Straightening The Leftward Lean

By Daniel P. Krauthammer

It’s no secret that the world of academia—Harvard included—has a decidedly leftward lean. Not even liberals deny this. But what they do often deny is that this overbearing bias is a problem that needs to be addressed. The fact that it is not even seen as a serious concern is indicative of just how deep and institutionalized this political imbalance has become. Things need to change. Bias should be kept to a healthy minimum in the classroom, and schools need to make a much more serious effort to recruit faculty that better reflects the full range of this country’s political views.

As many students can attest, liberal bias is not a neutral element. It makes itself quite clear in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently published a survey of the nation’s top schools showing that 46 percent of students think professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views;” seventy-four percent say professors make positive comments about liberals, and 47 percent think they make negative comments about conservatives.

Subjection to the overt personal political views of professors in a classroom setting is not education. No discipline can claim that a logical and essential conclusion of its objective study must be a political position. A professor’s diatribes against President Bush or veiled endorsements of Democratic policies are not lessons of a positive science; they are personal opinion. If presented at all, they should aired separately from what is viewed as the objective lesson and accompanied by a contrasting point of view.

Of course, there will always be some element of bias in a course, because a professor’s very method of teaching, his approach to the material is informed by his political sensibilities. Each professor’s fundamental assumptions about government, values and morality will in some way necessarily be built into any course they teach

The fact that a degree of bias is inevitable, and for that matter healthy, makes it all the more important that there be a full range of political views represented on a school’s faculty. The greatest crime of having a nearly uniformly liberal faculty is not that conservative students feel challenged or uncomfortable; it is that liberal students are all too comfortable. The majority opinion is not only endorsed and bolstered by the politically lopsided faculty, it is practically taken for granted. In this atmosphere, where liberal students see their views constantly vindicated by the highest figures of intellectual authority and conservatives see theirs derided, it becomes all too easy for liberal students to gain an easy and unchallenged overconfidence in their beliefs and for conservatives to adopt a dismissive attitude toward their liberal peers and academia as a whole.

To reverse this trend, more voices need to be heard. As in almost all aspects of free discourse and exchange, the way to limit the undue influence of one dominant group isn’t to try in vain to limit its free speech or innate bias, but to make sure that there is ample competition from other competing groups with their own biases.

As all the evidence shows, the state of this balance is woeful. A 2004 report from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows that among professors at the nations top schools Democrats outnumber Republics by roughly seven to one in the social sciences and humanities. At Harvard, during this election season, employee groups gave 19 times more in campaign donations to John Kerry than George W. Bush, and they constituted the second largest source of group donations to the Kerry campaign in the entire country, ahead of runners up Time Warner, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft.

Arguing about the cause of a numerical inequality between liberals and conservatives is not productive. After all, Harvard and other universities have policies to make special efforts to hire more women and minority faculty members, and the importance of doing so is taken for granted. The idea of creating “diversity” is now largely accepted as a legitimate justification for making special efforts to hire professors who belong to underrepresented groups when those groups are defined by race and gender. But if the purpose of diversity is, as its proponents claim, to improve education by bringing more varied perspectives and ideas to intellectual debate, then political and ideological diversity should be just as important, if not more so, than other kinds.

In an October 6 interview, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said, “Diversity is crucial to our success in teaching and to the diversity of perspectives in our intellectual debate, and we will not find the most excellent people if we are not drawing on all segments of our society.” By this reasoning, one cannot reasonably deny the need for the intellectual diversity that an array of different political perspectives brings without denying the need for any kind of diversity. Students need to be exposed to different ideas and different ways of thinking.

Bias is a problem at Harvard and throughout academia, but not one without remedy. Overt bias must be kept to a minimum, but if universities are to allow a healthy amount of political bias in their classes, they must embrace and seek intellectual and political diversity much more rigorously than it has in the past. For if diversity is truly held to be a valuable goal in the makeup of a faculty, schools must consider the hiring of more conservative professors an important part of that commitment. Only in this context can bias cease to be the problem and become its own solution.

Daniel P. Krauthammer ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator living in Quincy House.