"HARVARD HATES AMERICA." That's how John LeBoutillier titled his 1978 bestseller about life at the country's most prestigious university. LeBoutillier's story was one of ivory-tower elitism run amok. Its central theme--that Harvard students and professors are mostly knee-jerk radicals--is by now an article of faith for many on the right. An article, however, worth reconsidering.
Though it might be hard to imagine with the Democrats swarming Boston, conservative undergraduates at Harvard have never been so many, so organized, and so active as they are today. Just ask Harvey Mansfield, the university's longtime professor of political philosophy and the most well-known conservative on the faculty. "In the last 20 years," Mansfield says, "there's certainly been an increase in the number of conservatives [at Harvard], and in the presence of conservatism on campus." He notes that, in particular, "the growth of the Harvard Republican Club, both in numbers and activity, is very impressive."
Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, serves as co-adviser for the Republicans with Mansfield. She calls the club "extremely dynamic" and "a numerically large group." According to club secretary Lauren Truesdell, the Harvard Republicans boast around 900 names on their weekly e-mail list, and have drawn more than 100 students to their Lincoln Day Dinner each of the past two years. They have upwards of 160 dues-paid members on campus. And in 2001, they won an award from the College Republican National Committee for being the most active college Republican club in the nation.
Thanks in part to this enhanced conservative presence, the terms of campus debate have shifted rightward. Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom estimates that even in the 1970s, only 10-15 percent of the student body was actively radical. The difference today, he says, is that a formidable conservative opposition exists to challenge student radicals.
Of course, one should not overstate the growth of conservatism at Harvard. Anti-abortion posters still get torn down. Conservative speakers still occasionally get harassed. The Harvard College Democrats are still larger than the campus Republicans. (According to Democrats' president Andy Frank, the club has an e-mail list of 1,650 and counts 245 dues-paid members.) And left-wing groups, such as the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, still make more noise--and thus garner more attention--than conservative ones.
Plus, as Thernstrom points out, while the number of dyed-in-the-wool liberals has shrunk very dramatically since the 1970s, many Harvard students are "quite cautious about not sounding conservative." Indeed, probably a plurality, if not a majority, of the student body is vaguely apolitical. Today's typical Harvard undergraduate resembles the "organization kid" depicted by David Brooks: highly driven, deferential to authority, focused on achievement, averse to anti-establishment boat-rocking, and, in politics, wary of being seen as controversial or unduly passionate. Harvard's organization kids tend to be philosophically liberal, but temperamentally conservative.
The most self-defeating thing philosophical conservatives can do in such an environment is retreat into a form of identity politics, i.e., play the persecuted campus minority and be deliberately provocative rather than persuasive. With undergraduates much less radically inclined than they once were, such Dartmouth Review-type rabble-rousing could easily ghettoize conservative students. For example: Harvard's conservative journal, the Salient, has become notorious in recent years for publishing fairly strident articles on homosexuality. On a campus where "organization kids" predominate, there's no quicker way for a right-wing publication to make itself peripheral to student life.
To be sure, the proliferation of organization kids is something that Harvard professors will not necessarily cheer anytime soon. A preponderance of political apathy, and the intellectual timorousness that flows from it, can produce staleness in classroom debate. As Thernstrom puts it, "Now, there just seems a lot less argument [in his classes]. Students do not seem to think it's proper to argue with each other."
The Iraq war in particular has not occasioned the overwhelming campus response that some might have expected. A staff editorial in the Harvard Crimson (the daily campus newspaper) noted in June 2003: "What was most remarkable about student opinion at Harvard on March 20, the first full day of bombing, was not that 56 percent opposed war [but] that only 41 percent took a strong stand either way [according to a Crimson poll]."
Even many of Harvard's self-styled radicals accept the limits of political activism. Take the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). In April 2001, several dozen PSLM members took over the bottom floor of Massachusetts Hall and refused to leave until Harvard workers were guaranteed a "living wage" of $10.25 per hour. The PSLM "sit-in" lasted three weeks and drew national media attention. But it ended without their chief demand being met--the university had merely pledged to form a commission to investigate the wage structure. Another impetus for ending the sit-in came when Harvard administrators informed the occupiers that they had to take final exams or else fail their spring semester classes. Social justice may be important; but even for PSLMers, the organization-kid mentality is often irrepressible.
The student body's reaction to the sit-in was also telling. A Crimson poll of 372 undergraduates conducted at the height of the protest found that while 53 percent supported a living wage, nearly as many felt the sit-in was "not justified." (The poll also showed a 16 percentage point drop in campus support for a living wage from January 2000.) The three-week ordeal revealed a Harvard community that was surprisingly resistant to the temptations of left-wing faddism.
So did the anti-Israel campaign a year later. In the spring of 2002, a group of students, professors, and alumni of Harvard and MIT drafted a petition calling for the two universities to divest all assets from Israel, as a response to alleged Israeli repression of the Palestinians. No sooner had this petition been circulated, than a second petition sprung up--one that opposed divestment from Israel. In the end, the anti-divestment petition collected more than 10 times as many signatures from students, faculty, and alumni (of Harvard and MIT).
This may all seem very hollow to Harvard's conservative critics, however, for one reason: the university's treatment of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Harvard banished ROTC from campus amidst the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1969. Then, in 1994, the university cut its funding, claiming the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay servicemen violated its non-discrimination rules. All ROTC students at Harvard must travel to MIT for their military courses and drilling. No one in the Harvard administration--with the notable exception of university president Larry Summers--seems particularly embarrassed about this, either.
But few conservatives realize that in April 1999, Harvard's Undergraduate Council (UC) endorsed working with the administration to bring ROTC back to campus. The UC recommended, among other things, providing shuttle service to MIT and reattaching Harvard's name to the alumni trust fund that sponsors Harvard ROTC. Despite this call for accommodation, the university balked, affirming that its policy would not change.
The student body remains all but universally supportive of its ROTC cadets, even if many students still object to the "don't ask, don't tell" law and have qualms about ROTC returning to campus. One graduating Navy cadet, Stephen Bosco, recently told the Harvard Crimson, "I've found that almost without fail Harvard students think [ROTC service is] really great." He added that the only hostility he's encountered over ROTC has come from faculty members.
Bosco's comments indicate the great disconnect at Harvard--as at other schools--between an increasingly conservative-friendly student body and a solidly liberal faculty. Perceived professorial bias, as Ruth Wisse points out, discourages conservative students from seeking a career in the academy. But instances of gross bias--grades being lowered, recommendations being denied, etc.--are today relatively uncommon at Harvard (and probably much more uncommon than they are at other universities). Besides which, the political atmosphere on a campus is set more by the students than it is by the faculty. And rarely in the past four decades has the atmosphere at Harvard been so comparatively tolerant of conservatives.
Many years ago, Richard Nixon dubbed Harvard the "Kremlin on the Charles." While, to be sure, it has not become "Brooks Brothers on the Charles," incoming freshmen need not fear its reputation as a colossus of Massachusetts-style liberalism. Indeed, conservative students have never had so many opportunities to influence the campus debate. The faculty may still be somewhat homogenous. But the kids are all right.
Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard. He graduated from Harvard in June 2004, where he was active with the campus Republicans.