‘An Endangered Species’: The Scarcity of Harvard’s Conservative Faculty

While the University has made a concerted effort across the past decade to promote gender and racial diversity among its faculty, Harvard has not made any explicit attempts to bolster representation from across the ideological spectrum.
By Natalie L. Kahn

By Angela Y. Li

Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53 is widely known on campus as the default example of a conservative faculty member at Harvard.

According to Mansfield, this is not because his views possess any sort of “superiority” to others’ perspectives, but simply because a professor with his political stance is “rare” on Harvard’s campus.

“Every class you enter, you have to work out your position vis-à-vis what the professor is saying,” Mansfield said. “Because a professor is going to be a liberal, and he’s not going to be bashful about it.”

“There are many more conservatives among the students than there are among either the faculty or the administration,” he said, adding that those students tend to seek him out as one of the few vocal conservative voices in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

It is no surprise that Harvard’s faculty skews heavily toward the left side of the political aisle. Out of 236 members of the FAS who responded to a question on political leanings in The Crimson’s 2021 Faculty Survey, just seven — 3 percent — identified as “somewhat” or “very conservative,” compared to 183 who identified as “somewhat” or “very liberal.”

Political donations by FAS members show a similar leftward bent. Contributions by FAS faculty to Democrats recorded in the publicly available Federal Election Commission filings for 2017-2020 totaled $744,143, while donations to Republican campaigns and candidates amounted to just $3,010, less than the $5,600 that FAS faculty contributed to independent candidates.

Harvard is no outlier in this regard, though. The conservative representation on Yale’s faculty just barely exceeded Harvard’s in a 2017 Yale Daily News survey. Of the 314 respondents, only 7 percent of faculty identified as conservative.

Computer Science professor emeritus Harry R. Lewis ’68, dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003, said the leftward lean of academia may stem from its goal of advancing new and sometimes radical ideas, rather than maintaining the status quo.

“The best thing you can possibly say about a professor is ‘she changed the way everybody thinks about this field,’” he said. “It’s almost by definition anti-preservationist because we place such a high value on the creation of new knowledge.”

While the University has made a concerted effort across the past decade to promote gender and racial diversity among its faculty, Harvard has not made any explicit attempts to bolster representation from across the ideological spectrum.

The Left-Wing Skew of Academia

The overwhelming majority of faculty on campuses nationwide have long fallen on the left of the political center. In a 2018 article for the right-leaning nonprofit advocacy group National Association of Scholars, economist Mitchell Langbert concluded that, excluding the two military colleges, the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans among faculty at liberal arts colleges is 12.7 to 1.

Lewis said the political leanings of faculty generally matter more in the social sciences, while his sense is that in the hard sciences the politics of faculty members are less likely to play a role in their work.

“In the hard sciences, I generally have no idea what my colleagues’ politics are since it has zero impact on their scholarship,” he said. “If you’re in economics, or in political science, or in sociology, probably people’s political views are closer to the surface.”

Government professor Ryan D. Enos disagreed with Lewis, asserting that politics can infuse into all disciplines, even if it appears apolitical at the time.

“We may look around now and say people are just doing science, which of course a lot of people in the social sciences say they are too, but it may not be evident to us at the time that what we’re doing is highly politicized,” Enos said.

Enos added that Harvard faculty across all disciplines would be more likely to have “pretty intense” political views than the average American, since political involvement is highly correlated with education.

In an emailed statement, former University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote that he believes academia is naturally more “progressive” because professors are choosing to forego more lucrative job opportunities.

“People who don’t like capitalism tend to gravitate to academia because they don’t like working for companies, whereas people who like capitalism have many more choices,” Summers wrote.

‘One Correct Side of the Issue’

Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw has faced student criticism for his right-leaning political views. In November 2011, students staged a walkout in his Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” class over its perceived conservative bent.

Mankiw, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush but left the Republican Party in 2019, said he believes the Economics department is “more diverse” politically than the overall faculty body. In his experience, the climate for center-right faculty members at Harvard has been “extremely polite," he said.

In one instance, however, he said a faculty member in the sciences approached him after hearing he was a Republican and acted as though it were “some very strange character flaw.”

