Harvard President Lawrence Summers recently touched off a significant controversy when, while speaking extemporaneously at a conference on women?s progress in the sciences and math, he suggested that inquiries into a possible connection between biology and women?s ability in those subjects should not be off-limits.
We feel the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Summers? comment was a disservice to the academic community. While there very well may be no connection between biology and intellectual ability in the sciences, we wholeheartedly believe in the spirit of inquiry the Harvard president invoked. The work of scholars in all fields ought to be, in the words of Stanley Fish, the uninhibited ?search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.?
The success of this search rests on the ability of academics to ask sometimes controversial questions that give bright minds and earnest hearts the impetus to ponder, evaluate, and conclude. Researchers in all areas of study should feel free to ask tough questions, and should privilege the ebb and flow of curiosity over their hopes and fears of what the process may yield.
Moreover, presidents of colleges and universities should not be compelled to repeatedly apologize for encouraging a bold intellectual climate on their campuses. Debate should occur in such a way that the need for college leaders to raise questions is not restricted by a fear of offending one of their many constituencies or of losing funding from upset donors.
In sum, a willingness to explore new and sometimes uncomfortable terrain is a prerequisite for rigorous scholarship, and the risk inherent in such exploration should be accepted, not shunned.