This article was co-written by Fawwaz Shoukfeh, Emmy Cho, Swathi Kella, Brammy Rajakumar, Angie Shin, and Dominic Skinnion. A special thanks to the Harvard Open Data Project for their guidance and support with the data collection process.
In an effort to accurately survey the political beliefs of Harvard College students, the Harvard Political Review collaborated with the Harvard Open Data Project and sent out a poll to the undergraduate body in mid-March. A variety of political statements — from approval of President Joe Biden to feelings about censorship to thoughts on Professor Cornel West — were posed to respondents, and responses were measured on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Over 235 responses were collected. In this article, we will provide a data breakdown of the results along with some political commentary to explain the trends.
2. Political Life on Campus
Statement 1: “Harvard was wrong not to consider Professor Cornel West for tenure.”
In early March, Harvard denied Professor Cornel R. West’s request for consideration of tenure. This move caused much controversy as West was seen as a highly qualified candidate due to his past tenure at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. Many critics of the decision, including West himself, speculated that Harvard denied him tenure due to his “risky” and “fraught” takes on a plethora of political and social subjects. Others cited West’s tenure situation as proof of the inherent difficulties that Black faculty face at Harvard and other prestigious institutions of higher learning.
When polled on whether Harvard was wrong not to consider Professor West for tenure, 32.2% of the undergraduate body strongly agreed and 22.6% agreed with the statement. A markedly smaller group felt that the University was not in the wrong: 11.3% disagreed with the statement and only 5.8% reported strongly disagreeing. 28% of respondents either felt neutral about the University’s move or did not feel that they had enough information to say for sure.
Breaking the responses to the questions down by race, the data showed that students of color felt more strongly that the University was in the wrong than white students did. Nearly 40% of white students felt neutral about the subject whereas no African or African American nor Latinx students reported feeling the same way. Instead, over 60% of African or African American and Latinx students reported strong agreement with the statement that Harvard was in the wrong. Asian or Asian American students likewise reported agreement or strong agreement with the statement at higher numbers than their white peers, though their level of agreement was less pronounced than was for African or African American and Latinx students.
Statement 2: “I feel safe to express my political opinions in social and extracurricular contexts on campus.”
Our poll also sought to determine students’ comfortability with expressing political views on campus. When polled on whether students felt safe expressing their political opinions in social and extracurricular contexts on campus, 36.8% of students agreed that they felt safe and 22.2% of students strongly agreed. Though a majority of students reported feeling safe, a sizable portion of the undergraduate population felt differently: 18% of respondents disagreed with the statement and 12.6% strongly disagreed with the statement. 10.5% of respondents remained neutral.
As can be seen above, students who reported approving of Biden (denoted by a 1 or 2 on the horizontal axis of the graph) tended to feel more comfortable expressing their political views in social contexts on campus. Conversely, those who disapproved of Biden were less likely to report feeling safe expressing their political views in social contexts. This trend could potentially be explained by the left-leaning tilt of most undergraduates and faculty, leading those who disagree with a more liberal president like Biden to feel less comfortable expressing their divergent views to a mostly Biden-supporting campus.
Statement 3: “I feel safe to express my political opinions in academic contexts on campus.”
Beyond comfortability in social contexts, our poll also sought to assess how safe students felt expressing their political opinions in academic situations (classes, discussions, essays, etc.) on campus. The data, which closely resembled that of the prior statement on political comfortability in social contexts, showed that 36% of students agreed and 20% strongly agreed with the statement. A total of 28.5% reported feeling otherwise, with 13.4% of students feeling unsafe and 15.1% feeling very unsafe expressing political views in academic contexts at Harvard.
Again, as with the plot comparing political comfortability in social contexts with Biden support, there was a strong positive correlation between Biden approval and political comfortability in academic contexts (shown below).
3. Feelings Toward Biden & Trump
Statement 1: I approve of how Joe Biden has handled his job as President.
