Being Republican at Harvard

elephant-drawingBy Ivan Rahman, MPP 2018

I am jealous of Republicans at Harvard. I am jealous because, being the political minority at Harvard, they get to have their views fundamentally challenged almost every day. Conversely, my more Democratic and liberal classmates and I typically reinforce each other’s perspectives. And if we ever challenge one another ideologically, the arguments tend to only slightly change the thinking in which we are already deeply entrenched.

Enea Gjoza, a first-year MPP student at HKS, seems to agree. According to Gjoza, a self-identified Republican, “There isn’t much debate about issues on campus. And when they are discussed, they’re debated within the 48-yard line. People generally agree, and so, when they debate, they debate the minutiae. Because everyone generally deduces what’s mainstream based on their peer group—based on what’s normal in their peer group—they develop a skewed perspective of what is normal on a large scale.”

And that’s probably one of the reasons why so many Harvard students were shocked when Donald Trump won the election. Our perception of what is ideologically commonplace is severely distorted. Take me for instance. Having lived in New York City my entire life and then coming to Cambridge—the only city that’s possibly more liberal than New York—it’s easy to get caught up in a liberal bubble such that I forget there’s a whole other world other there—a world that thinks very differently than me.

I wanted to better understand what it’s like to attend a school where nearly everyone else’s worldview is diametrically opposed to one’s own. So, I met up with Declan Garvey. Garvey is a senior at Harvard College and an active member of the Harvard Republican Club, the largest conservative group on campus.

Here’s what Garvey shared with me: “You definitely know that you’re in the minority here, ideologically. But I’ve enjoyed being the voice that pushes back against groupthink. In my freshman year, I was afraid to speak up. I thought doing so would make it harder for me to make friends. I also feared that my professors would grade me harder. But I eventually decided that I should speak up because I realized that I shouldn’t feel pressured to be quiet about things that I believe in and that half the country believes in. I realized that these are economic policy ideas that are shared by half the country or more.”

I am glad that students like Garvey choose to speak up. In an environment where students are afraid to express what they truly think due to the potential backlash and general discomfort of inadvertently offending their peers or alienating themselves, the dominant perspective will only reinforce the intellectual and political bubble most of us are in. It shelters us psychologically while failing to create a safe environment for dissenting thinkers. And then, when someone like Trump is elected, we are taken aback.

Garvey was not the only Republican at Harvard to express frustration with the lack of political diversity. Andrew McClure, a joint MPA-MBA candidate at HKS and MIT Sloan, explained: “I rarely find my positions are in the Harvard mainstream. I routinely stand in the wind against the progressive groupthink that wafts around campus. When I express my views, I often have a number of students privately agree with my positions and express an interest to hear more.”

I asked McClure what he thinks Harvard can do to draw more conservative students. He suggested that “part of the solution might, of course, be to deliberately hire conservative faculty, seek out conservative students, or offer new scholarships for under-researched areas (where conservatives generally focus). Less intuitive solutions might be to reduce the overt liberal bent of the school. Bringing on Jeb Bush as a Teaching Fellow for education policy this semester is a great start.”

Ultimately, Harvard’s lack of political diversity hurts both its liberal and conservative students. Liberal students remain trapped in the cocoon of their own worldviews and miss out on the opportunity to develop intellectual versatility. Conservative students feel alone. And they feel hesitant to speak their truth, which is unfortunate considering that the university’s very motto is “Veritas.”

Students like McClure have provided Harvard administrators with a series of actions they can take to attract conservative students. My question is, what can I do so that fewer students feel the need to privately express their agreement when an outspoken conservative on campus speaks up? I want such students to feel like they can openly convey their agreement without fear of being ostracized. If I do not help to create such a climate, then I will continue being bewildered when someone like Trump gets elected. And I don’t want to be surprised when something like that happens. After all, our being surprised by such events only reveals how disconnected we are.

Declan Garvey, a member of the Harvard Republican Club