Carol Platt Liebau: Radical Chic at Harvard

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Radical Chic at Harvard

In The New York Times, there appears an entertaining piece about being a conservative at Harvard in the late '70's/dawn of the '80's -- that is, during the period that John Roberts was an undergraduate and law student there. (Note the mention of Hugh Hewitt as one of the "influential conservatives" at Harvard during this time).

The description of the leftism of campus life seems pretty accurate, based on my own experience as a law student from '89-'92. There is a certain expectation in the air at Harvard (or at least there was, when I was there) that the "left" is the norm; anything else is a deviation.

Even so, I found Harvard Law School to be much more tolerant of political dissent than was Princeton, where I was an undergraduate. Maybe it's because people at law school were a little more mature, maybe it's because my law school professors (even the hard-core radicals like Duncan Kennedy, one of my favorites) didn't stigmatize conservative viewpoints.

Being labeled "a conservative" did tend to make one stand out in a crowd, but the crowd wasn't necessarily hostile. And the experience was a bracing one -- I've read about minorities feeling as though their performance or behavior was being taken as "representative" of an entire race . . . there was a similar feeling that one was constantly serving as a "model" for everyone else about how conservatives think/feel/act and so prudence and decorum was generally in order.

Certainly, in my experience, with a bit of good humor and grace one could thrive as a conservative at Harvard . . . whereas, at Princeton (where I was an undergrad), my car was vandalized (albeit in a minor way), the message board on my dorm room door was repeatedly ripped down, and harassing phone messages were routinely to be found on my answering machine -- all (I think) because I wrote a weekly column for The Daily Princetonian that propounded such "modest proposals" as: "Dan Quayle Is NOT a total idiot" and "The FBI isn't necessarily evil."

Law school friends who went to other undergraduate schools (like Yale, Georgetown and Stanford) wouldn't necessarily agree with me; I know they experienced Harvard as much more hostile to conservatives than I did. Which probably goes to show that a lot of how one interpreted the climate at Harvard had to do with one's previous experiences.


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