Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, has been lobbying in Washington against a Republican proposal to tax large university endowments and make other tax and spending changes that might adversely affect universities. Faust says the endowment tax would be a “blow at the strength of American higher education” and that the suite of proposals lacks “policy logic.” Perhaps so, but they have a political logic. We hope that Harvard and other elite universities will reflect on their part in these developments.
The proposed tax and spending policies aimed at universities are surely related to the sharp recent drop in support by conservatives for colleges and universities. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, a figure that has grown significantly in the past two years. This development likely reflects four related trends.
First is the obvious progressive tilt in universities, especially elite universities. At Harvard, for example, undergraduate students overwhelmingly identify as progressive or liberal and the faculty overwhelmingly gives to the Democratic Party. Even Harvard Law School, which has a handful of conservative scholars and a new conservative dean, is on the left end of law school faculties, which are themselves more progressive than the legal profession.
Second, the distinctive progressive ideology of elite universities is relentlessly critical of, to the point of being intolerant of, traditions and moral values widely seen as legitimate in the outside world. As a result, elite universities have narrowed the range of acceptable views within their walls.
Third is the rise of anti-conservative “mobs,” “shout-downs” and “illiberal behavior” on campus, as New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes it. Conservative speakers of various stripes are being harassed and excluded with increasing frequency. “Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas,” noted former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a Harvard address a few years ago. Harvard is actually somewhat better on these issues than many universities – it hasn’t had anti-conservative mobs, and it has been relatively respectful of conservative speakers. But even at Harvard, the pervasive progressive orthodoxy chills conservatives’ speech in the classroom and hallways.
Fourth is the public contempt of so many university academics for those who fund their subsidies. Paul Krugman, an emeritus professor at Princeton University now at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as a New York Times op-ed columnist, offered a self-described “deep thought” in reaction to a Washington Post article about rising conservative anger at American universities: “Maybe conservatives are turning against learning because learning is incompatible with modern conservative ideology.” Krugman’s statement was a mere tweet. But in our experience it reflects an attitude that is widespread at elite universities.
We do not believe that every university in the country, or even every department in most universities, reflects the progressive views that we have described. Nor are we expressing a view on the merits of the current tax and spending proposals, which have complex consequences for universities and the public welfare, about which reasonable minds can differ. And Harvard and other private universities of course have every right to adopt a progressive ideology and to enforce it, more or less, by decisions on faculty hiring, student admissions and the allocation of resources.
But educational institutions should not be surprised when these attitudes and behaviors prove unappealing to a Congress and executive branch that are largely in the control of conservatives. Conservative politicians and their constituents hear, on the one hand, that government owes universities a continuance of largesse and, on the other, that conservatives are ignorant, unworthy or corrupt. This sounds suspiciously like special pleading by an intellectual elite that wants to indulge in social criticism at the expense of the criticized, in both figurative and literal senses.
Universities have become distinctively sectarian, limiting their appeal to federal elected officials who do not share those sectarian views and who are less and less willing to pay the universities to trumpet them.
Jack Goldsmith and Adrian Vermeule are professors at Harvard Law School.