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Interpreting the Harvard Faculty’s Lack of Ideological Diversity

By Allison P. Farrell, Crimson Opinion Writer
Allison P. Farrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Philosophy Concentrator in Leverett House.

Less than three percent of Harvard faculty self-identify their political beliefs as conservative.

This statistic is frequently brandished as evidence of “left-wing bias” at elite institutions of higher learning.

It is an odd feature of our current time that we allude to an ideal of weighing “all viewpoints” against one another, as these criticisms often suppose. Indeed, we must ask whether the proposition to include “all viewpoints” is reasonable or even possible.

I contend that it is neither. In any given group, there is always only a limited range of viewpoints that are deemed “acceptable.” Although 97 percent of scientists accept that anthropocentric climate change is occurring, 16 percent of Americans deny climate change altogether. Within each group, what differs is the standards of evidence members are willing to accept; to change someone’s mind requires a shared notion of what constitutes a sufficient argument.

As we engage in all study, we set standards of knowledge that dictate how inquiry will proceed, what lenses of analysis will be applied, and what proof we will accept as valid. There are also some premises we take as almost incontrovertibly true, and many of these premises are necessary for rigorous inquiry to proceed.

The standards we use today in 2024 are vastly different from those used at Harvard’s inception in 1636. A modern physicist cannot be taken seriously without the use of calculus, which was invented decades after the University. If an academic were to apply to the medical faculty today speaking of humorism and miasma, they would be (rightly) laughed out of their interview, yet according to the standards of medieval scholarship, these were evident truths.

I argue that in another 388 years, our standards will surely be different. To think our way of understanding the world will be the same centuries in the future is a strange hubris, a conviction that we are only a small distance from the pinnacle of knowledge.

As such, when we speak of allowing “all viewpoints” into the conversation, what we really mean is allowing a broad variety of viewpoints that fit within our current standards of knowledge, which are a moving target.

This process of filtering allows us to have intelligible, productive discourse. Without it, professors of biology would teach creationism alongside evolution.

The science faculty, of course, does not do this, because these claims do not fit in with the standards of knowledge we have set for science in our time. What’s considered the best scholarship is changed and replaced, as are the methods of scientific inquiry themselves.

How does this more specific understanding of viewpoint diversity affect concerns about ideological bias? Yes, the three percent figure I cite above can be interpreted as a sign of an institution that is failing to ensure adequate ideological diversity among its faculty.

But we should consider: What if, instead, it reflects a shift in the norms of scholarship?

The faculty at Harvard are hired by the faculty of Harvard. In each instance, top scholars in their fields are selecting candidates for their potential to contribute to the academic environment at Harvard and beyond. The makeup of the faculty, then, does not change overnight, but undergoes a gradual change from the leading scholars of one era to those of the next.

If the top scholarship in a field of the social sciences or humanities examines its subject matter from a liberal or left-wing perspective, then this might be indicative of a larger trend in the academy towards liberal or left-wing standards of knowledge as the norm.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the exponents of those views are right — we should question whether this shift in norms is justified. Still, this interpretation differs from the more typical accusation of bias, which often imply that Harvard engages in direct viewpoint discrimination when hiring; instead, it opens up the possibility that there is something more academically meritorious about these perspectives on the humanities and social sciences.

For the sciences, this interpretation is less convincing. There, the connection between a scholar’s output and their personal politics is less pronounced, due to the less politically charged nature of the subject matter.

However, in the humanities and social sciences, this explanation merits consideration because of the inextricable link between the subjective perspectives of scholars and the interpretations of texts, art, culture, or social-scientific data that their work involves. When these scholars decide what phenomena to study, what theoretical lenses to employ, and what interpretations they favor, they necessarily engage in a subjective act.

If the forms of analysis that are held in high scholarly regard happen, in our current moment, to be more left-leaning, then this does not necessarily constitute ideological discrimination, but rather a shift in norms that are not purely political.

Let me be clear: Even the most offensive of ideas are not “too dangerous” to be discussed, nor should they be banned from any campus. Students and faculty should, of course, have the right to express their views freely and without constraint. No position should be accepted merely because it is the party line. However, if there are legitimate scholarly reasons to prefer some viewpoints over others, whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, moderate, leftist, or other, then these, too, should be respected.

There is still room — and a need — for faculty who have more marginal perspectives on approaches to their respective fields. There are still debates to be had about issues on which many scholars are in consensus. Harvard must be careful to offer its students a diversity of scholarly perspectives in all its departments, rather than only the interpretations preferred by a particular political group.

Whatever our normative posture, we must ask: Is the demographic composition of Harvard professors an indication that Harvard engages in viewpoint discrimination when hiring, or is it the result of a shift in scholarly norms that has made left-leaning perspectives more accepted?

While the former has dominated the discourse on this issue and may play a role in explaining this phenomenon, we must seriously consider the latter.

Allison P. Farrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Philosophy Concentrator in Leverett House.

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