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The Cost of Affirmative Action

By Harvey C. Mansfield, None

In the Government Department where I happily reside at Harvard, there are about 50 professors and about three conservatives. In a politics department, mind you. This is the result of affirmative action, a policy in effect for over three decades directed toward the goal of greater diversity. A policy intended to make Harvard more inclusive has rendered it more exclusive in political and intellectual diversity, the diversity that matters most.

These days, students can get more diversity by turning on the TV than by going to Harvard. Some of my colleagues might reply that their objectivity guarantees that both sides will get a hearing, but on TV, if not in their own minds, they would be quickly identified as experts on the liberal side. Liberals, to be fair, are not all the same: Some embrace the Left and others adjust to it. Rarely do any of them oppose the Left.

How did this state of affairs come about? In what follows I focus on the faculty and set aside the students, where affirmative action has not been so spectacular a failure.

Under affirmative action Harvard has gathered a respected group of Black faculty, an undoubted accomplishment. But, as far as I can tell, they do not include a single conservative and are no exception to the lack of diversity. They are treated well, and make their home in the first-class lounge at Harvard, now a privileged minority. Nobody begrudges them their status, but students could learn more about the Black experience from a course on Black thought, if one existed, reading great authors like Douglass, Washington, and Dubois, and taught by a professor of any color. Students would discover more diversity in these authors than is represented among Black professors (with one or two exceptions) at Harvard now.

In sum, Black professors do not set the tone at Harvard and do not diverge from it. Who sets the tone? The feminists.

One can see this from the recent ouster of University President Lawrence H. Summers. Summers showed a certain, perhaps laudable, creativity in making enemies among the faculty (for after all he wanted to reform things), but those he offended the most were the feminists (male as well as female). They detected his opposition, then revealed it, crushed it, and installed one of their own, University President Drew G. Faust, to replace him as President. Here was a display of dominance rarely seen at Harvard, which usually prefers to veil its changes of regime. How it happened is not yet clear, but that it happened is obvious.

Feminists do not believe in diversity which is not to their advantage. They rose to power by “raising consciousness,” by making society aware that women are treated unjustly, under the assumption that women are no different from men. Feminists do not care to argue this assumption, and seeming to do so was exactly what got Summers into trouble with MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64, who denounced him for proposing to inquire whether women are naturally less capable in science than men. Her scandalous act of obscurantist intolerance was welcomed by Harvard feminists with glee, mixed with surprise that she could get away with it.

Feminism is a kind of liberalism, and liberalism has an inherent dilemma regarding diversity. With its respect for liberty, liberalism promotes diversity of opinion, believing with John Stuart Mill that opposition to your view keeps you awake and does you a favor. But liberalism also believes in progress through liberation from prejudice such as found, allegedly, in sexism. From this aspect liberalism sees no reason to answer challenges from reactionaries and to refight battles already won. In the spirit of progress feminism feels justified in dismissing its critics—which is another reason for refusing to argue with them.

Yet the strongest cause of intolerance comes from the multiculturalism that the feminists have taken on board. Multiculturalism is a strange combination of relativism and moralism. All cultures are equal and none can be privileged—that’s the relativism. But because some people claim privilege and use it to oppress others, they must be excluded from power and status—there’s the moralism. Multiculturalism gave feminists the ability to borrow the moral authority of Blacks, who had truly been oppressed. They have used it—quite without embarrassment—to exclude conservatives, because conservatives support injustice and oppose affirmative action. Feminists believe that the fewer conservatives there are at Harvard, the less exclusiveness there will be. Other liberals are not so harsh in their thinking, but they do little to counter feminist intolerance. These liberals are not about to institute affirmative action for conservatives. They let things slide. They do not see that, in our time at least, the diversity John Stuart Mill prized does not come about automatically. The case for affirmative counteraction does not rest so much on the injustice done to conservatives, which liberals take lightly, as on the restoration of Harvard’s academic integrity.


Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is the Kenan Professor of Government.

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