The left-wing takeover of American elite universities is a very old story. In 1951, a young William F. Buckley Jr. created a sensation with “God and Man at Yale,” his first book, which documented the largely socialist and atheist worldview that even then prevailed in the classrooms of the Ivy League institution from which he had just graduated.
In much of American academia today, that worldview no longer merely prevails. It overpowers. It is pervasive, aggressive, and deeply intolerant. Half a century after Buckley’s debut, an even younger conservative graduating from another prominent university — Ben Shapiro of the University of California Los Angeles — published his first book, “Brainwashed,” which picked up where Buckley had left off. “I have seen firsthand the leftist brainwashing occurring on campus on a daily basis,” wrote Shapiro. “Under higher education’s facade of objectivity lies a grave and overpowering bias.”
That was in 2004. The imbalance Shapiro described then is even more pronounced now. It seems almost superfluous to document the phenomenon, but documentation continues to be compiled. In surveys of college faculty members by the Higher Education Research Institute over several decades, liberals have always outnumbered moderates and conservatives. That is especially the case in New England, as Sarah Lawrence College political scientist Samuel Abrams noted in a 2016 New York Times column:
“In 1989, the number of liberals compared with conservatives on college campuses was about 2 to 1 nationwide; that figure was almost 5 to 1 for New England schools. By 2014, the national figure was 6 to 1; for those teaching in New England, the figure was 28 to 1. . . . If you are looking for an ideologically balanced education, don’t put New England at the top of your list.”
And definitely don’t put Harvard on your list.
The Harvard Crimson reported last week that 82 percent of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences characterize their political leanings as “liberal” or “very liberal.” By contrast, “only 1 percent of respondents stated they are ‘conservative,’ and no respondents identified as ‘very conservative.’” Compared to the rest of the country, New England’s 28-to-1 lopsided liberal faculty dominance may appear wildly out of whack. But it is a model of evenhandedness compared to the 82-to-1 slant among the Harvard professoriate.
Moreover, reports the Crimson, that’s the way most Harvard instructors like it. “When asked whether they would support increasing ideological diversity among faculty by hiring more conservative-leaning professors, only a quarter of respondents were in support,” the paper reported.
From time to time in the world of higher education, proposals are floated to actively increase the share of faculty members whose outlook is more conservative. A few years ago, an Iowa lawmaker drafted legislation to require public colleges in his state to ensure that liberal and conservative faculty members be hired in equal numbers. The University of Colorado at Boulder has an endowed visiting professorship in Conservative Thought and Policy. The conservative activist David Horowitz for several years promoted an “Academic Bill of Rights,” lobbying state legislatures to pass measures barring universities from (among other things) hiring, promoting, or terminating professors based on their political beliefs.
I am skeptical of such efforts. The steady leftward march of academia’s most prestigious institutions is a genuine problem, but it isn’t one that can be solved by tokenism or litmus tests, or by involving the government in hiring decisions. Frankly, I doubt that it can be solved at all other than perhaps by building up new institutions of higher education — a worthy process, but one that, even in the best of circumstances, will take many years to succeed.
Harvard’s 82-to-1 faculty ratio of liberals to conservatives makes a mockery of the university’s avowed commitment to diversity. A handsome page on its website declares that “Harvard’s commitment to diversity in all forms” — my italics — “is rooted in our fundamental belief that engaging with unfamiliar ideas, perspectives, cultures, and people creates the conditions for dramatic and meaningful growth.”
Those fine words aren’t true, of course. Everyone knows that Harvard has no desire to uphold “diversity in all forms.” Like other institutions that go out of their way to trumpet their embrace of diversity — the media, Hollywood, major-league sports — Harvard wants its people to be “diverse” only when measured by the yardsticks that matter least: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation. But the clash of ideas? A robust competition among worldviews? The exposure of students to compelling arguments that challenge liberal and progressive shibboleths? That’s not what Harvard is interested in. It hasn’t been for decades.
Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. This column is excerpted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bitly.com/Arguable.