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Susan Estrich: In Defense of Besieged Larry Summers

I don't know who President Barack Obama will — or should — choose to replace Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman. Obama himself has identified three possible successors: Janet Yellen, the current Fed vice chairwoman; Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chairman; and Lawrence Summers, former Treasury secretary and president of Harvard University.

I don't know Yellen or Kohn.

I do know Summers. I've known him since the 1980s. And while I don't pretend to be an expert on monetary policy, I do know that Summers does not deserve the vicious battering he has taken in the press.

Summers isn't being bashed — and there really is no other word to describe it — because of his economic views. He isn't being bashed because he lacks experience; that, in light of his record during the Bill Clinton years and his role as one of candidate Barack Obama's chief economic advisers in 2008, would be laughable.

He is being bashed because of his allegedly anti-woman record as president of Harvard. This is something I do know about. I used to be a professor at Harvard. I've spent the past 30 years fighting for women's rights. I've never been shy about naming names when it comes to men, or women, who do not support equality. Larry Summers is not one of them.

These days, most college presidents make their names not by addressing controversial issues, but by raising large sums of money. They are judged by the number of buildings they leave behind, not by the hard issues they tackle. Tenured professors are, and I say this as one, inclined to be divas. Strong presidents who make waves are rarely appreciated by their faculties.

Summers raised plenty of money, but at Harvard, that's almost easy. He also generated controversy, most notably with his unscripted comments asking whether the stubborn under-representation of women at the top in science might actually be rooted in nature and not nurture, a function of real differences and not persistent discrimination.

Many leading women in science were enraged. They argued that he had the science wrong and that universities, Harvard included, need to do more to examine their own tendencies toward "unconscious" discrimination. As I recall, I said as much at the time.

But Summers is hardly the only smart person to hold such views. And by articulating them, by daring to be politically incorrect, he stimulated a critically important debate.

Depending on whom you ask, the debate cost him the presidency of Harvard. It wasn't the only thing, but it was a biggie — and it's what has continued to haunt him.

In my view, Summers was wrong about women in science. But those who would damn him for it, those who would hold it up as a reason for why he is not qualified to lead — whether it's Harvard or the Fed — are guilty of an even more serious wrong.

For all the pious talk you hear from professors about academic freedom, academia is not a very "free" place. I hate racism and sexism, but the answer is debate, not denunciations; the answer is to prove your case, not punish those who disagree for daring to speak out. If Summers loses out on the Fed chairmanship because he dared to raise a very troubling question (he raised it; he did not purport, even then, to answer it), his critics should understand that they are doing women a grave disservice.

I will spend the rest of my life fighting for equality for women. It is a battle I once thought would be over by now. But it will never be over if men who dare to disagree with me and my feminist colleagues are punished for it, if presidents and professors and students are penalized forever for speaking out.

Larry Summers is a brilliant economist. Like most of us, he isn't right about everything. But the nation should not lose out on his talents because he was wrong about a politically sensitive point. We will not achieve equality by chilling debate and punishing those who disagree with us. Quite the contrary.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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