Despite Yale’s push for increased diversity among faculty members — specifically with regards to demographic categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation — several members of the University community voiced their concerns about the lack of political diversity.
According to data from the Office of Institutional Research, the faculty gender gap is shrinking. Since 2006, the percentage of female Faculty of Arts and Sciences members has grown from roughly one-quarter to one-third. Yale faculty have also grown racially diverse over the years.
But conservative professors criticized what they saw as a lack of effort to recruit a faculty body that better represents the nation’s political makeup. Four professors interviewed by the News said that as is, Yale’s climate stifles political discourse. According to a 2017 survey, almost 75 percent of Yale professors said they were liberal. Still, according to University President Peter Salovey, Yale is actively seeking to recruit scholars from a range of backgrounds with different perspectives.
“I think diverse points of view, ideas that challenge the mainstream … represented in a University setting are critical to both providing a great educational environment and also to making headway in scholarship and research,” Salovey said in an interview with the News. “And that diversity of thinking includes, but is not limited to, a range of political opinions.”
The University’s reputation as a liberal school is not new. Conservative pundits often consider Yale to be a perfect atmosphere for “snowflakes” — a term used against students and faculty members who passionately advocate for ideas far to the left of the American political spectrum. And in a 2017 News survey, under 10 percent of Yale faculty respondents identified as conservative. This finding nearly matched nationwide data from a different faculty political opinion poll cited by Inside Higher Ed in 2007 nearly a decade prior.
According to another study conducted by a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a researcher at Stanford University, academics in the Northeast are polarized even more. The ratio of liberals to conservatives is 28:1 according to this data from 2014.
To prominent history professor Carlos Eire GRD ’79, Yale’s liberal bent can choke productive discussion.
“Yale talks a lot of diversity, but basically all that diversity means here is skin color,” Eire said. “There’s definitely no diversity here when it comes to politics. The liberal point of view is taken to be objective — not an opinion, not a set of beliefs.”
When it comes to politics, Eire said that his views do not exactly align with one party. On some issues, he says, he is conservative. On others, he is “more liberal than people who call themselves liberal.” Still, he added that most of his colleagues would call him a conservative.
“There’s an assumption that goes unquestioned that if you’re not part of the herd groupthink there’s something wrong with you,” he said.
Eire, who escaped from Cuba as a child, said that having lived in a totalitarian regime he often has views that differ from his “coddled” American colleagues. While Eire advocated for human rights and for a change of regime in Cuba, he said, he mostly keeps quiet on political matters.
Even so, Eire said his political beliefs are the source of faculty whispers, which he said can prevent open dialogue and contribute to a culture of silence. In turn, this leads to alienation that Eire said also weeds out conservative graduate students, resulting in a faculty hiring pool filled with liberal-leaning professors.
“[It’s] not helpful if you want to have an open society with creative and productive political dialogue,” he said. “If everything you say is immediately invalid because you are not virtuous then there’s no dialogue.”
According to computer science professor David Gelernter ‘76, faculty political diversity at Yale is low: “0%,” he wrote in an email. He added that while there are a “few conservatives, including prominent ones,” their numbers are not high enough to have a significant impact on campus culture.
Gelernter also wrote that he considers himself a conservative. To him, the prospect of a politically diverse Yale faculty seems unlikely.
“Of course, not many conservatives exist in most academic fields. But there’s no competition to get them, either,” he wrote.
English professor Mark Oppenheimer ’96 noted the long history of an imbalance between conservative and liberal faculty. For example, he said, conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley ’50 criticized the makeup and beliefs of Yale faculty as early as 1951. Still, Oppenheimer said that the Vietnam War contributed to the “leftward tilt of the humanities,” because enrolling in graduate and Ph.D. programs could help students avoid the draft.
Oppenheimer added that disparities between students’ political opinions seem to have grown over time. When he attended Yale College in the 1990s, holding openly conservative views was a viable social option. He said that since then, he thinks that has changed.
“My sense today is that the social cost that one would pay for having certain conservative views is very strong,” Oppenheimer said. “And that that effectively is a form of censorship, because to say people can say what they want, but they might pay for it by having far fewer friends, or being shunned, is not really to say that they can say what they want.”
Still, other professors also say that the political divide has been long-lasting.
“I don’t think the Yale faculty are less politically diverse now than thirty years ago, but politics is more at the front of people’s minds in the Trump years than it was in the time of the elder Bush and Bill Clinton, and social media have made minorities in opinion, as in other areas, understandably warier than they used to be about saying unpopular things,” Sterling Professor of English David Bromwich wrote in an email to the News.
According to Salovey, looking for faculty members from different geographical areas and “off the beaten path” universities are some examples of hiring strategies that result in more intellectual diversity. He added that while the Provost’s office oversees hiring ethics and legality, specific departments select candidates, conduct interviews and speak to references.
Salovey said looking for candidates with “unusual” or “iconoclastic” views is one general strategy that can be used in hiring without “relying on a political litmus test.”
Salovey added that he would like to take advantage of existing intellectual diversity at the University to further discussion. About five years ago, Salovey said he co-taught a seminar with a “very hardcore libertarian.” While his colleague’s views differed from his, Salovey said they were able to speak freely about issues relevant to the seminar from their opposing points of view. Over the course of the semester, the students “became increasingly comfortable disagreeing with each other.”
“And it’s not like many of the students had [a libertarian] point of view,” Salovey said. “But watching him articulate an unpopular point of view, and watching him use it to engage other perspectives, I think motivated them to look at issues from multiple sides.”
In 2015, Salovey and University Provost Benjamin Polak announced a five-year initiative aimed at increasing diversity within the University faculty. According to Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson, the University has hired 84 ladder faculty across campus in the first four years of the initiative. In an interview with the News, Salovey said that the University will announce updates about the initiative’s progress soon.
And in recent years, the Faculty Development & Diversity team in the Office of the Provost has released guides for cultivating diverse candidate pools, and it has worked to eliminate implicit bias in faculty hiring. But the guide on its website — dated Sept. 11, 2016 — makes no mention of politics or conservatism.
Eire and Gelernter told the News that Yale’s current efforts to foster intellectual diversity are insufficient.
“If Yale chose to be intellectually serious, it could hire them all — all that have interesting things to say, at any rate,” Gelernter wrote. Such an undertaking, he explained, would make the University “not merely one of a few dozen top American colleges, but … the one intellectually serious elite university in the country,” and a “worldwide phenomenon.”
“I’m not holding my breath,” he wrote.
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 35 percent of Americans surveyed identified as conservative while 26 percent identified as liberal.
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