It’s November 2008, after President Barack Obama’s first election, and one of professor Ruth R. Wisse’s undergraduate students comes in to speak with her.
“I really did want to tell you that I’ve been feeling very guilty,” says the student, a freshman.
“About what?” asks Wisse, an outspoken conservative faculty member and prominent Yiddish scholar.
“Well, I worked on the Obama campaign,” the student says.
Wisse laughs, and replies, “You and everyone else—why would that necessarily make you feel guilty?”
“You see, I’m for McCain, and I voted for McCain.”
Wisse was now puzzled—and intrigued. “Well, why did you work on the Obama campaign?”
“Because I so wanted to be with my roommates and with everyone else.”
That student’s experience—the choice between social comfort and political conviction, as Wisse describes it—is perhaps dramatic, but it is not outlandish. It is not easy being a political conservative at Harvard, at a university that Richard Nixon once called the “Kremlin on the Charles,” in a city that playfully refers to itself as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” in one of the bluest states in the country.
Many face the same decision with respect to their political beliefs. Students who choose to embrace their conservatism publicly often undergo a “baptism by fire,” finding their beliefs strengthened and arguments honed, but only after being subject to intense scrutiny and even caricature. Others do not—out of fear of not gaining social acceptance, out of fear of being dismissed out of of hand, out of fear of being made into a punchline—and remain in the so-called “political closet,” perhaps even passing as liberals.
The challenge is not that the typical right-wing view on campus is extremely conservative—in fact, it’s the very opposite. While the national conservative movement still grapples with and in some cases defies the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, for example, the campus conversation has moved on, according to Aaron I. Henricks ’16, president of the Harvard Republican Club, the largest conservative student group on campus. In a survey of graduating seniors of the College’s Class of 2014, The Crimson found that just 4.6 percent of students had an unfavorable view of same-sex marriage.
“We have a few libertarians, we have a few who might identify as Tea Party members, but the vast majority are just center-right,” says Government concentrator Andrew B. Pardue ’16 of the HRC. “At other parts of the country we’d be RINOs—Republicans in Name Only—whereas even being center-right is very radical on this campus.”
And so, it’s often not controversial conservative views that drive students into the political closet. Instead, it’s simply the idea—and to some extent, the reality—of a liberal monolith at Harvard that some say makes it difficult for conservative students, closeted or not, to find a voice and meaningful representation on campus.
That the typical conservative student at Harvard has center-right views might be surprising to some people outside Harvard. If you go off examples most prominent in the media, you might immediately jump to the firebrands.
You might think of the Harvard College Anscombe Society, a group previously known as the True Love Revolution that has promoted abstinence, heterosexual marriage, and traditional gender roles. You might think of former Anscombe president Luciana E. Milano ’14, and her appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor” decrying the University’s hypersexualized culture after the Committee on Student Life approved a BDSM group on campus. You might think of Bill O’Reilly himself, a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government.
You might think of Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, a vocal critic of political correctness, sexual liberation, and feminism, who claims that conservative viewpoints are “totally ignored” on campus by the faculty and administration. You might think of Texas senator and Harvard Law School graduate Rafael “Ted” Cruz, who many associate with the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and is now running for president. You might think of Arkansas senator and former Crimson editor Thomas B. Cotton ’98, who penned a letter to the Iranian leadership in March casting doubts on the legitimacy of the Obama administration’s authority to negotiate with Iran.
But these are, in fact, the exceptions rather than the rule.
Like their national counterparts, conservatives on campus hold as their guiding principle a great deference to order, stability and tradition, coupled with the idea that a smaller government is a better government, and that the nation and its people—regardless of their background—do best when the government does less.
In practice, however, many conservative students on campus look less to the Grand Old Party and more to Great Britain’s David Cameron and his center-right Conservative Party for inspiration on how to move forward.
“Gay marriage is something that actually is probably a bedrock conservative principle,” says Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18, a regional chair of Students for Rubio, referencing David Cameron in an opinion echoed by several students. “People do best when the government gets out of their lives, and I personally find it hypocritical when conservatives say, ‘Let’s get the government out of our lives, except out of the bedroom.’”
Indeed, many conservative students at Harvard identify as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”—more libertarian or moderate than right-wing. While real estate mogul Donald J. Trump—widely accused of being nativist—and retired neurosurgeon Benjamin “Ben” S. Carson—who said earlier this month that he would not support a Muslim for president—soar in the national polls, you’d be hard-pressed to find any vocal Trump supporters on campus. The Republican Party at Harvard, for the most part, is not the party of Trump, Carson, and Mike Huckabee—it’s the party of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul.
