When President Obama needed to stock his administration, there was one place he could reliably turn to for talent: his alma mater, Harvard University.
Lawrence Summers, who was a top economic aide, Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court justice, Ashton Carter, the defense secretary, and Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, are among a long list of Harvard faculty members summoned to Washington by Obama.
But now that Donald Trump is taking over the White House, Harvard, the ultimate insiders’ club, could find itself in an unfamiliar position: frozen out.
Trump has given no indication that he plans to pluck professors from Harvard, where 91 percent of faculty donations last year went to Hillary Clinton, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Trump’s skepticism about climate science, his frequent disregard for facts, and his inflammatory rhetoric about women, immigrants, and minorities are also anathema to many on campus.
And the Harvard brand would not mesh easily with a president who has promised to topple the elite establishment.
“It’s absolutely going to shift,” said Andrew Hemingway, who was cochairman of Trump’s campaign in New Hampshire. “I think when you look at the vast majority of higher education institutions, particularly Ivy League, you see a very strong lean toward liberal ideology and what you just saw was an election of the American workforce saying liberal ideology isn’t working for us. I would say it’s a repudiation of that ideology.”
The potential change has sparked some debate about how Harvard should respond.
“It may be, like during the Vietnam War, they will become a center of the opposition,” said the historian Robert Dallek, recalling a tumultuous era when college campuses were convulsed by antiwar protests and Harvard effectively banned the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
But Richard Grenell, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate who served in the George W. Bush administration and was a Trump surrogate during the campaign, said the school should hire more conservatives, to reflect the makeup of government.
“It’s not about being Trump-friendly, it’s about understanding what half of the United States voted for in their president,” he said. “They can’t consistently and always be fighting for the left.”
He noted that Maggie Williams, the director of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, had already taken a leave of absence in August to join Clinton’s transition team, showing how much the school was poised to continue its close relationship with the White House.
Douglas W. Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School, said he agrees the school needs more conservatives, although the faculty includes several veterans of Republican administrations. But he rejected the notion that the school should shift its mission in response to Trump’s election.
“We are responsive to changing public problems, but changes in the political leadership don’t require any fundamental change from what we’re doing,” said Elmendorf, who served in the Clinton administration.
Many say that, while the bonds between Harvard and the White House may loosen, Trump may find a few like-minded professors to serve in his administration. Politico has reported that Carlos E. Díaz Rosillo, a Harvard lecturer on government, is helping with the transition.
“To the extent that Harvard is both very committed to acceptance and integration and diversity and also is very committed to fact-driven policy, it’s not a natural fit,” said Juliette Kayyem, a Kennedy School lecturer who served in the Obama administration. “But I could see, at the agency level, a lot of good reasons for various experts here to join the administration.”
Of course, presidents who rely on academic experts are not guaranteed A-plus results.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton University president, brought together 150 prominent academics to help him prepare for peace negotiations at the Versailles Conference in Paris after World War I.
“Yet for all these experts’ authoritative knowledge about economics, geography, politics and foreign affairs, the Versailles settlement produced more acrimony than harmony and opened the way to another world war,” Dallek wrote in a Reuters opinion piece titled, “Why the ‘best and brightest’ can be dimmest and worst at governing.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the 1932 presidential campaign, convened his “Brains Trust,” three Columbia University professors, who followed him to Washington and helped him develop the policies of the New Deal. But Dallek argues that, for all their brilliance, it was the industrial mobilization for World War II that ultimately lifted the country out of the Depression.
Perhaps the most famous example is “the best and the brightest,” David Halberstam’s ironic term for President Kennedy’s supremely confident team of whiz kids from Harvard and other elite institutions whose foreign policy advice helped lead the nation into Vietnam.
Still, it would be a mistake for Trump to reject professorial counsel, said Dallek, a retired Boston University professor who was invited, along with other presidential historians, to several private dinners with Obama.
“If you’re president, you want to cast as broad a net as possible to get information, including that from academics,” he said. “It’s not a magic wand, but it’s certainly useful.”
Publicly bashing academic elites is a well-worn pastime for conservative thinkers and Republican presidential candidates, at least since William F. Buckley Jr., a Yale graduate, declared in the early 1960s that, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
But Trump, who often brags about his Ivy League degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, has tended to avoid such attacks. And Virginia Greiman, a BU professor, attorney adviser at Harvard Law School, and member of Trump’s Massachusetts leadership, said she doesn’t anticipate Trump snubbing academics out of hand.
“He will want to draw on the best talent, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate otherwise,” said Greiman, who expects to be named part of the Trump transition team. “The question is: will people want to support his initiatives and policies?”