With not a moment’s rest since his inauguration in January, President Joe Biden has been leading a divided, increasingly polarized country while navigating the ongoing pandemic. In addition to pressing domestic issues including increased gun violence, unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and the national child care crisis, the Biden administration has also inherited the challenge of rebuilding American reputation, authority, and partnerships abroad.
Though many were initially skeptical of how true Biden would remain to his ambitious campaign promises, many of his goals — including that of an efficient, nation-wide vaccination plan — have remained on course. According to a recent poll released by the Harvard Public Opinion Project, 59% of 18-to-29-year-old Americans approve of President Biden’s performance as president, with the highest approval percentage coming from young people of color.
When we polled undergraduates on whether they approved of how Biden has handled his job as president, 63.6% of undergraduates responded in the affirmative, with 46.4% agreeing and 17.2% strongly agreeing with the statement. 22.6% of undergraduates felt differently, with 15.9% reporting neutrality on the subject matter.
Statement 2: I have concerns regarding the democratic integrity of the 2020 Presidential Election.
Claims that the results of the 2020 Presidential Election were misconstrued began even before the official results were released. As the collective votes in both Georgia and Pennsylvania began looking favorably for President Biden, the Trump campaign announced that “legal challenge teams” were being called upon in states such as Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Prominent Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri have bolstered claims against the democratic integrity of the 2020 Presidential Election — actions that many argue helped actualize the Capitol Hill riots of January 6.
When asked whether they had concerns regarding the democratic integrity of the 2020 Presidential Election, an overwhelming 73.6% of undergraduates were in the negative, with 22.6% disagreeing and 51.0% strongly disagreeing. 9.2% of respondents remained neutral, while 17.1% of undergraduates were in the affirmative, with 12.1% of students agreeing and 5.0% of respondents indicating that they strongly agreed that there were concerns about the democratic integrity of the election.
Statement 3: The Republican Party is synonymous with the “Party of Trump.”
The recent ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from GOP leadership demonstrates a continuously vigorous Republican commitment to former President Trump. Cheney strongly rebuked the former President on his claims of election fraud, stating, “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.” Following the transition of presidential powers, Republican lawmakers have continued to demonstrate support for Trump through disciplinary measures against his political opponents and by refusing to cooperate with the Democratic party in investigating the Capitol Hill riots. Despite the former President no longer being the official face of the Republican party, these actions have called into question whether the Republican Party is, in fact, synonymous with the “Party of Trump.”
When asked whether they believed the Republican Party was synonymous with the “Party of Trump,” nearly half (44.8%) of undergraduates indicated an affirmative response, with 32.2% agreeing and 12.6% strongly agreeing. Approximately the same percent of undergraduates (43.5%) responded in the negative, with 28.9% disagreeing and 14.6% strongly disagreeing. 11.7% of respondents felt neutral about the statement.
Combining the results of this question with the question that determines the level of support for President Biden, we find a very weak positive association between Biden support and views on the direction of the GOP. In other words, those who supported President Biden didn’t necessarily consider the Republican Party to be the “Party of Trump.” On the other hand, as can be seen below, a stronger positive association was found between Biden support and support for the decision to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her seats in the House.
4. Feelings Toward Political Censorship
Statement 1: Big Tech companies should remove figures who spread misinformation on their platforms.
Following the January 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill, social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook made the unprecedented move to suspend Donald Trump from their platforms, thwarting the ability of the former president to spread misinformation about the 2020 election and ignite further violence. Just this month, Facebook’s Oversight Board — the platform’s own “Supreme Court” — validated the company’s decision. The incident crystallized the responsibility of big tech companies in the face of rapidly spreading and damaging misinformation, but it also opened up a morass of questions about how much power big tech should be granted in determining who may speak on their platforms. This debate has further divided the public along ideological lines: While liberals have called upon big tech to take on greater responsibilities in preventing harmful misinformation, conservatives have clung to the refrain of censorship and decried any big tech attempt to counter misinformation as a violation of First Amendment free speech protections.
