“In the place of debate and intellectual exchange there is only the continual repetition of political maxims grown stale with the years, of truisms and tautologies untested by disagreement.” This is the way a group of Harvard students describes the current atmosphere at the university in the first issue of the recently revived publication called the Salient. I was excited to receive my copy the other day, not least because almost a quarter century ago, I was its editor. 

The conservative paper on campus has undergone many changes over the years since its founding in the 1980s. A biweekly when I was there, the Salient has run the ideas of cultural conservatives, libertarians, foreign-policy hawks, isolationists, and independents. (Our cover artist was at one point a self-described socialist who said she enjoyed the vibrant exchange of ideas in our offices.)

But until now, the magazine (defunct since 2012) had not to my knowledge published pieces without names attached to them. The new issue, however, contains eight articles, all written under pseudonyms — “Publius,” “Cato,” and a few others.

Jacob Cremers, a sophomore who is the spokesman for the organization, called me last year for advice when he was having trouble finding students willing to write under their real names. On the phone recently, he explained: “Just voicing your opinion causes a wave of antipathy toward you in any situation. There is a mob mentality.” And “with no one to defend you, the wave escalates,” he said. “There could be possible problems from employers.” Perhaps that concern about their future careers explains why only a few other students have copped to editing the new incarnation of the publication.

The group was taken to task earlier this month by editors of the Crimson for refusing to use their real names: “Signing a piece off with a byline requires a writer to take ownership of their work,” they said. The Salient seems to be “ducking behind Roman busts to avoid any such accountability for their writing.”

Why don’t these young people have the courage of their convictions? It’s a rich position for the Crimson to take given its role in revealing the offensive comments made by some high school students on a private Facebook group. After the publicity, Harvard rescinded its admissions offers to those students.

The Crimson points out that the articles in the Salient hardly seem to be particularly inflammatory. But even perfectly sensible pieces could soon become cause for outrage. Take the one where an author questions the idea that the interracial marriage of his parents should be viewed through the lens of “colonialism,” as others on campus have instructed him to do.

Rather than accusing the conservative students of being snowflakes for making what is a perfectly rational decision, it is worth thinking about the adults who have created this atmosphere. Despite Harvard’s reputation as a bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, the current situation is actually pretty new.

During my time as a writer and editor for the Salient in the mid-1990s, people would regularly approach me in the dining hall and talk about why they disagreed with things I wrote or published. The staff of the liberal paper Perspective, based across the hall, would engage in late-night conversations with us about politics. No one threw out piles of our issues, as happened with conservative publications on other campuses.

And when conservative writer and activist David Horowitz came to give a talk during my senior year and suggested that conservatives on campus were “ghettoized,” my fellow Salient staffers and I looked at each other in puzzlement. There were not many conservative professors on campus — Harvey Mansfield and Ruth Wisse were our advisers — but I took classes with staunch anti-communists like Richard Pipes and free-market economists like Martin Feldstein. I also learned from old-school liberals like Richard Marius (a one-time speechwriter for Al Gore), who would never dream of bringing politics into his courses on Shakespeare and Faulkner. 

The situation has deteriorated for all sorts of reasons. According to a survey the Crimson conducted earlier this year of 236 members of the faculty of arts and sciences, just seven of those who responded — 3% — identified as “somewhat” or “very conservative,” compared with 183 who identified as “somewhat” or “very liberal.”

As the Crimson noted: “While the University has made a concerted effort across the past decade to promote gender and racial diversity among its faculty, Harvard has not made any explicit attempts to bolster representation from across the ideological spectrum.”

The paper quoted historian (and Bloomberg columnist) Niall Ferguson, who left the university in 2016. “It became increasingly apparent over my 12 years at Harvard that conservative professors were not just a small minority but an endangered species that might go extinct,” Ferguson said. And it wasn’t just the professors. “The skew to the left amongst faculty (and administrators) is now greater than ever.”

While there are professors on campus who might identify themselves as moderates and others who have been willing to defend free-speech rights on campus, undergraduates are more often interacting with graduate students leading small sections or seminars led by junior faculty. We know that nationally there is even less intellectual diversity among younger professors.

According to a 2016 survey, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans among faculty over the age of 65 was 10 to 1. But the ratio among those under 36 was 22.7 to 1. And these younger faculty members have a higher incentive to conform since they want to get tenure.

A 2018 survey found that administrators are even more left-leaning than faculty members. The explosion of administrative positions in fields like diversity, equity, and inclusion or Title IX compliance has drawn a whole cohort of liberal activists into the university. And the mandate for many of these positions has been to accommodate and placate students and their sensitivities.

As politics seems to infuse every aspect of academic life, inside the classroom and out, students everywhere have become more sensitive and less able to process any intellectual disagreement without taking personal offense, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free-speech advocate Greg Lukianoff have documented.

Then there is the way that, thanks to the internet, we now hold adults responsible for every utterance when they were younger. The variety of jobs that such statements could affect has also expanded tremendously.

It has always been fine to write controversial articles if one was going to become a political figure or opinion journalist. And it used to be that investment banks, big corporations, and consulting firms didn’t mind either.

Staffers at the Salient went on to work in Silicon Valley, neuroscience research, law and medicine with few people ever questioning what they wrote at the age of 19. But now, whether you are a computer engineer or a high school French teacher or a public defender, a departure from orthodoxy can get you in trouble. And employers have every incentive to avoid any controversy in the first place.

There are clearly a few students at Harvard who are willing to risk the wrath of cancel culture. But to ensure that the free exchange of ideas is encouraged on all college campuses and in the larger society that the young people join requires adults to stand up for their students, colleagues and acquaintances who suffer job loss or public shunning for uttering perfectly ordinary and acceptable opinions.