AMID THE IVY: John Kerry U: At Harvard, a few of us stray from the “herd of independent minds.”
Last spring, I was surprised by a call from a reporter at the Harvard Crimson asking me to comment on my contribution to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. His inquiry was prompted by the disparity he’d discovered in donations by Harvard faculty of about $150,000 for Kerry to about $8,000 for Bush. (The figures have since changed but not the percentages.) I could have filled the whole issue of his paper with reasons for supporting Bush over Kerry, but as we both knew, the real story was the “herd of independent minds”–the image is Harold Rosenberg’s–charging through the American academy.
The Federal Election Commission could not have foreseen that when it required employment information on political donations of over $200, it would expose scandalous uniformity in a university community that advertises its diversity. The Sacramento Bee reported that the University of California system gave more to the Kerry campaign than any other single employee group, and that Harvard was second, with only 15,000 employees to UC’s 160,000. A blogger computed the percentages of Kerry contributions over Bush: Cornell 93%, Dartmouth 97%, Yale 93%, Brown 89%.
Personally, I greatly enjoy being in the conservative opposition. My colleagues are cordial, and since I’m not looking for promotions I willingly sustain an occasional snub for the greater advantage of being able to speak my mind. Students making the transition from liberal to conservative are often wounded by their first exposure to the contempt that greets their support for the war in Iraq or opposition to abortion or whatever else separates them from the liberal campus. I suggest to them that, as opposed to living in constant terror of offending some received idea, they relish their freedom of expression. The self-acknowledged conservative never experiences intellectual constraint.
But this enviable autonomy doesn’t extend to graduate students or untenured colleagues. Recently, I had two encounters with sobering implications for the academy. A junior professor told me that when she began teaching at Harvard she resigned from several organizations that would have betrayed her conservative leanings. She hadn’t wanted to give colleagues an easy excuse for voting her down when she came up for tenure; but now that the prospect of tenure was before her, she didn’t know whether she wanted to stay on in such a repressive community. My second conversation was with a rare pro-Israel Muslim whose contract as lecturer hadn’t been renewed, very probably because he was critical of the way his subject was being taught. This young man was in a great mood. He was leaving for Washington, where he could make a greater contribution to national security.
All groups tend to a measure of homogeneity, but the ideological pressures driving these two dissidents from the university affect even those at the highest level of authority. At a Commissioning Ceremony for the Harvard officers of ROTC, President Lawrence Summers praised the noble work of the graduating soldiers. “Our strength as a nation rests upon our freedom. . . . [All] of us who cherish and pray for that freedom must also support those who contribute to the strength that maintains our freedom.”
These sentiments were exceptionally welcome from the president of a school whose faculty has denied ROTC an official presence on campus for 30 years, and shows no signs of modifying its opposition to the military. When he speaks to the faculty, however, the president doesn’t air his patriotic zeal. He rather reports on his protection against the Patriot Act, the commitment of Harvard to affirmative action, and such other liberal pieties as bringing more women into the study of science. I recognize that the president may sincerely support both sets of issues, and I sympathize with his reluctance to be stampeded by the herd. But in trying to avoid offending the liberal-left hegemony he–and everyone else who makes this calculation–intensifies the regnant culture of pusillanimity.
One of the most refreshing things about President Bush is his immunity from intellectual intimidation. More than his decision to go to war in Iraq, more than the religious values I share with him (though I do not share his religion), I appreciate that, though he has to struggle for language, he expresses unapologetically his commitment to the strength of our nation. By contrast, through their opposition to the military, my clever colleagues have done everything they could to make America indefensible.
Ms. Wisse is a professor at Harvard.