CAMBRIDGE, Mass. | President Obama has plucked at least a dozen professors from Harvard University for his administration, tapping a resource on which presidents with wide-ranging ideologies have relied heavily for nearly a century.
Mr. Obama’s picks make up a veritable brain trust, with experiences ranging from overseeing military planning during the 1994 North Korean nuclear weapons crisis to representing a secretary of state before the Supreme Court to accepting a Nobel Peace Prize for limiting global arms after the Cold War.
“This is the largest number of Harvard professors going into government that I can remember in a long time,” says David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an adviser to former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“Harvard in the ‘60s, and today, remains the leading research university in the world. It has a very large faculty of political scientists, historians, economists and others. Presidents like to have people around them who understand the world.”
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and author of “The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation,” says former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was the first president to bring together a gathering of the most capable minds to hash out public policy solutions.
The “brain trust” idea got further attention from Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University; gathered more traction under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and reached its zenith under John F. Kennedy.
“That was a radical idea, that a university had an obligation to be part of its time and not just a cloistered area to study the past,” says Mr. Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University. “During the Kennedy years, Washington was known as ‘Harvard on the Potomac.’”
Mr. Smith says Mr. Nixon repeatedly denounced the Ivy League for what he saw as elitism, yet he had a number of Harvard faculty and alumni in his administration, including Henry Kissigner. Mr. Smith also says Lyndon B. Johnson would rail against “the Harvards,” who would write what Mr. Johnson thought were unfair history books.
However, Mr. Smith says, despite the stereotype of Harvard as a bastion of progressive thought, presidential poaching from the institution has been a bipartisan affair.
“This is something that’s been part of the political culture really for 75 years, and it’s bipartisan,” Mr. Smith says. “It’s not just the liberal Democrats.”
Conservative activists see things differently, however, arguing that universities have an overwhelming bias toward hiring progressives rather than conservatives. While this shuts them out of academia, it doesn’t shut them out from presidential influence. Conservatives have been able to entrench and finance research institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute to serve as intellectual buttresses for their policy proposals, Mr. Gergen says.
Organizations such as David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom and Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Academia devote themselves to exposing what they see as a persistently slanted mind-set across U.S. universities.
“One thing you’ll see is that Democratic administrations tend to draw more college professors in than Republicans,” says Mal Kline, executive director of the District-based Accuracy in Academia. Mr. Kline edits a monthly newsletter distributed to conservative activists around the country, including at influential weekly meetings hosted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
David Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School,says while the Kennedy School does not have an ideological quota, it does have a history of hiring people from across the ideological spectrum, including recent hires such as Nicholas Burns, a diplomat under George W. Bush, and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a key adviser to Mr. Bush during the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq.