want this to happen.

The people who are sensitive about the very fact that there exist different races and genders must simply disappear by natural selection. I can't imagine that the world could be a happy place for freedom-minded people if they had to pretend that they don't see any differences between races and genders.

14. lumo, of course I'm serious.

Phenotypes seem to exist (sickle cell anemia and other sicknesses) which answer your 'usually', but I thought it was absolutely clear from DNA that 'race' from now on is only appropriate for historical science.

"The differences between individuals of a geographical neighborhood are as great as those between continental separations." http://www.angelfire.com/mac/egmatthews/worldinfo/glossary/racism.html

So if I see a white skinned man I can't be sure if its a cousin or Michael Jackson. (I know, I know, he has a skin disease, but its genetic in origin so the pun was intended.)

Your DNA reasoning is unintelligible. If we look at the sum total of the DNA (and of course the embedding and regulating histons), what are we missing?

I dont know what you mean by 'losing' a 'story'; this is a blog discussion; ideally we are all winners here by learning new stuff and making friends and enemies; all very fun and useful.

Regarding genders, here we have definitely genetic and behavioural (not guaranteed) differencies. Vive la difference!

BTW, I think that is 'taboo', but since I don't seem to have any myself, what do I know? :-) Anyhow, 'race' is not taboo, it just not science and also plain stupid, as you would say.

Survival is easier if one has a mindmap that corresponds to reality and, yes, science. Believe in 'races' instead of phenotypes and you will be on loose ground both scientifically and realistically.

Regarding hapiness and life in general a simple and successful game strategy is 'tit-for-tat'. Be nice, forgiving and forgetful about differencies until it matters. (Well, an improved strategy could be 'and if the game has a next round if you loose'.) And always, always remember that the answer is 42 :-)!