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Editorials

A Liberal Problem?

University Hall is the location of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean's Office.
University Hall is the location of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean's Office. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

This past July, The Crimson released the fifth installment of its Harvard faculty survey, diving (not so deep) into our professors’ ideological leanings. For the umpteeth time, and perhaps to no one’s surprise, the vast majority — 82 percent — of respondents identified as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Only 1 percent of respondents identified as conservative; exactly zero faculty members chose the “very conservative” label.

The talking point seemed, for once, to match reality: Academia was festering with liberal bias. An elated Fox News ran a feature on the poll (never, rather rudely, crediting The Crimson by name); a National Review columnist used the survey to argue that conservative perspectives in the country were being “ignored” or “routinely trashed.”

But does our faculty's ideological slant represent a genuine, practical problem?

For Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, the answer is a resounding yes. Mansfield, who fancies himself one of the last conservatives on campus, has argued at length that the lack of conservative voices on campus poses a serious issue. In Mansfield’s eyes, his colleagues are either oblivious to how “Harvard is mocked by half the country” for its public and gratuitous ideological bias or willing to self-censor their views to fit in. The resulting absence of conservative voices poses, in his view, a substantial obstacle to both Harvard’s “impartiality and its devotion to veritas.”

We emphatically agree with Mansfield that debate and discourse are central to a vibrant intellectual community: Productive disagreement is the lifeblood of academia. Exclusive, unfounded adherence to any academic orthodoxy runs counter to our pursuit of veritas. Where our board disagrees with Mansfield — and rather sharply, we may add — is in his notion that a more even distribution of faculty along a conservative-liberal binary would increase productive disagreement in any meaningful way.

We find little reason to believe that. In fact, boiling down ideological and intellectual diversity to such limited labels strikes us as downright reductive.

At first look, the overwhelming majority of faculty identification as “liberal” or “very liberal” can be misleading, not least because less than a third of all faculty members fully completed the survey. These statistics suggest, on some level, that the majority of Harvard faculty agree on most if not all issues — that they all checked exactly the same boxes on some sort of ideological test. Such an interpretation is far from the case: While some degree of overlap is likely, self-identifying with a particular label hardly entails complete ideological symmetry. Disagreements in practice, if not on paper, are common, particularly when the labels span such broad political swaths. Options like ‘very liberal’ pigeonhole varied perspectives, funneling everything from hardcore Democrats to anarchist thinkers into a single monolithic identity.

Moreover, even professors with parallel political views might find themselves at odds in debates that are more directly related to their field: unwilling to disagree on abortion rights but eager to dispute the other’s interpretation of some empirical paper or set of data. Not all intellectual conflicts occur on the conservative-liberal — or, to all effects for American political media, Republican-Democratic — axis. The labels employed by the survey are limited in nuance and content; the relevance of our faculty’s concentrated selection of some over others is thus only limitedly revealing.

It is not this concocted notion of “diversity” we should concern ourselves with, but rather the actual quality and quantity of rigorous on-campus debate. In order to have open and honest discussions, individual opinions should be judged on their merits, not by the labels of those who hold those views. Therefore, we should assess our campus climate by how well it lives up to our institutional mission of truth and scholarship. Can students and faculty engage with one another’s ideas substantively, candidly, and constructively? Do our disagreements reflect genuine attempts to find answers? Can we take individual ideas seriously without conflating them with entire ideologies?

If conservative faculty feel undervalued or dehumanized by their peers in a way that affects their scholarship, that is an unquestionable problem. We find little evidence beyond Mansfield’s generic complaints that such a situation is actually the case; still, it should be seriously engaged with, lest our group biases render us excessively dismissive.

That doesn’t mean that Harvard ought to go on a hiring spree through red America on some wild goose chase for “political balance.” When Harvard seeks professors and guest speakers, its institutional obligation should be to reach out to those who are at the forefront of their fields and can contribute substantially to our intellectual community. It is not, by any means, obligated to satisfy some absurd ideological quota for the sake of avoiding clickbait headlines about “left-wing bias.” Mansfield's suggestion that the University select Commencement speakers of conservative leanings every other year strikes us as bizarre and unnecessary, a prioritization of intellectual difference over quality.

Novel and diverse perspectives are inherently essential to generating academic excellence, but there is no merit in being contrarian simply for the sake of it — those who forsake truth and good faith to argue the pseudo-scientific basis for racism, misrepresent historical facts, or deny climate change do not further Harvard’s mission of Veritas. Our campus and our truth-telling mission have no use for climate change deniers anymore than they have for Holocaust deniers.

We — professors, students, and community members alike — all have a role to play in cultivating a space for the intellectually challenging, good-faith discussions we want to participate in. Our campus culture is what we make of it. Instead of falling into the trap of labels, hear ideas for what they are — and make sure to probe them sharply.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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