“The most important thing we have to do is love each other and not judge each other, and once we get the Republican Party more towards that loving spectrum from the judging side of the spectrum, we’ll be a lot better off for it,” Khansarinia says. It’s hardly the rhetoric of an extremist.
So why might we still have a poetic image of a radical right at Harvard? Part of it probably has to do with confirmation bias: The most controversial voices are often the loudest and the most exciting, and the moderate right often gets drowned out. More important, however, is the fact that conservative students—moderate or not—are such a minority on campus that it’s often difficult for them to get enough momentum to dramatically change public perception, and that Harvard is too overwhelmingly liberal for the most soft-spoken and moderate conservative students to feel comfortable standing behind their views.
Of course, that conservatives come in small numbers at Harvard comes as no shock. For years, The Crimson’s freshman survey has found that liberals may outnumber conservatives in incoming classes by as much as five to one—65.1 percent of the 1,184 respondents to this fall’s Class of 2019 survey, for example, identify as somewhat liberal or very liberal, compared to just 12.2 percent who identify as somewhat conservative or very conservative. Last year, among survey respondents from the graduating College Class of 2015, former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton had a higher favorability rating than Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker—combined. A surveyed senior was almost 10 times more likely to have a favorable view of Bernie Sanders than Ted Cruz.
And the liberal bent—to put it mildly—is not limited to the student body. A Crimson data analysis last year found that nearly 84 percent of campaign contributions from a group of 614 University faculty, instructors, and researchers between 2011 and the third quarter of 2014 went to federal Democratic campaigns and political action committees. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, that number was closer to 96 percent. Mansfield, for his part, would only call three professors in the Government department conservative.
And as recently as the 111th Congress in 2009, just 8 percent of Harvard graduates (of any degree program at the University) serving as congressional representatives or senators on Capitol Hill were Republican.
“Diversity? Political? Two words [that] can be put in the same sentence?” concludes freshman Sapna V. Rampersaud ’19, a registered Republican. “Before I actually got here, all my teachers in high school and family members were telling me: ‘Don’t let Harvard liberalize you.’”
When the left outnumbers the right at Harvard by ratios as high as five to one or even 20 to one, it’s no surprise that the campus sometimes forgets the right exists at all. When Pardue, a former Crimson editorial columnist, made what he thought were “subtle critiques” of Obama while sitting with entryway mates in the Yard freshman year, the students around him reacted with shock.
“I remember one girl actually clutching her chest in surprise,” Pardue recalls. “And I admitted that I was [a Republican], and many of them acted as if they’d never met one before, and they were probing me and questioning me, and I’m getting questions about, ‘How do you feel about this insane thing Michele Bachmann said.’”
The assumption, conservative students say, is that anyone is a Democrat unless they say otherwise. Bush campaign volunteer and former Florida Federation of Teenage Republicans chair Kent K. Haeffner ’18, for example, said his adviser still thinks he is a liberal.
And sometimes, it is that assumption that leads to awkward situations for conservative students on campus.
It’s August of 2013. Declan P. Garvey ’17 is stepping on Harvard’s campus as a college student for the first time. He gets out of a taxi, walks from Mt. Auburn Street to Massachusetts Avenue, and the first thing he sees is a sign held by upperclassman leaders of the pre-orientation First-Year Urban Program he is about to attend. The sign reads “Honk if you hate Reagan too!” Another proclaims, “Ayn Rand Can Go FUP Herself.”
Garvey, a Crimson editorial writer, wasn’t political at the time, and even now he’s only a moderate conservative—he jests that he would be considered a RINO elsewhere. But he still found the environment “pretty hostile,” and felt the program’s description was misleading. Garvey says he was under the impression that the program was service-oriented but not political.
“And for part of the day it definitely was, but for part of the days, it was also a little bit of a left-leaning, discussion-based learning experience,” Garvey says, noting that members of the Student Labor Action Movement and local union leaders came to speak to students.
FUP adviser Varsha Ghosh says the program has not used those posters since Garvey’s freshman year, and student leaders have reevaluated and significantly changed the program’s “welcome wagon” and curriculum since then, framing and contextualizing activities in a more thoughtful way to promote a more inclusive and comfortable environment.
But even with FUP’s program revised, Garvey and Pardue’s experiences as freshmen are hardly unique. Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, whose office conducts a survey of freshmen at the end of each year, says he has read “dismaying” comments from freshmen who feel like their political opinions and perspectives have not been given proper respect or appreciation on campus.
“I remember one particular student who said, ‘Because I was from the deep South, from the get-go people assumed that I had views to the right of Attila the Hun and I found myself struggling to be heard and to feel other’s respect,’” Dingman says. “I think we have to ask people, expect people, to leave their assumptions at the door and make a genuine effort to learn from one another. We’re cheating ourselves if we don’t and we’re creating an environment where people feel out on the fringe.”
