Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line
At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions
Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists
‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam
‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6
When Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. ’53 began teaching at Harvard in 1962, Henry Kissinger ’50 was his colleague in the Government department and John F. Kennedy ’40 was president of the United States.
But after six decades of teaching, Mansfield said what impresses him most is “the lack of change” he’s seen.
“The students that I’ve seen in my courses, though they’ve changed in sex and in race, are pretty much the same in character the whole time,” he said. “Harvard students have maintained their quality and their interest for the time that I’ve been teaching.”
Those students, Mansfield said, are the best part about Harvard. For him, they’ve included many famous names: the conservative thinker and former Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle Bill Kristol ’73, the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, and Republican Senator Tom Cotton ’99, a former Crimson Editorial editor.
There have been changes, both national and on campus: Mansfield has taught at the University through six Harvard presidential administrations and stepped down from Harvard the same day as former University President Lawrence S. Bacow. But despite this, he said that his principal work in political philosophy “has always been central to a general education.”
“Somehow, Plato’s Republic has not been forgotten,” he said.
Though Mansfield is retiring from the Harvard faculty, he will maintain a position as a research professor, as many retired faculty members do.
His departure comes as the University and higher education at large have begun grappling with the increasingly widespread use of artificial intelligence tools. In The Crimson’s survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, nearly half expected AI to have a negative impact on higher education.
Mansfield called it something that is “simply based on what has gone before, or what most people do, or what most people think.”
“It spreads the status quo, it gathers from what has been done or what has been said, or what has been thought and puts it together in what looks like a legitimate way,” Mansfield said.
It “robs us of a sense of novelty,” he said. “You let a machine do your thinking for you.”
Few Harvard professors are as vocal about their conservative political views as Mansfield is. Throughout his six decades on the Harvard faculty, he has spent plenty of time arguing against affirmative action and grade inflation at Harvard, which he said are “my two causes.”
In 1997, Mansfield and Yiddish Literature professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse debated affirmative action with former African and African American Studies professor Cornel R. West ’73 and government professor Michael J. Sandel in front of a crowd of more than a thousand students in Sanders Theatre.
Mansfield has also long opposed gay marriage — to fierce pushback from student organizations — but said in the interview that he is glad that gay students “no longer face the kind of dislike and shame that they used to have when I first started,” calling it “one item of progress that I’ve seen in the last 60 years.”
“But on the other hand, I do think there shouldn’t be gay marriage, I still would take that feeling that it’s a derogation of marriage to think that it’s simply a partnership of two people,” he said.
“I voted for Trump with many misgivings,” Mansfield said. “And then January 6, when he encouraged that insurrection against Congress, I crossed him off my list entirely.”
“I won’t have any part of him now,” he said, though he added that he finds it “very hard to blame any Republican or a conservative in the way that they reacted to Trump.”
In a follow-up email, Mansfield wrote he is “thinking of Biden” if the choice is between incumbent President Joe Biden and Trump — who is “unacceptable” according to Mansfield — largely based on the Biden administration’s response to the war in Ukraine. Mansfield called Biden “an acceptable mediocrity compared to the disaster of Trump.”
Another Republican candidate would “probably be much better than either,” he added.
Despite his on-campus label as a vocal conservative, though, Mansfield said he thinks it’s “more interesting” to examine “the fundamental principles of philosophy and political philosophy than simply to be conservative politically.”
In Mansfield’s view, his conservatism has not greatly impacted his relationships with his fellow faculty members, who generally skew liberal: In one notable case, Mansfield’s friendship with West, the AAAS professor, contributed to tension with then-University president Lawrence H. Summers. West, in a 2021 interview, called Mansfield “a brother of mine,” while Mansfield said in his interview that West was “a very good-hearted fellow” with “not an iota of intolerance in him.”
“My colleagues for the most part have treated me with collegiality, with congeniality. They’ve treated me well. They let me talk, but they never listen,” he said. “This is true in terms of policies and also in terms of appointments.”
With his departure, Mansfield said that Harvard needs “more conservatives to produce the diversity we say we want.”
“If nobody questions that general left liberalism at Harvard, and it will gradually become either more fanatic or more boring than it is,” Mansfield said.
The core of Mansfield’s work, though, has long been philosophy — when asked how he would characterize his tenure, he said he “tried to make people think,” but he still wishes he “knew more and better about Plato and Aristotle.”
“He teaches not his own partisan convictions, but the history of political philosophy in a way that could inform anybody’s partisan convictions,” J. Russell Muirhead ’88, a former student who taught as a guest in Mansfield’s class this semester said. “After studying with him, you learn to understand your own views better.”
Muirhead, a former Crimson News editor who is now a Democratic representative in the New Hampshire state legislature and a government professor at Dartmouth College, said that his political views and Mansfield’s have been in “an interesting tension,” but that “it makes me want to be in conversation with him.”
“There’s nothing about his teaching that requires a student to agree with him,” Muirhead said. “I appreciate it even more now, because of where we are today with polarization.”
“It’s important to remember that we’re much more liberal than the larger country we’re part of, and that we could benefit from listening to, from being in the presence of, those who disagree with us and disagree with us profoundly,” he added. “His example reminds us liberals that we really don’t want to make the university an ideologically uniform institution.”
Fukuyama, a renowned political theorist who did his Ph.D. under Mansfield, said that Mansfield’s work greatly shaped his own political ideas, and said he has even returned to his graduate work with Mansfield to answer questions that come up in his own work today.
Despite focusing extensively on public policy himself, Fukuyama said his work with Mansfield on political philosophy has been useful as “the way I think about them, policies exist in this larger framework that’s set by political theory.”
One of Mansfield’s core philosophical beliefs — that long-ago perspectives and ideas are not obsolete simply because they are old — also shapes how Mansfield views the University he has called home for so long.
According to him, it would be “much better if Harvard could stop being so trendy.”
“We have an appetite for what seems fresh and new, and we forget quality in what is old and deserves to be continued,” he said. “We don’t have an appreciation for tradition, in the best sense of that word.”
“We move headlong in our thinking toward our we know not what,” he said. “We’ve moved from — not officially, but unofficially — from our motto of veritas, truth, to a motto of change, and without any specification as to what change means.”
Mansfield said that the next generation of college students should “think carefully of your country: where should it go? What should it aim for? Can it be submerged in the world or all of humanity, or does it have a special place? And if it has a special place, what is it?”
Despite his long-public criticisms — philosophical and tangible — of the University, though, Mansfield looked back on his time fondly.
“I love Harvard,” Mansfield said. “And I’ve had a wonderful time being there.”
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.