When undergraduates were asked whether big tech companies should remove figures who spread misinformation on their platforms, a majority of students answered in the affirmative, with 35.6% expressing that they agree and 22.2% expressing that they strongly agree. 23% of students overall answered in the negative, and another 19.2% reported feeling neutral about the statement.
Statement 2: Congress was right to remove Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee seats.
Foremost among those continuing to spread misinformation across social media channels well after the January 6 insurrection was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firebrand Trump loyalist from Georgia. Greene, in addition to defending the rioters, has since taken to social media to continue promoting baseless claims about voter fraud in the 2020 elections. Her recent posts are only the latest in a long series of concerning statements — some of which include spreading anti-Muslim and anti-Semetic conspiracy theories, falsely claiming that shootings in Parkland and Sandy Hook were staged, and even calling for the execution of prominent Democrats in office. As Greene’s troubling history entered mainstream political discourse, the House of Representatives voted on February 4 to remove the politician from the Education and Budget Committees.
In weighing in, Harvard undergraduates indicated substantial support for sanctioning Greene. When asked whether Congress was right to remove Greene from her committee seats, a vast majority of students, 72% in total, answered affirmatively, including 43.5% of students who indicated that they strongly agree with the actions of the legislative chamber. A meager 9.2% of students expressed disapproval for Congress’ removal of Greene’s seats, with 5.0% disagreeing with the statement and 4.2% strongly disagreeing. 18.8% of respondents felt neutral.
Statement 3: Democrats were right to launch a second impeachment investigation against former President Donald Trump.
Almost immediately following the deadly Capitol Hill riots, Democratic lawmakers began preparing for another impeachment effort against then-President Trump, one that would mark an unprecedented second impeachment. Throughout the investigation, House impeachment managers amassed documentation — including video, audio, and social media clippings — which illustrated the relationship between the former president’s political actions and those of the rioters on January 6. The vote to impeach Trump for a second time passed in the House with a vote of 232 to 197, with a total of 10 Republicans voting against the former President.
While it was generally believed that the second impeachment trial was destined to fail from the beginning, many contended it was a necessary political gesture to rebuke the incendiary rhetoric of the former President and shed light on his complicity regarding not only the Capitol Hill riots, but other increased instances of racism across the country throughout his four-year term. On Feb. 13, 2021, 57 senators voted that the President was “guilty,” and 43 senators voted “not guilty,” which formally acquitted Trump of the charge.
When asked about whether Democrats were correct to launch a second impeachment investigation against former President Donald Trump, an overwhelming portion of Harvard undergraduates demonstrated support. 74.5% of students responded affirmatively, with 30.1% agreeing and 44.4% strongly agreeing. 7.9% of respondents remained neutral and 17.5% of students were in the negative, with 7.9% of undergraduates disagreeing and 9.6% of undergraduates strongly disagreeing.
5. Who Should Be Given a Platform at Harvard?
Statement 1: Figures who supported, defended, or participated in claims of election fraud or the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots should not have a platform at Harvard.
Paralleling the concerns held by social media and technological companies about false election fraud claims, elite academic institutions, particularly Harvard, have begun to face a debate about the fine line between exacerbating misinformation and platforming diverse opinions as they reflect on the faculty and advisors that populate their campuses.
In January of 2021, less than a week after the Capitol riots which left federal property destroyed and five dead, the Institute of Politics removed U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik from its Senior Advisory Committee, citing her support for election fraud claims that enabled violence. To clarify his decision, which was made in consultation with IOP Director Mark D. Gearan, Dean Elmendorf also added that Stefanik’s “assertions and statements do not reflect policy disagreements but bear on the foundations of the electoral process through which this country’s leaders are chosen.” Stefanik criticized the decision on Twitter, stating, “The decision by Harvard’s administration to cower and cave to the woke Left will continue to erode diversity of thought, public discourse, and ultimately the student experience.”