Even if the left might sometimes forget about the right at Harvard, the right never forgets about the dominance of the left.
“If you ever want to know what it is like to live in a country with one party, with one political party, instead of a contested political system, then the closest approximation to that would be some of our major universities, including Harvard, where it’s a one-party system,” says Wisse, who retired in 2014. “There is—as far as I can tell—no encouragement of the kind of two-party system that you have in the polity at large.”
It’s this monolith of liberalism on campus that makes conservatives censor themselves, both inside the classroom and out, they say.
“I’ve had instances in classes where perhaps for a paper I’ve written something other than I really feel, because I know that perhaps if I write what I really feel I may not get the best grade,” Khansarinia says. “I think that at times I’ve changed what I’ve written in essays so that it can fall in line with what I think is the professor’s ideology.’”
Khansarinia is not alone.
The fear of being judged, misinterpreted, and perhaps then discriminated against is what made Pardue keep his conservatism under wraps freshman year, what makes former Harvard Salient editor Isaac G. Inkeles ’16 often steer the conversation away from politics, and what, according to Wisse, keeps non-tenured faculty members silent about their conservative values. It’s what made Garvey think long and hard about putting a “Jeb!” sticker on his laptop, and ultimately decide not to put it on. (And Garvey’s fears are not irrational—Henricks, the HRC president, has a “Jeb!” sticker on his laptop, and says it, along with his political beliefs, have sometimes been treated as a punchline.) It’s what keeps the students I interviewed from being totally open about their views, especially on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.
“I don’t think it’s socially acceptable on campus to be outspoken pro-life,” Henricks says. “Even right now I probably wouldn’t say exactly where I stand.”
It’s one thing to be a center-right student with left-leaning social views on campus, afraid to share your thoughts on immigration or tax reform or the legalization of marijuana. It’s a whole other story to be a socially conservative student with views that do not align with the prevailing campus opinion on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.
“That’s an ideology that’s just completely looked down on,” Pardue says. “There aren’t many places where you can find them.” And students who use the phrase “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” defensively, says Pardue, only push those social conservative students farther into the fringe.
Inkeles is one of these students. He’s a tall, athletic New Yorker with a deep, gravelly voice who views same-sex marriage as a potentially dangerous change that could redefine marriage from “a unit of stability” to a “unit of love,” which he views as more ephemeral and thus putting the basic units of society at risk. And while he says he understands a woman’s right to her own body when it comes to the topic of abortion, he doesn’t think there is a “morally salient difference between a fetus and a person.”
I ask Inkeles about the first piece he wrote for the Salient—a conservative student publication—three years ago. It’s an editorial in which he argues that “gender is completely binary” and that “gender fluidity represents...a total deconstruction of an institution, as well as a departure from reality.” He’s nervous during our interview—he says so himself, with a slight stutter—and he tells me about a text his friend received after the publication of the article, in which a third-party questions why Inkeles’s friend would ever want to associate with him.
I ask Inkeles about what he thinks about the new option to choose preferred gender pronouns during registration this year. The move was intended by administrators to make students more comfortable with their gender identity and raise awareness of different gender pronouns students might use, as part of making campus more inclusive. Preferred pronouns allow transgender students and students who identify outside of the binary of man and woman to articulate their gender identity; BGLTQ students on campus praised the registration change as progress this summer.
“I think it’s kind of silly,” Inkeles starts. “It’s like, do we need to politicize and change the English language?”
But then he stops—almost instinctively, saying he doesn’t want to offend anyone.
“I guess that might be an instance of self-censoring: I have an intuition about an issue, and maybe if I brought it up and talked about it with people and the environment was one in which I felt comfortable sharing an intuition, and I thought people would take it in good faith and give me their opinions in good faith then maybe I might be able to develop the idea better or I might quickly see that my intuition is wrong,” Inkeles reflects. “But I’m hesitant to bring it up, because I feel like people won’t take it in good faith and just assume that it’s bigoted or irrational—then I kind of keep those feelings to myself and it’s harder to develop them.”
The conservatives I talk to insist that they’re not claiming to be victims, that they’re not “whining and crying,” as Khansarinia puts it. Many of them come from families or cities that are quite liberal, and being in the minority is often not something new to them. For some, it’s even fun.
Moreover, they frame the political homogeneity on campus not as a loss to conservatism, but as a loss to liberal students and to the idea of a liberal arts education. Liberal students, Pardue argues, don’t need to defend themselves constantly like conservatives do and perhaps have a more “flabby and atrophied” ideology as a result.
