Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Harvard's Hissy Fit Costs Them $115 Million

Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle and one of the richest men in the world, was going to give Harvard $115 to establish the Ellison Institute for World Health. He had worked out the idea with Harvard president Larry Summers some months ago. But Summers was forced to resign earlier this year. He had made some enemies within the university by trying to change its culture – which is, in fairness, what he was hired to do. No doubt inside politics was a significant factor in his resignation.

The public side of Summers' resignation, though, was the fallout from his speculation that one of the reasons that women did not make up half the science and engineering departments at the top research universities was that at the highest level of ability, there were probably more men than women to begin with. This is, as I have argued before, a testable claim. Moreover, the people who have tested it think it is true.

Nonetheless, many at Harvard and environs had a hissy fit, including a number of alleged elite scientists who one might have thought would be interested in testing an empirical claim before they drew a conclusion. The controversy crippled Harvard's efforts to understand the problem, and crippled Summers' ability to do his job. In February, he resigned.

And today the other shoe dropped. Ellison withdrew the offered gift, which would have been the largest single gift Harvard ever received. No commitment to scientific investigation of testable but politically incorrect hypotheses means no new scientific research center from Larry Ellison. Maybe Utah resident Ellison would find Brigham Young more committed to science?


Victoria Crowell said...

Such extreme institutional politics are why I avoided places like Harvard for undergrad school. Sure, you might get to see and maybe rub elbows a bit with top scholars in the field, but odds are the contact will be very limited, and you're always subject to their own tiffs with one another, and blah blah. It seems wiser to just wait until grad school, where you're apt to get more time with said scholars and at least be a bit more involved in the institutional politics than you ever could be as an undergrad.

bombsoverbaghdad said...

Feminists make me sick.

SPorcupine said...

I thik your account of Sommers v. uproar understates the problem. The way I've read the accounts, Sommers didn't say gender differences probably explained the gap. He offered a list of possible explanations and said gender differences might be one of those possibilities. He took all the flak not for saying the issue was settled, but for saying the issue deserved exploration.

Victoria Crowell said...

In response to bombsoverbaghdad, I don't think, as sporcupine says, this was an issue of feminists. It doesn't seem like anyone implied that women were less capable of working in the sciences, merely that more men enter the field, and that's why there are less women in the field. If anything, Ellison was being moreso the feminist, because it sounds to me like his argument was to counter arguments that women were less qualified or simply not as good in fields like science.

Also, I'm a feminist, and I've got a pretty good idea that you don't hate all feminists, unless you dislike strong, smart women. I bet you share the same distaste as most of us have for radical feminists who go beyond equality for superiority and believe that, unless you take a certain stance on political issues, you're not actually a feminist.
Or I could be transposing things on you, because I'm a soapboxer about people getting the right idea about feminism. (Christian AND a feminist?! No way!)

May I add, though, just as an addition about the entry, it DOES make me sad they lost that money. I am pretty fond of Harvard's public health department. It has it's problems (it's just as full of ego-stroking academia as anywhere), but it does a lot of good work and support for global health as well. In fact, it figures prominently in my required summer reading book for Centre this summer, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

Talleyrand said...


Harvard deserves whatever it gets over that mess.

The best thing is that you've been in Kentucky long enough to say "hissy fit" and have it sound natural. Congratulations!

Next will be "Big ole," as in, "That's a big ole dog."

Talleyrand said...

Just to be clear, I say this as an expatriate Kentuckian, with no idea of laughing at anyone but myself...

Quotidian Grace said...

This reminds me of a similar flap at Yale a number of years ago which cost that university a very large gift from the Bass brothers of Fort Worth.

In both cases political correctness trumped any other consideration.

Gruntled said...

I think there are plenty of reasons to avoid universities, even Harvard, as an undergraduate. A nice liberal arts college gives you a better education (and not just mine).

In fairness, Summers did say that the three most likely factors explaining why women did not make up half to the top 25 science and engineering departments were 1) many women did not want to sacrifice family for career as those jobs often end up requiring; 2) at the very highest levels of quantitative ability, there are more men than women; and 3) discrimination. Summers offered his educated guess that that was the right rank order of causes, in descending order. But he did offer it as the start of an empirical investigation, not a settled matter.

I think he created a big 'ole mess not when he made the statements cited above, but when he cravenly took them back.