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Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 came of age at Harvard as part of the “silent generation,” born between the two world wars, childhoods marked by the Great Depression.
They entered Harvard in the wake of World War II, as the domestic calm and economic flourishing that would define 1950s culture began to take hold.
Mansfield says he was no exception to the complacency that typified the era—he spent his undergraduate years diligently studying and remained at the edges of any political debate. At 18, Mansfield had not yet found the political ideology that would fuel both his academic career and personal credo for the next 50 years.
Few who know him now as the Kenan professor of government could envision Mansfield as part of this “generation without a cause.”
Since his undergraduate days, Mansfield has latched onto a conservative platform that has catapulted him into the spotlight as both a professor and an administrator at Harvard.
The now-infamous political philosopher has a cause—and is far from silent.
In the name of his unfaltering conservatism, Mansfield has attacked grade inflation at the College, scoffed at political correctness and lambasted traditional liberal values, such as affirmative action, gay rights and, most recently, perceptions of gender.
The once-quiet Mansfield has provoked protests and sit-ins on campus, inspired countless editorials and articles in the national media and has often agitated his way to the center of heated Faculty meeting arguments.
Mansfield’s middle initial “C” could stand for “Conservative,” but Mansfield says it stands for “Compassion.”
“That’s what I lack when it comes to grading,” he says, chuckling.
In 1973, when he began attacking what he perceived as a slow upward creep in student grades, Mansfield first grabbed the spotlight at the College—and he’s never really given it back.
Students in the 1970s began calling their professor Harvey “C-minus” Mansfield soon after he first took up issue with grade inflation, and more than 20 years later Mansfield is still on his crusade.
Two years ago, Mansfield gave students in his classes two grades, an “inflated” grade that went on students’ transcripts and one that reflected the “real” value of their work.
This policy—meant to demonstrate the causes and effects of grade inflation—drew heat from students and faculty, and attracted national media attention.
His persistent assault on grade inflation, though, is only emblematic of a firm ideology that has made him the unpopular opposition on most issues confronting the Faculty, from race and sexuality to contemporary politics.
Over the past half century, which Mansfield has mostly spent within Harvard’s walls, the campus has morphed from a stodgy, conservative institution to a modern, liberalized college.
Mansfield too has changed—but almost in opposition to Harvard.
The softspoken liberal democrat who entered Harvard in 1949 has managed to become one of the most notorious, audaciously conservative professors on campus.
The C is for Change
Mansfield, whose father was a professor at Yale, was born in 1932 in New Haven, Conn., but grew up in Washington, D.C. He remembers feeling like he was at the center of the action during the war years in Washington, with parades in the streets and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 2004, in the Oval Office.
In 1947, the Mansfields moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Mansfield graduated from a public high school before coming to Harvard in 1949.
He reflects on his years as an undergraduate with self-effacing humor, remembering fondly a time when boys carried ties in their pockets, the football team was terrible and professors wore cufflinks to class.
Mansfield particuarly remembers taking a history of science class as a first-year with then-University President James B. Conant ’14.
“You didn’t have to get your hands dirty in the lab, but he would do experiments, I remember, in this great suit, with gold cufflinks on display,” Mansfield says. “He would make explosions and then hide behind a plastic sheet. That was kind of a thrill.”
Mansfield notes that Harvard was in a period of quiet transition when he arrived.
The College was slowly moving away from its prep-school conservatism to a more liberal atmosphere as a bigger wave of middle-class students moved onto campus. He remembers his class as being the first to have an equal number of students from public high schools and private schools.
But the remnants of the class structure were still clearly visible, Mansfield says, with the public school and prep school graduates still distinguishable by their wardrobes.
“When I came to Harvard, the school was in change,” Mansfield says. “There was a sort of division between high school and prep school graduates.”
The influx of more public school students onto campus began to influence the political leaning of the student body.