In a similar vein, alumni of Yale Law School created a petition to disbar Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who led the effort to object to the certification of electors during the Senate Special Session, although they have released public statements denouncing the Capitol rioters. The student-created petition against the two was signed by over 10,000 individuals, which included Harvard faculty, such as Professors Laurence Tribe and Michael Klarman, Ivy League alumni, and thousands of members of the Washington D.C., Missouri, and Texas bars. Petitions and movements like these reflect the trend of academia criticizing election fraud-supporters in the wake of the violent Capitol riots.
When surveyed about whether figures who supported claims of election fraud or the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots should have a platform at Harvard, a majority (58.6%) of students agreed or strongly agreed that they should not, with 23% agreeing and 35.6% strongly agreeing. On the other hand, a total of 28.9% of students either disagreed (16.3%) or strongly disagreed (12.3%) with the idea that supporters of the election fraud claims should not have a platform at Harvard. 12.6% of students remained neutral.
Statement 2: Figures who support former President Trump should not be given a platform at Harvard.
Intimately related to the bitter division over election fraud narratives are the widely differing attitudes towards former President Donald Trump. On multiple occasions, he repeated statements about a “stolen election” and “widespread election fraud” that ultimately resulted in several lost lawsuits. His style of leadership has been criticized for helping to fuel the mob members — many of whom wielded pro-Trump flags and donated escalating amounts of money to Trump’s funds — that attacked the Capitol.
Interestingly, not all of Trump’s supporters and certainly not all Republican lawmakers supported his claims of election fraud, chief among them Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who warned of a potential “death-spiral” for democracy if election results were rejected without evidence and finally distanced himself from Trump after President Biden was sworn in. Other Republican lawmakers flipped their scripts after the attack on the Capitol and chose not to follow through on their plans to object to the election certification, including Senator Kelly Loeffler, who had been one of the strongest peddlers of the election fraud narrative.
Given the different stances that Trump’s supporters have taken with regard to his claims of election fraud, we asked undergraduates if figures who support the former president should not be given a platform at Harvard. A total of 64.9% of students either disagreed (33.1%) or strongly disagreed (31.8%) with the idea that pro-Trump figures should not be given a platform at Harvard. On the other hand, 22.6% of students agreed (15.1%) or strongly agreed (7.5%) with the statement. 12.6% of respondents remained neutral. Overall, respondents were more tolerant of Trump supporters than of supporters of election fraud claims, lending credence to the idea that these two groups aren’t one in the same from the perspective of Harvard undergraduates.
Statement 3: Figures who support the Republican Party should not be given a platform at Harvard.
The Capitol riots and lawmakers’ subsequent behavior have shed light on the rift between pro-Trump Republicans and more moderate Republicans repulsed by Trump and his claims of election fraud. Even among the lawmakers who voted to object to the election certification, 90% declined to either endorse or repudiate Trump’s continuing insistence that he was cheated by systemic voter fraud, according to a Reuters survey and review. Reuters also noted that although they supported Trump’s bid to overturn the election, the vast majority of these 147 lawmakers had not publicly made statements to support Trump’s voting fraud claims, adding complexity to the debate.
In an effort to determine how students of a left-leaning undergraduate body perceive Republicans, we asked them if figures who support the Republican Party should not be given a platform at Harvard. When surveyed, an overwhelming majority, specifically 87% of respondents, either disagreed (19.2%) or strongly disagreed (67.8%) with the statement. In contrast, a measly 5.0% agreed and 2.5% strongly agreed with the statement. The remaining 5.4% of the surveyed students remained neutral.
Among all of the questions that we asked undergraduates, this statement received the most intense disagreement and the lowest level of support. Furthermore, a significantly lower percentage of students reported neutrality in response to this question compared to others. Combining this with the results of the two previous questions, it appears that most Harvard students feel that political party or support for particular candidates should not necessarily preclude a figure from receiving a platform at the University. Rather, particular beliefs (i.e. whether or not the election was rigged) seem to hold more weight in determining whether or not students feel that a figure should be received on campus.
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