Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shocked the conscience of many in academia (and liberal newsrooms) across America when he spoke out against the scarcity of conservative voices in faculty lounges in our leading institutions of higher education. Bloomberg’s speech resonated strongly with me as I’ve taught at two of the schools he mentioned in his remarks—my alma mater, Haverford College, as well as the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I served as a resident fellow in 2011. In the relevant section of his remarks, delivered at Harvard, Bloomberg began by observing:
Great universities must not become predictably partisan. And a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism. The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues—without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
Bloomberg’s remarks struck a chord with me, as I think many of our colleges and universities promote a strong liberal ideology where the views of conservatives are not only not welcome, but the number of conservative faculty members is often miniscule. I should know—I’ve experienced the elitist condescension first-hand as a conservative faculty member by those who were stunned that I would deign to differ from liberal ideology.
I’ve had the privilege of returning to Haverford twice as a visiting professor of political science in 2009 and 2011. I taught a course on how Washington D.C. really operates on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue—from the Congress to the White House, with stops on K Street to discuss the influence of special interest-group lobbying as well as the 24/7 cable news outlets insatiable appetite for news. Upon my first stint at Haverford, my favorite faculty member from the political science department from my days as a student had the temerity to ask me where Haverford had gone wrong with me—how could I have ever returned as a professor who held conservative views? How could I have worked for President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney?
Her comment was only to be repeated in one version or another by several faculty members during my two semesters back on campus. The view from the Ivory Tower in which diverse views are welcome and tolerated has devolved into a hostile workplace environment for anyone who would dare not march lockstep in the view that liberalism is right and conservative views are evil and misguided. Two conservative faculty members at Haverford told me that they keep their political views to themselves lest they be ostracized by their fellow denizens in the faculty lounge. Hardly encouraging, that those claiming to be open-minded and tolerant have created an atmosphere where conservative faculty members feel their perspective is not welcome.
One of the more memorable exchanges I had with one of my Haverford students at the end of my course in 2011 is both delightful and upsetting at the same time. She observed that while I was a strong conservative who had worked with Bush and Cheney, I never tried to impose my political views on her or any of the other students during our classroom discussions. While I took that as a compliment, I told her that my job as a professor is not to indoctrinate students with my political views but to show her and her classmates how both political sides might approach an issue and let them decide for themselves which path or decision was best.
Sadly, she noted that many of her professors did just the opposite and that many classroom discussions were one-sided—if the conservative viewpoint was brought up at all. Often, conservative positions were articulated as being “wrong” by her professors. This is a rot that must be rooted out if liberal arts institutions are to fulfill their mission to present a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives.
A similar ideological fog greeted me upon my arrival to the Kennedy School for my resident fellowship in 2011. Again, the students were very welcoming and interested in my diverse, conservative viewpoints—I met several faculty members at Harvard who were not welcoming. My best memories from Harvard were of exchanges with my students who had never been exposed to conservative viewpoints at great length. There was a respectful dialogue in which we engaged—something many of the faculty members across the nation, as well as at Harvard, seem unable or unwilling to do. Is it any wonder why our college students today have become increasingly intolerant when their faculty role models encourage such a line of thinking?
While I don’t agree with Mayor Bloomberg on much of anything, I will say his call for tolerance in academia was equally applicable in his subsequent advice, also in his Harvard commencement remarks, to fix the partisan rancor that has rendered Congress largely inoperable. Here Bloomberg offered: “But in politics—as it is on too many college campuses—people don’t listen to facts that run counter to their ideology. They fear them.” Turning to the fierce ideological debate surrounding global climate change, Bloomberg continued:
But there is a world of difference between scientific skepticism that seeks out more evidence and ideological stubbornness that shuts it out. Given the general attitude of many elected officials toward science it’s no wonder that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to invest in scientific research, much of which occurs at our universities.
This is where I wish Bloomberg and many on the left would follow his own words of tolerance and inclusiveness as it relates to the science behind climate change. There have been credible reports that the planet has cooled for much of the past two decades, not warmed. There have been allegations that data have been manipulated to fit a political narrative rather than being based on sound science.
Yet, for those who question the validity of climate change in the political arena, debates by defenders are often marked by personal attacks that are not based on science but ideology. Again, the same attempt to silence those with differing views on college campuses has become all too prevalent in many of our political discussions in Washington, D.C. today. Rather than tell me how wrong I am to disagree with Bloomberg and the political left on climate change, let’s have a respectful debate so I can further understand your perspective.
Well done, Mayor Bloomberg. I believe your commencement remarks last weekend were a constructive step forward to increasing political tolerance in academia and our political discourse. Let’s hope his inclusive message is heeded rather than ignored.