“Part of going to college and part of being at an academic institution is being exposed to lots of different viewpoints,” adds Haeffner, the Bush organizer, who says that he has seen people often ascribe bad intentions to others simply because they were conservative. “And when we’ve essentially said that one viewpoint is not acceptable to be spoken out for, I think that’s dangerous not only for the folks on [our] side but also the folks who disagree with us—I think being challenged helps you sharpen your viewpoints, it makes you smarter about things.”
But most of all, conservative students said they found the liberal mantra of pluralism and toleration troublingly inconsistent with what they characterized as a lack of a commitment to political diversity on the part of liberals.
“I think liberals have this notion that everyone should have free thought and be open to everyone’s ideas—except people who don’t agree with liberals,” Khansarinia says. “That’s what I’ve experienced on campus—is that they’re very supportive of freedom of thought, and open ideas and open forums of discussion. But once you present a conservative idea, you’re immediately shut down—you’re now a racist, you’re now a homophobe, you’re now X, Y, and Z.”
For his part, Harvard College Democrats president Jacob R. Carrel ’16 says it is important not to make any assumptions of peers on the basis of their political beliefs, and says he hopes conservatives can feel comfortable on campus.
“If someone does believe in liberal and tolerant communities, they should absolutely tolerate other political ideologies as well, and I would hope people on campus do the same,” he adds.
Why should we care?
It’s a blunt question, but it’s a fair one. Why should the dominant liberal majority care about how an assumed small group of students and faculty members feels on campus? Why should they care about the even smaller minority that carry social views they might consider retrograde or hateful?
Campus conservatives have a few answers. The simplest one is that there are probably more conservatives on campus than people think: The myth of the Harvard liberal monolith is self-perpetuating, and people see what they want to see. If even the most vocal Government concentrators are careful about what they say, it’s no wonder that concentrators in the sciences and engineering, argues Haeffner, are less confident in their conservative viewpoints and often keep them private.
More fundamentally, Wisse argues, political homogeneity on campus is unrepresentative of America at large, and a one-party system at Harvard does not prepare students for the two-party system outside of it.
“Liberal democracy is not biologically transmitted,” Wisse explains. “So if you do not really train people to regularly contemplate vying points of view and the legitimacy of vying points of view, then obviously you are not doing your job in educating people for the American way of life.”
Dingman, the freshman dean, added that exposure to different viewpoints and sharing beliefs in an inclusive community is an important source of growth and part of a good education.
“I think we have to ask people, expect people, to leave their assumptions at the door and make a genuine effort to learn from one another. We’re cheating ourselves if we don’t and we’re creating an environment where people feel out on the fringe in a very regrettable way,” Dingman says. He suggests that the campus climate has already made significant strides since the 1960s and 1970s, when right-wing views were more readily dismissed and ROTC students were perceived as being part of a great military-industrial complex.
But it’s again Haeffner who highlighted perhaps the most important reason for a revival of political diversity at Harvard: The leaders on campus today will likely be the ones that fill Capitol Hill and state legislatures across the country tomorrow. As recently as the 111th Congress in 2009, 39 Senators and members of Congress had a Harvard degree (as did the President of the United States). If Harvard was a state, it would have the representation of five and half states in the Senate, and more representation than any state in the Union in Congress, excepting California and Texas. The culture created at Harvard might well be the culture in Washington in a generation, and if we want to foster an atmosphere of respect on Capitol Hill we could do worse than starting by opening dialogue at a time and place where future political leaders are most malleable, most impressionable.
But how to start such a dialogue? How does one rebuild political diversity at Harvard?
For Wisse, the real hope lies in the student body rather than the administration or faculty, in the belief that those closet conservatives may one day come out, stand behind their political convictions, and perhaps even demand the reintroduction of certain academic approaches, texts, and professors.
And the students, for the most part, concur. Garvey called for more events co-hosted by groups from opposite sides of the aisle on campus—like the annual Harvard College Democrats and Harvard Republican Club debate—to give students a “face to put with the name on the other side” and break the isolation of conservatism and liberalism. Inkeles talked about a “Conservative Coming Out Day” the Salient almost organized when he was editor, where conservative students would share their political beliefs with close friends. Pardue raised the possibility of doing more public events and bringing conservatism into the daylight, passing out t-shirts and literature and having a bigger presence on campus.
“It’s on us—we have to, as conservatives, as young conservatives, prove that our party is not full of racists, is not full of homophobes, is not full of nativists,” Khansarinia concludes. “The burden is on us to show that we’re good people, to show that sure, we disagree with you on the ideas, but we’re all going to the same goal: We all want America’s children to be educated, we all want the poor to no longer be poor, we all want this country to be safe from foreign attack. But the burden is on us to put a face on that that is not the crazy people who are leading our polls. The burden is on us to show that we are accepting of all people. The burden is on us to show that we are the party of the future.”