updated 2/11/2005 9:28:48 PM ET 2005-02-12T02:28:48

One group of prominent university presidents called for universities to revamp the traditional tenure academic career system to make it more family friendly, while another criticized recent remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers addressing why women may be failing to reach top science jobs.

Ten presidents and chancellors of prominent research universities, in a report written with the American Council on Education and released Thursday, called for innovations such as giving young academics more time during child-rearing years to complete research before being put up for tenure.

Also on Thursday, three other university presidents — Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, Susan Hockfield of MIT and John Hennessy of Stanford — issued their own letter responding to Summers’ comments. The Harvard president suggested at a conference last month that innate differences between the sexes may partly explain why fewer women than men reach top university science jobs.

“Speculation that ’innate differences’ may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases,” wrote the three presidents, all scientists by training.

They continued: “The question we must ask as a society is not ’can women excel in math, science and engineering?’ — Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago — but ’how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?”’

Last month, Summers drew fire from some Harvard faculty and alumni — along with fellow academics — for his comments. Summers has said he was misunderstood, but still apologized. Last week, Harvard announced the creation of two task forces to study gender inequities among its own faculty and in the pipeline of young scientists.

Policy changes
The ACE report asks colleges to consider a number of policy changes, some of which are already being tested on various campuses. Among them: better childcare, and allowing women with young children more time to complete research before being evaluated for tenure.

While women account for 51 percent of new doctorates awarded, they account for just 38 percent of university faculty and 28 percent at research universities, the authors noted.

Generally, academics have six or seven years to show their promise before coming up for tenure review, when they may be either granted lifetime employment or let go. The system can put enormous strain on young academics to publish research in early in their careers, typically in their 30s.

But that’s also when many are having children, and the authors say too many women are dropping out of academic life. Universities, meanwhile, are not offering them opportunities to return later if they choose.

“Tenure is a bedrock principle at our university, but I think we also recognize the policies and practices on our campus that undergird the principle of tenure were developed in a different era,” said William Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland’s university system.

The report does not call for revolutionary changes to the tenure system, but it does urge more flexibility. For instance, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman is considering allowing giving young faculty up to 10 years before tenure review.

One challenge is that there is no shortage of young academics eager for jobs, so universities have little incentive to extend benefits. But Coleman said schools have no choice if they are to retain talented women. And she rejected the notion that only by working extraordinarily long hours could academics produce the quality of work that merits tenure.

“I just don’t buy that,” she said.

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