As the national concern about communism grew and the Cold War began, Mansfield remembers an opposition to McCarthy that transcended bipartisan divisions.
But while the political climate at Harvard remained tranquil despite the outbreak of the Korean War, with little activism on campus, Mansfield says a clear shift in the political beliefs of undergraduates was beginning.
“The political complexion changed due to this influx of high school students,” Mansfield says. “I remember in 1952, of course we couldn’t vote then, but there was a straw poll in which Eisenhower won over Stevenson. Then, in 1956, Stevenson won, and ever since then students have been liberal.”
In the straw poll, Mansfield had voted for the democratic Stevenson.
During this time, Mansfield was a serious student who had few friends and preferred to remain outside the fray of political debate.
A self-described “grind” as an undergraduate, Mansfield eschewed extracurricular activities in favor of studying on his own.
In the early years of the General Education curriculum, Mansfield says before grade inflation existed—Mansfield notes that C’s were the average grade then—many students found the adjustment to Harvard difficult. Mansfield himself says that as a first-year he “had his moments of doubt and challenge” with his academics.
He planned to pursue a career as a Soviet expert, but struggled with Russian and soon realized that he did not want to spend his career reading communist manuscripts.
He was enchanted by political theory and decided to pursue this passion, which would define the next 50 years of his life.
Upon graduating from Harvard, Mansfield spent one year on a Fulbright Scholarship before being drafted into the army in 1954, where he remained for two years, although he never served.
In 1956, Mansfield returned to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D., which he finished in 1960. After a two-year stint as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Mansfield returned to Harvard for good and received tenure in 1965.
The C is for Conservative
While Harvard had slowly been moving to the left when Mansfield departed for Berkeley, the young liberal democrat returned to his alma mater a newly-born conservative.
Frustrated by the complacency with which liberals treated the Soviet and communist threat and disenchanted with the values of the Democratic Party, Mansfield turned slowly to the right.
“Politically it was communism that made me conservative,” he says. “Liberals were not sufficiently anti-communist—they were soft on communism. They had a spot in their hearts for anything on the left.”
Pforzheimer Professor of Government Sidney Verba ’53, who knew Mansfield as an undergraduate—they lived in Leverett House together but lost touch after graduation—and later replaced Mansfield as the chair of Harvard’s government department, says that Mansfield’s experience at radically liberal Berkeley might have actually pushed him further to the right.
“I would certainly imagine, having been in California teaching in the 1960s, a time when everybody was becoming more politically involved, that the strong left position at Berkeley might have pushed some people, like [Mansfield], in the direction of more conservative politics,” Verba says. “It would have made him more politically engaged.”
On returning to Harvard in 1963, Mansfield says he soon found that his politics set him apart from other professors on a liberal campus that was soon entrenched in the tumult of Vietnam War politics.
Mansfield recalls the Vietnam War as being “pretty terrible,” saying that the politically-motivated divisions on campus were difficult to bear.
“I was angry every day I came home,” he says. “The place was divided into two parties—everybody knew what side everybody else was on.”
Mansfield recalls Faculty meetings that turned into ideological debates, numerous confrontations with students and the brutal suppression of the 1969 University Hall takeover.
As democrats became more politically activist, Mansfield was increasingly repulsed by the constant liberal agitation that spilled over into University politics.
While Mansfield says then-University President Derek C. Bok and then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry A. Rosovsky sympathized with the liberal protesters, he began to carve out his place as the definitive conservative voice on campus.
“He is a person who has a deep commitment to what he thinks is a traditional set of values that he feels is being neglected by political inclinations,” Verba says.
The C is for Controversy
Over the past 30 years, Mansfield has stubbornly defended these traditional values against the majority of faculty members and students.
One of Mansfield’s main—and most unpopular—battles has been against the study of women as a separate academic field. He first voiced his opposition to this idea in a memorable Faculty meeting debate in the late 1970s.