“There’s no overt antagonism — there’s sort of latent skepticism of people who have different political views,” Mankiw said. “A lot of the faculty don’t interact with people right of center on a regular basis, and so I think there’s probably a lack of understanding.”

Robert J. Barro, a colleague of Mankiw’s in the Economics department whose research has been critical of government spending, indicated that he has not always experienced the same mutual toleration.

Though he said most of his colleagues in Economics are “very open to different points of view,” Barro noted many faculty are no longer willing to consider conservative viewpoints on certain political issues, such as affirmative action hiring policies for faculty.

“There’s no tolerance at all at this point for something that says we should just be hiring on the basis of merit in terms of scholarship, teaching ability, and so on,” he said. “It’s sort of no question now that, in addition to that, you’re supposed to be heavily weighting various forms of identity.”

Enos — who received national attention for calling on Harvard to adopt “minimum standards” for affiliation following the Capitol riot — agreed with Barro, noting that his own views are “in line with most Harvard faculty,” but that it is “pretty apparent” many professors are not welcoming to views that fall on the opposite side of the political aisle on issues like affirmative action.

“People would be willing to engage in a discussion, but I think that there would be an underlying premise that those views are invalid, and maybe even offensive,” Enos said. “We often treat those [issues like affirmative action] and discussions around Harvard, including discussions among faculty, as only having one correct side of the issue.”

Mansfield said he has had “all kinds of trouble” with some of his colleagues.

“They believe they are scientist[s] — scientists are objective, it doesn’t matter what party you belong to,” he said. “And the fact that all of them belong to the Democratic Party is a mere accident of no interest or importance.”

But while tenured professors might be more comfortable sharing their political views with impunity, Mankiw acknowledged that tenure-track professors likely do not share the same level of comfort.

“If I were a right-of-center untenured professor, I probably would not advertise my views,” Mankiw said. “You should recognize you’re in the minority, and not everybody’s going to judge you with open-mindedness.”

‘Not Looking for Conservatives’

Summers, who has in the past criticized the “great deal of absurd political correctness” on Harvard’s campus, noted he believes it is important for the University to increase the ideological diversity of the faculty.

“While my views are progressive, I am struck that universities have unfortunately not devoted nearly the same level of effort to diversity of ideas as they have to demographic diversity and to maintaining a culture where those with conservative views on issues like affirmative action, the military or property rights are made to feel welcome,” Summers wrote.

Though they have advocated for academic freedom and free speech on campus, neither of Summers’s successors — Drew G. Faust and Lawrence S. Bacow — has publicly voiced support for more politically diverse hiring.

Mansfield argued that the only path to balance the current disparity must be a concerted effort by the administration to hire more conservative scholars in inherently political fields.

“What we need is more conservative faculty appointments,” Mansfield said. “There hasn’t been a conservative appointed as a Harvard faculty for the last 10 years, as far as I know.”

But only a minority of surveyed faculty support an intentional effort to bolster conservative representation among the FAS, according to The Crimson’s February survey.

Out of 238 respondents, only 23 percent said they “somewhat” or “strongly support” attempts to increase political diversity among the faculty, while 34 percent said they “somewhat” or “strongly oppose” hiring more conservative professors. Forty-three percent said they “neither support nor oppose” doing so.

In addition, 34 percent of surveyed faculty supported completely barring former members of the Trump administration from appointments to the FAS, though they may not necessarily oppose hiring ideological conservatives not directly affiliated with Trump.

“The administration is not looking for conservatives,” Mansfield said. “If it wanted to, it could find them — they’re easy to find. There aren’t a whole lot of them, but there are definitely enough if you’re looking.”

FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on Mansfield’s assertions.

Government professor Steven R. Levitsky pushed back against Mansfield, saying he believes the University does not take into account the political views of potential hirees.

“I don’t think that we, at least in political science, pay as much attention to people’s politics as people think,” Levitsky said. “You can’t tell someone’s politics from their dissertation or their journal article.”

Levitsky added that he thinks “more than a small handful” of professors in the Government department are conservative or libertarian.

Government professor Jennifer L. Hochschild, who previously served as chair of the department, fell more on Levitsky’s side, arguing that the most important qualification for hiring should be scholarship.

“We fall back on the traditional things we’ve always fallen back on — the importance of the work, the big ideas, the evaluations of colleagues at other universities,” she said.

