Power in the U.S. flows through the gates of the Ivy League and a very small tier of other top universities. These institutions set and sanction the boundaries of knowledge, including what kinds of political and social views are welcomed in prestige cultural spaces. This has long been the case. In 1805, for example, Unitarianism won a real degree of respectability when Harvard, then a Calvinist institution, appointed the Unitarian Henry Ware to the Hollis chair, long the most prestigious endowed chair in the country. Last year, in a 21st-century version of the Ware affair, conservatives won when Harvard’s president and provost overruled the faculty and turned away the economist Gabriel Zucman, whose renown rests in large part on his empirical work substantiating the democratic benefits of a wealth tax. Lawrence H. Summers, who once said that “inequality has … gone up in our society” because “people are being treated closer to the way they’re supposed to be treated,” supported the hire but nevertheless explained, shortly thereafter, that raising taxes on the rich is a bad idea.
One of the great puzzles of American society is the position of the Ivy League. It is a bastion of privilege and power, and yet full of left-leaning professors who one might imagine would favor the redistribution of wealth. According to the Harvard Crimson, 77.6 percent of Harvard professors define themselves as left-leaning, and just 2.9 percent as conservative. What explains this dynamic? Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, said that such anti-conservatism gets to the basic point of the school, which is to advance radical ideas: “It’s almost by definition anti-preservationist because we place such a high value on the creation of new knowledge.”