As a friend pointed out this morning, it's all hearsay. There were no reporters at the conferences, and no tapes or transcripts of the speech have been made available to the public. I am trying not to jump to conclusions, but I must admit, I am very angry -- and not at Summers.
It is the height of hypocrisy when the very people who (justifiably) accused Bush of manipulating science for political purposes suggest that the relationship between biology and academic interests is not a legitimate subject for inquiry. It is a closed-minded, knee-jerk reaction to walk out of the room when you hear an economic theory that offends your sensibilities. And, in the end, the theory ought not be so offensive.
No one in academia would deny that women can be brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. It is patently obvious. The issue here is the proportion of women to men in the technical fields. Should Harvard do everything it can to ensure a one-to-one ratio of female to male scientists, even if the pool of talented female scientists is significantly smaller? Would that really be "equal opportunity employment"?
Call me a closet misogynist, but I think that men and women alike should be treated as individuals, not statistics. The notion that academic departments (the sciences, no less!) "need" more female professors is no more reasonable than the notion that every child "needs" a mother and a father. A mature individual can examine the broader picture without drawing conclusions about herself and her colleagues. It was reasonable for Summers to expect that level of maturity at an invitation-only conference at Harvard.
There is a vast middle ground between biological determinism and the idea that sex is a social construct. The more that we understand about the human mind and the human body, the more complex the nature/nurture problem seems to become. This subject should be studied honestly and openly, not in the service of some extremists' conception of gender. And those who discuss it honestly and openly should not have to apologize, especially at a so-called institution of higher learning.
UPDATE: Here is an interesting look at the "mommy factor," which Summers also mentioned.