Hochschild maintained she was “skeptical of the whole concern” about diminishing numbers of conservative faculty on campus, arguing that the leftward lean of academia is a “very old trope.”

She said she does not support compensating for a dearth of conservative faculty members by hiring on an ideological basis, though she noted that one tactic could be hiring in certain fields that have a propensity for greater diversity of thought.

“I could imagine identifying fields where you might plausibly expect some of the best scholars to have a wider range of viewpoints than in other fields, and that seems to be an appropriate strategy for thinking about getting diversity,” she said, offering military policy as an example of a discipline that may have a greater supply of center-right scholars to potentially hire.

In contrast, Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature professor emeritus Ruth R. Wisse said a commitment to diverse hiring must include ideological diversity.

“Diversity is diversity of thought,” she said, adding that she was appointed in 1993, before the University began more strongly considering identity in hiring.

“No one asked me these questions because they weren’t yet in the air,” she said. “But five years later, anyone who held my belief would not have been appointed.”

“Anybody who was appointed on the basis of this new value system is of course going to uphold this new value system,” Wisse added, regarding affirmative action in hiring policies.

Wisse said that though potential hirees are not often asked their political views outright, she believes potential candidates can sometimes be “blackballed” when faculty committees “sniff out their political views.”

‘Just Getting Worse’

Historian Niall C. Ferguson, who left the University in 2016 to join the Hoover Institution at Stanford, wrote in an emailed statement that he believes the number of right-of-center professors at Harvard is diminishing.

“It became increasingly apparent over my 12 years at Harvard that conservative professors were not just a small minority but an endangered species that might go extinct,” he wrote. “The skew to the left amongst faculty (and administrators) is now greater than ever and academia should not be politically monochrome.”

Ferguson added he believes Harvard would “benefit from having something like the Hoover Institution” to help balance out the “unprecedented skew to the left.” The Hoover Institution, where Ferguson currently serves as a senior fellow, is a right-of-center think tank housed within Stanford.

Barro also said he is not optimistic about the future of political discourse among faculty and students on campus.

“It looks like it’s just getting worse,” he said. “What’s true for the University is true in a larger dimension with respect to the broader society and politics.”

Barro noted that one way the administration could alleviate the tension is by continuing to voice support for free speech on campus.

“They should be continually affirming that the most important thing is freedom of expression and freedom of thought, freedom of speech,” he said. “That’s not what the administration seems to be doing — they seem to be more pushing to do things that make people comfortable and don’t raise certain objectionable points of view.”

In an email, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton referred to previous statements by Bacow about the importance of free speech, including an address to the FAS at a February faculty meeting.

“History teaches us the dangers of campus bans and litmus tests based on ideology. The defense of free and honest inquiry in the unfettered pursuit of truth is our shared responsibility—and among our most sacred commitments,” Bacow said during the meeting.

Dane, the FAS spokesperson, pointed to the University’s free speech guidelines, formulated in 1990, which reiterate the importance of “rational discourse” and “free interchange of ideas.”

“Because we are a community committed to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas,” the guidelines read.

Last October, the FAS permitted Government preceptor David D. Kane to invite highly controversial social scientist Charles A. Murray ’65 to speak at a virtual event. FAS Dean Claudine Gay noted at the time that though she does not believe Murray’s work has academic merit, she is committed to maintaining academic freedom.

Levitsky described that in his experience in the Government department, older professors tend to be more open to the principle of maintaining few limitations on campus speech.

“Most of the folks 45 years and up in my department are old school in terms of speech, libertarian market of ideas,” he said.

When asked whether departments seem to be moving in a more leftward direction as older professors retire, Enos replied that “it certainly seems that the trends are pushing that direction.”

“Imagine a place is known to be filled with 90 percent liberals, for example,” he said. “If you were a conservative professor, would you feel comfortable going and joining the faculty there?”

Enos said he believes the worsening ideological imbalance is a “real problem.”

“When places are perfectly homogenous, they do a lot of things that are undesirable — they collapse into tribalism, they don’t check their own ideas,” he said. “We may look around one day and realize we have, for example, at Harvard a department that studies politics where everybody has exactly the same views on politics, and that can’t be healthy for our scholarship.”

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

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