Op Eds

Harvard Must Work to Bridge the Politics-People Divide

Among the most common complaints at today’s American dinner table is that “No one in Washington is talking about the issues that really matter.” As political elites jostle over narrow issues like RINO-hood and other partisan flashpoints, many Americans see Capitol Hill’s suit-wearers as overlooking more tangible concerns — like, say, low and decreasing economic mobility. This worrisome gap between Congress and the U.S. populace is one that Harvard can, by virtue of its many fingers in American politics, help fill, improving its own national image in the process.

And, with anti-elite sentiment on the rise, improve Harvard must. The school’s strategy here should target both representation and outreach, taking care to build classes geographically representative of the U.S. and university initiatives that reflect a determination to leave no sect of our country overlooked.

Symptoms of Harvard’s poor national outreach are easy to find. The school frequently fields attacks from populist talking heads (who are themselves emblematic of pervasive, defensive distrust among American voters). In late August, for example, Tucker Carlson gleefully ridiculed former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, a current visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Naturally, you would think Bill de Blasio would have a shining career as a homeless person himself after his time in office,” Carlson jeered on his eponymous talk show. “Well, there’s one place in America that would hire Bill de Blasio: Harvard University.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Harvard is a favorite target of Americans justly angry with broader political elitism — in addition to its aura of wealth and prestige, the school churns out national politicians like no other. At the dawn of the 117th Congress in 2021, 54 out of 435 voting members could lay claim to a Harvard degree, 40 of whom were Democrats. In this sense, contempt for Harvard, in all its (purported) Congress-controlling glory, looks a lot like contempt for the dimly lit cogs and wheels spinning in our nation’s capital.


If its label as a retreat for coastal gentry isn’t sufficient reason to engage in some image rehab, Harvard has a moral obligation to care for the health of American democracy. The mission of Harvard College, to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society,” has no meaning if those future leaders are seen by their constituents as totally indifferent to real human needs.

Trust in institutions is the sine qua non of democratic stability; in a public sphere marked by rising polarization, increasingly inexperienced leaders, and partisan fracturing, continual distrust threatens total upheaval.

This is not to say that Harvard and its students have not made meaningful steps toward connecting with Americans from areas underrepresented in the College. For one, the Institute of Politics presently hosts a former Wyoming governor and former West Virginia secretary of state as visiting fellows, importing valuable perspectives from two of Harvard’s least common student home states. In a similar vein, a new student organization called the Harvard Appalachian Student Association has launched programming designed to promote higher education as attainable to Appalachian students, at top-ranking universities especially.

Both initiatives promise to help draw Harvard’s institutional gaze toward neglected regions like Appalachia and the Mountain States, bridging the gap between Harvard and areas likely to hold political views associated with a higher incidence of resentment for elite universities (not to mention reducing Harvard students’ seeming contempt for lower-income, less educated, more conservative voting blocs).

But there is more work to be done. For one, Harvard College Admissions should make geographic diversity a higher priority; as a 2015 Crimson feature reported, 51.5 percent of non-international Class of 2018 students were from New York, New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts, states which together hold 23.2 percent of the U.S. population. This is a grave failure.

Harvard professors should make a more concerted effort to create curriculums representative of America as a whole, too — if economic convergence between the U.S. and China offered a good case study for the several-hundred-person Econ 10B: Principles of Economics class, so too could convergence between underserved Appalachia and its more prosperous neighbors.

With just a few targeted efforts, the University can simultaneously fortify its reputation against populist vitriol and fulfill its self-professed mission to support American democracy and educate its leaders. An insular Harvard helps no one but its direct affiliates, but a Harvard whose institutions embody humility and open-mindedness has the capacity to pacify some of our country’s deepest and most destructive fault lines.

Peter N. Jones ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Mather House.