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The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics, by Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., and Seymour Martin Lipset; Education and Politics at H

The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics.
by Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., and Seymour Martin Lipset.
McGraw-Hill. 407 pp. $17.50.

Education and Politics at Harvard.
by Seymour Martin Lipset and David Riesman.
McGraw-Hill. 440 pp. $15.95.

In the spring of 1969, after the most violent campus disruption of Harvard’s recent history, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences refused the student strikers’ demand that it grant amnesty to those who had occupied University Hall, and chose instead to reprimand or expel 138 of the participants. A year later, after the Cambodian incursion and the shootings at Kent and Jackson State gave rise to emotional but far less tumultuous conditions in the Yard, the faculty voted “academic amnesty” for the semester to all students disinclined to take their examinations.

If the actions of the central faculty of the nation’s premier institution of higher education appear less than wholly consistent, one wants a more satisfying explanation than professorial whimsy, for these were troubled times and both decisions were taken after prolonged debate and with the utmost gravity. The two sequences have a biblical quality—violence begetting retribution, and anguish, forgiveness—but each was also a specific political event, the first arising primarily from strains within the university and the second from tensions in the nation.

The political attitudes of American professors that Ladd and Lipset depict in generous detail and with much insight yield one ready explanation for the behavior of the Harvard faculty: whatever their politics, most academics deplore campus violence and favor the expulsion of disruptive students. The events in Cambridge in 1969—the same year, it happens, as the principal survey on which The Divided Academy is based—were unquestionably more physical than those of 1970, hence more likely to elicit a tough reaction.

But if the substantive issues of the day, ROTC and black studies in the earlier year, the Vietnam war in the later, had alone been the subject of faculty debate, unsullied by problems of university housekeeping, the vote might well have been the same in both semesters. For American professors are not just opinionated individuals who tailor their political attitudes to the topics at hand and whose views are transformed at the college gate: their thinking has an ideological character which shapes and orders their responses to a broad range of national and campus concerns in strikingly consistent ways and, for all their rich variety, they are extraordinarily predictable in their stance on contentious issues. Ladd and Lipset found such a high degree of intercorrelation between faculty attitudes on university and national affairs that a single scale of liberalism and conservatism could embrace both.

The academy divides between Left and Right, to be sure, and compared to the larger society its median is well to portside, but on the whole those professors who favor the easing of admissions standards in order to enroll more minority students would also legalize marijuana; those who would hang tough in the Mekong Delta had scant sympathy for student participation in university governance.

The traits associated with consistent faculty Left-liberalism are characteristic of campuses such as Harvard: the university is strong in the social sciences, puts more weight on research than teaching, has a large percentage of Jewish professors, prizes faculty governance, enjoys high institutional prestige, boasts many government consultants and grant-recipients, and has a tradition of independence and academic freedom. Though few scholars would welcome the proposition that such institutional factors may predict their private political attitudes, for the academy in its entirety they seem to do so. Conservatism inheres in the agriculture school, the low-status college, the non-publishing teacher, and the unionized engineering department.

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Even in its more punitive mood, the Harvard faculty showed signs of acting like a representative sample of the nation’s liberal professors: Lipset’s historical account in Education and Politics at Harvard traces the deliberations that led to the dropping of criminal charges against the student storm troopers, the repudiation of administrators who called in the police, the lifting of academic credit for ROTC, and the approval of an Afro-American studies program entailing student participation in course design and faculty hiring.

Yet a measure of ambivalence remained. In addition to disciplining the student ringleaders, the faculty reined in a free-wheeling radical social-relations course that had become a virtual SDS preserve led by an instructor who was among those arrested in University Hall. A few years later, after some distinguished black scholars at Harvard accused the Afro-American Studies Department of low standards, the faculty struck the provisions for student participation in faculty selection.

Slender reeds, perhaps, on which to hang a hypothesis, and yet enough to suggest the possibility that when academic standards are at stake another kind of ideology may come into play, particularly in universities whose stock in trade is high-quality scholarship.

Ladd and Lipset found, lurking in the interstices of their enormous sample, a cadre of professors with characteristics that hint at more than a statistical artifact. A few thousand members, 4 to 8 per cent of the total, do not fit easily into a consolidated scale of political attitudes, for they are liberal on national issues and conservative on campus matters. Somewhat more than consistent liberals, and far more than either the steadfast conservatives or the other odd fraction of “national conservatives, campus liberals,” these professors are distinguished by an extraordinarily high level of scholarship, dedication to research, frequent publishing, and a tendency to congregate at high-status universities. They wield influence in the academy out of proportion to their numbers. In short, they resemble many senior faculty members at places like Harvard.

Thoroughgoing liberals when national policies and world affairs are at issue, they resist campus changes that threaten the stern meritocratic norms by which they achieved their present eminence or that would alter the ways of the elite universities which shelter them and their standards of excellence. Not for them such innovations as student participation, flexible admissions criteria, hiring keyed to race or sex, collective bargaining, undue “relevance” in the curriculum, and academic credit for feeling or doing. For all its seeming timelessness, the order they defend is a development of the 20th century in the United States, and cherished by its supporters in part because its roots are still so shallow.

