Conservative professor retires from Harvard, views untempered

After decades of questioning grade inflation and race-based policies, one of Harvard’s biggest critics of affirmative action departs in wake of Supreme Court decision

August 22, 2023
Harvey Mansfield, 2006
Source: Getty Images

Harvard University is losing one of its longest-tenured faculty, as well as one of its most conservative, a professor of government who doubts the capabilities of black Americans and expects right-wing perspectives to grow in academia.

The professor, Harvey Mansfield, is a 1953 graduate who has taught at Harvard since 1962 and has been unflinching in arguing that US universities and the nation more broadly have gone too far in apologising for and trying to reverse their histories of racial division and inequality.

Ahead of his retirement this summer, Professor Mansfield admitted that, while always “quite congenial”, his colleagues were rarely interested in arguing with him – or changing their perspectives in the way that he wanted.

But he hoped major right-wing donors steadily gaining influence at Harvard and other elite institutions will use their hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts to hire more conservative faculty members.

A liberal during his undergraduate years, Professor Mansfield began his teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley, before coming back to Harvard, and taking the rank of full professor in 1969. He has credited the anti-war protests of that era for helping to shift his political orientation.

Despite his long proximity to America’s elite – including a list of former students who gained academic, political and intellectual renown – Professor Mansfield’s own academic career was rather invisible to the wider public. He did publish a book defending traditional gender roles, Manliness, although it was described by reviewers as heavier on enthusiasm than hard analysis.

His classes – covering political philosophy from ancient times to modern America – tended to attract similar reviews. While remaining largely parochial, Professor Mansfield has attracted attention via some of his more outlandish statements, made while campaigning over his own preferred political causes – fighting affirmative action and grade inflation.

Affirmative action reflected a misguided liberal attempt to satisfy everyone, Professor Mansfield said, before venturing into realms of racial analysis that even in the era of Donald Trump (he voted for Mr Trump but later regretted having done so) still remain outside mainstream political debate.

He told The Harvard Crimson last year that throughout his career he had been impressed by the “high-quality…lively, intelligent” students in his class, and that “despite the changes in sex and race…if I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t notice a difference”. But speaking to Times Higher Education he struck a different tone, questioning the innate abilities of black Americans more broadly.

Minorities in the US have faced real disadvantages, and there have been legitimate reasons to compensate for that, Professor Mansfield said. “The thing is, that’s what’s been tried for many years now – decades in fact – and unfortunately, the disparity remains and really hasn’t narrowed much either.

“So one then tends to think that the cause is either in the behaviour of our black citizens or in the equipment that they have,” Professor Mansfield said. Asked to elaborate, he said: “Meaning their capabilities – whether there is some racial difference in IQ, or whatever it is.”

He called it a sensitive topic that is rarely discussed; he talked about “apparent evidence that blacks have average IQs”; and he said that in his experience “as a teacher over the years, the blacks don’t tend to be at the top of the class”.

On the impact of affirmative action, he said: “The graduate students at Harvard who are black are all guaranteed to get jobs when they get their PhDs, and if you’re a white male conservative, you’re almost guaranteed not to get a job. Most of the pressure is really coming in favour of blacks now, not against them.”

Harvard University officials said they had no comment on Professor Mansfield or his statements, including questions about whether his perspectives made it inappropriate for him to teach classes with black students.

Rob Eschmann, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University who studies racism and educational inequality, said he understands the importance of giving students diverse perspectives. But the comments from Professor Mansfield raised questions about whether black students in his classes would be treated fairly, Professor Eschmann said.

“If that is your belief – that you believe that black folks do not have the capacity to learn – then I don't understand how you can be trusted to teach black folks,” he said. “How does that not translate to your teaching, in the way that you interact with students?”

But from a legal perspective, faculty with even extreme views enjoy strong protections. That was made clear by the American Association of University Professors, which was created more than a century ago for the purpose of defending the free-speech rights of academics. Without offering any specific comment on Professor Mansfield’s statements, AAUP officials said that professors have wide freedoms when discussing topics related to their courses inside classrooms, and even wider protections for comments outside class.

Asked about Professor Mansfield’s statements, the AAUP officials said their key principle “is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position”, and that “extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position.”

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