At the meeting, he vehemently denounced the idea of a women’s studies committee, on the grounds that it was “really feminist studies, and you can’t study women without studying men as well.”
Instead of convincing his colleagues not to pursue the new academic committee, his arguments served to unite the Faculty against him and virtually assure the creation of the women’s studies committee.
While Mansfield lost the fight in that Faculty meeting, he’s continued his argument by researching social and biological constructs of gender and writing a book on manliness. He even taught a seminar on it this past spring.
Mansfield argues that the two genders have distinct roles in society.
“[Women] are naturally more modest both sexually and in other ways than men,” he says. “This makes it easier for them to sit back, watch and judge—women are closer to philosophy than to politics in the sense that they observe and judge.”
But Mansfield says the successful integration of women into Harvard shows that women are not inferior to men intellectually.
“The change at Harvard that took place has to be qualified by the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the two sexes that permits them to study together,” he says.
While many faculty members have disagreed with Mansfield’s gender theories, it is his racial slant on grade inflation and affirmative action that has drawn the most Faculty and student ire and national media attention in recent years.
Mansfield attributes the rise in Harvard’s grades to a fall in expectations, brought on by the influx of less academically qualified black students in the 1970s. His argument is that white professors, afraid that they would be seen as racist, gave black students high grades they didn’t deserve.
“I think it’s an issue that goes to the heart of the University, especially the morale of the University,” Mansfield says. “If we believe in ourselves as an educational institution we must subordinate questions of social justice to that which is best for education.”
Part of what has made Mansfield such a celebrity on campus is not the substance of his conservative views, but his willingness to spout them without tact.
Mansfield himself says he often means “to offend” and his battle is not against women, or blacks, or even Communists, but against the political correctness of the University that he has called home for much of his life.
“Political correctness exists in the assumption that most people are of the left,” he says. “When I saw this in operation at Harvard, I started talking at Faculty meetings. I just couldn’t stand there and listen to people assume that everybody was liberal.”
The C is for Comfortable
Mansfield’s strong conservative rhetoric has often made him the outsider in the Faculty—and even solidified Faculty opposition against him at times.
“What he does is establish such a strong position on the right that he consolidates the people on the right more than they ordinarily would be,” Verba says.
But while it may seem that Mansfield’s views have made him a pariah on campus, the unconventional conservative professor has found a home in Harvard.
Sitting in his small office on the second floor of the Littauer building, Mansfield looks out his window at the gray sky, his head resting on the back of his left hand.
Mansfield has resided in this office for 30 years, since he was named chair of the government department in 1973. The walls are decorated with pictures of Machiavelli and John Locke, as well as two framed certificates, signed by George Bush and Ronald Reagan.
Above his computer hangs a black and white photograph of Leo Strauss, a professor of political philosophy whose desire to revive traditional approaches to the field spawned an influential movement in conservative politics.
Mansfield, a devoted “Straussian,” has devoted much of his life to the defense of traditional political theory.
When Mansfield speaks, it is hard to believe that he is the controversial professor whose unapologetically abrasive statements have made headlines across the country.
He speaks with a deep, soft voice.
Colleagues have noted Mansfield’s firm dedication to his students.
He recently attended one of his advisee’s ballet performances and tries to see every Harvard football game.
“There is a disjunction between his public political position and how he interacts with his students,” Verba says. “Whatever his views are about gender or race, he has been a mentor to many women.”
And it seems that, despite the politics and the disagreements, Mansfield has earned the respect of many of his colleagues.
Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, who plays squash with Mansfield twice a week and has co-taught courses with Mansfield in the past, speaks of his colleague—and his colleague’s “fierce” yet “gentlemanly” demeanor on the squash court—with admiration and care.
“Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard treasure, a one-man antidote to liberal complacency,” Sandel says. “I disagree with almost all of his political views, but his presence enlivens the government department, and Harvard, immeasurably.”
“He is exactly where he belongs,” Verba says. “On the Harvard Faculty.”
—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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