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David Riesman subtitles his thoughtful and personalized account of educational reform at Harvard, “Meritocracy and Its Adversaries.” When he entered the college in the late 20′s, President Lowell “had been battling the young barons of ascription with only modest success.” With few surplus applicants, most any student from a good school and with decent College Board scores had hope of getting in. Young men from Boston’s better families lived and dined together in clubs and Gold Coast residences just outside the Yard. Jewish students were present, but in carefully limited numbers, and the barriers to blacks and Irish, while less formal, were as real. Once admitted, a boy had no need to tax his intellect to remain, though then as later it was not easy to excel. The faculty contained a number of illustrious scholars, but also a complement of “frustrated pedants” and “gentlemanly amateurs.” Radicals there were, but for all the angst over Sacco and Vanzetti—and Lowell’s role in their fate—student straw voters favored Hoover in 1928 and stood by the Republicans instead of alumnus Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.

A quarter-century later, the “aristocratic meritocracy” of Lowell’s day had given way to the democratic version of James B. Conant and Nathan Pusey. Vigorous recruitment and ample scholarships drew in talented students of every class and creed from all parts of the country, though applications exceeded admissions many times over. Conant’s system of ad-hoc committees meant that any permanent faculty appointment had to pass muster before a tribunal of scholars charged, at least in theory, with determining whether the candidate was the ablest man in his field available anywhere in the world.

Professors who passed through this fine mesh by and large subscribed to the principles of which it was woven, and so, for a time, did most students. But by the mid-60′s the backlash had begun, uniting those who wanted the university to respond more sympathetically to the egalitarian dynamics of the time and those whose own Harvard experiences left a residue of guilt, envy, or bitterness toward its norms and practices.

The crescendo came in 1969, when the Great Bust shocked many who had trusted that Harvard’s enduring habits of individualism and flexibility would spare it the kind of polarized confrontation that had rocked Berkeley and Columbia. Forgotten were three centuries of precedent: the day in 1674 when the entire student body left the college to protest corporal punishment, the butter riot of 1766, the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1842, the blowing-up of a university building by students in 1870, campus melees between pro-Germans and anti-Nazis in the 30′s, and scores of other events of varying intensity.

The seizure of University Hall, then, was neither the first violent protest by Harvard students nor the first inspired by a convergence of campus and national concerns, but no recent contretemps had posed such a vivid contrast between the meritocracy of the university and the increasingly Left-liberal politics of the faculty and students whose presence attested to the primacy of those norms. The assault on university elitism was led by students enrolled in the college’s most competitive and exclusive fields of concentration, the attack on privilege was spearheaded by high-aptitude scions of upper-class families, and the world-renowned faculty obliged to judge these events was overwhelmingly committed to civil rights, opposed to the manifestations of militarism, and contained more than a few eminent professors who had found Cambridge a safe harbor from the storms of fascism and Stalinism in other lands and other campuses.

A measure of tranquility returned to the nation’s colleges, Harvard among them, in the 70′s, as the Vietnam war ebbed and the rivalry for admission to medical and law schools brought a somewhat tarnished form of competitive striving back to the examination hall. At the same time, students won places on university committees, administrators seemed to be chosen for their skills as conciliators, and the curriculum was unchained to permit all manner of esoteric educational programs.

But as campus issues began to get resolved without violence, and as national issues seemed to retreat to the banks of the Potomac, some of the ambivalence the Harvard faculty displayed in 1969 and 1970 endured in the colleges, and forged odd links between the affairs of state and the concerns of the academy.

The 1972 election posed a disagreeable dilemma for professors who did not much like either candidate and reluctantly opted for the one they found less objectionable. The endemic liberalism of most scholars assured more Democratic than Republican votes, and although Nixon fared slightly better on campus than he had in 1968 the gains did not begin to match his national landslide. The GOP might have drawn more faculty support, Ladd and Lipset speculate, if it had not insisted on treating the professoriate as a unified and hopelessly hostile bloc, for the party of George McGovern had characteristics that if skillfully exploited might have cut across the dominant faculty ideologies. Not only were the Democrats openly receptive to activist students and seemingly tolerant of those who lately had tended toward disruption but the party was also embracing quotas in the conduct of its own affairs and, despite the candidate’s ritual disclaimer, appeared to flirt with ascription as a desirable alternative to meritocracy in the management of the nation’s universities.

Professors over fifty, traditionally more conservative than their younger colleagues, gave a clear majority to Nixon (compared to 53 per cent for Humphrey in 1968 and 76 per cent for Johnson in 1964). A modest yet provocative defection from the Democrats also occurred in the ranks of the nation’s most prolific scholars. Among those who had published at least five times in the months previous, 44 per cent voted for Nixon in 1972; not a majority, to be sure, but almost half again as many as had favored the same candidate four years earlier and thrice the percentage for Gold-water in 1964. More than one hundred luminaries of the academy, most of them drawn from the normally Left-liberal legions of social scientists, affixed their signatures to an advertisement in the New York Times paid for by the Committee to Reelect the President. Subsequent events would grieve and embarrass many of these distinguished scholars, but in the context of 1972 the thought must at least be entertained that some of those who had most successfully climbed the greasy pole of academe, like their brethren at Harvard a few years earlier, were torn by the difficulty of reconciling their national liberalism with actions and positions that seemed to erode the hard-won principles which, in their eyes, safeguarded liberalism on the campus itself.

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