The Spectacle Blog

‘Precious Human Capital’ On Display

By on 9.19.06 | 8:28AM

One expects built-in counter-biases where challenges are put to prevailing biases -- particularly when the challenger is the academic establishment, and the challenged is the establishment's fevered vision of what it thinks the academic establishment really is.

And we all know that what it really is is systemically biased against women. "Biased," in this case, means not rigged to produce a certain robust outcome: "more" women scientists and engineers. How much more? And why that particular amount? Silence! Bow thy head and ponder the vast evil of such institutional phenomena as this, propounded by the Panel Report of the National Academy of the Sciences: "anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a 'wife' is at a serious disadvantage."

Yes, fools, now you see: just as unsupported bachelor men have had a terrible track record of success in the academy, so too are single women woefully deprived. And to the extent that you can't give a woman a wife -- not everyone wants one, it turns out -- well, we've got work to do.

Or so says the Esteemed Panel. This gem, the report, carries a title florid enough for any martyrdom operation: "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," suggesting, you guessed it, even those barriers which aren't a result of bias must come down. Otherwise? We suffer the academy's version of General Jack D. Ripper's life-altering anticommunist paranoia: the "underuse" of our "precious human capital."

Now that you've stopped laughing: another phenom we're accustomed to is the packing of these such panels with Certain Friendly Faces, but how is anyone supposed to make it through this little vignette (New York Times, another stunner) without a crescendo of groans?

Along with Dr. Shalala, the panel included Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard who has long challenged the "innate differences" view, and Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, who established a widely praised program for aspiring engineers when she was president of the all-female Smith College.

The report was dedicated to another panelist, Denice Denton, an electrical engineer who until her suicide this summer was chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a forceful advocate for women, gays and minority members in science and engineering.

The 18-member panel had only one man: Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. But Dr. Shalala noted that the National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed the report had 10 men.

Donna Shalala and the female President of Brown, joined by fifteen other women, with lone male representation courtesy of the chancellor of Berkeley, issuing a memorial report in honor of another UC chancellor, female, whose struggle against freezing nonwhite nonmen out of the science building was either not worth fighting after all or finally too much to bear?

The very model of a modern academic experts' report.

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