From the Campaign to the Classroom: Yale’s Resident Politicians Balance Bias
“After my active political career was over, I decided that instead of trying to transform many lives a little bit, I would try and transform a few lives a lot,” said Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean ’71 in an interview with The Politic. A 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Dean began teaching at Yale eight years ago, and has since taught a variety of courses, most recently “The Politics of Foreign Policy.”
Yale has become a popular destination for politicians after their time in the public sphere. Former Secretary of State John Kerry ‘66 recently announced that he would start the Kerry Initiative. Next year, he will teach an undergraduate seminar and hold a speaker series.
“Teaching, researching, convening, engaging, and collaborating with young people and together wrestling with the world’s most complex issues is an exciting chapter in the journey that began for me in New Haven,” Kerry told YaleNews.
John DeStefano, who served as mayor of New Haven from 1994 to 2014, pointed to similar reasons for choosing to teach at Yale after his political career.
“It kept me engaged with young people in an exchange of ideas and occasional argument that I found interesting and engaging intellectually,” DeStefano said. He now teaches a political science course called “Making Public Choices in New Haven.”
DeStefano hopes his years in politics can help him guide students about “what works and what doesn’t,” not “in terms of policy substance but in terms of how you build effective relationships and judgements.”
The opportunity to take classes taught by professors with real-world experience is attractive to many students at Yale interested in government.
“All else equal, I would prefer a professor with professional experience because exposure to the non-academic world broadens and enhances the instructor’s perspective,” said Will Field ‘20 in an interview with The Politic. He said that he believes professionals-turned-teachers “are more attuned to the applications of their knowledge and therefore more dynamic in their approach to teaching.”
Nolan Phillips ‘18 agreed.
“Howard Dean solidified my interest in U.S. politics,” said Phillips, who took “The Politics of Foreign Policy” in the fall of 2016. “The fact that he has experience in politics made our discussions often center on current political issues that were related to the weekly readings but not entirely centered on analyzing the text. There was definitely a more applied, real-life angle to the discussions.”
Both Dean and DeStefano acknowledge that though they bring biases into the classroom as Democratic politicians, they try to be transparent and welcome dissent from students.
“I’m not neutral about anything,” Dean said. “The most important thing is not to pretend you don’t have a bias, but to understand that you do and what it is and what other people’s biases are, so that biases can become part of the discussion,” he continued.
DeStefano has a similar approach.
He said that he consciously chooses to “acknowledge to the class that everything, from the very selection of the topic we are going to discuss to the readings that were assigned to the self-evident role that I played in those things, represents a point of view.”
DeStefano said that he believes his experience making compromises as the longest-serving mayor of New Haven helps him see more than one perspective in the classroom.
“The best way I try to engage the class around the substance of [difficult decisions] is to first acknowledge [differing opinions] and second to reinforce the idea that ultimately these are the kinds of issues and concerns that they are going to intellectually have to work through in terms of their own life experience and views,” he said.
Phillips said that he believes Dean successfully brought personal politics into the discussion in a balanced way.
“Howard Dean is clear about his political positions, but I never felt this added any sort of bias to the discussion. If he ever made a remark that someone disagreed with, we were very welcome to bring up our own counterpoints,” said Phillips.
But Dean and DeStefano might be in the minority in encouraging dissent. The Politic spoke to several Yale students who said that many of their professors this year had brought their political beliefs into the classroom without explicitly acknowledging their own political bias or welcoming differing opinions.
Many students told The Politic that they have observed more professors discussing politics since the 2016 presidential election. These discussions occurred in classrooms across departments, not just the political science classes where they might be most relevant to the course material.
“Yale professors are very, very progressive, lying on the left of the political spectrum,” Grant Richardson ’18 told The Politic. “My professors usually do not explicitly bring their politics into class discussion, instead implicitly conveying their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration.”
Still, Alex Weyerhaeuser ’20 does not feel that her professors’ partisan opinions hinder her classroom experience.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable about [professors bringing up politics] and I’ve never felt like it has dominated the classroom at all. That being said, I definitely feel like I do know what their political beliefs are and I’m okay with that because I agree with them,” said Weyerhaeuser.
Nevertheless, she added, “I can’t speak to what it would be like for a super conservative person or a Trump supporter to be in one of these classes and hear these comments because it doesn’t apply to me.”
Esteban Elizondo ’18 said that he welcomes debate in the classroom.
“If anything, classes should be ideologically hostile,” he told The Politic. His criticism was not that professors expressed personal political opinions but that they did not try to “push both sides of the argument.”
Once in a class on the Iraq War, Elizondo said, “the discussions essentially turned into consensus.”
DeStefano said that he does not believe classroom conversations should be one-sided.
“Part of what the classroom experience should be about is to develop skills and techniques to engage disagreement without being disagreeable…I think there is a default position to be polite and sometimes not engage,” said DeStefano. “However, I think the best way to [overcome biases] is generally to openly acknowledge [them].”
There are not many conservative students at Yale to bring a different perspective. Only 12 percent of Yale students identified as “conservative” or “very-conservative” in an October 2016 poll done by the Yale Daily News. Of that percentage, 95 percent said that their opinions are not respected in the Yale community. In comparison, more than 98 percent of all respondents said liberal views are welcome.
“Given that few professors share my conservative political views, voicing a conservative opinion in discussion or in a paper entails a certain degree of risk to one’s grade or reputation that many conservatives are not willing to take,” said Richardson.
Beyond impacting class discussion, the liberal bent of professors can also affect students’ work.
“I have actually turned in papers that I fundamentally disagree with because the ones with my actual opinions received poor marks,” Elizondo said. “It’s always a bit demoralizing to hear ‘how far’ I have come in a class with a professor when the only progress I have made is repeating what the professor says in class on my paper.”
Both Dean and DeStefano had careers as strong advocates for only one side. But they emphasized that while having biases is not a problem, failing to acknowledge them is.
“The biases that are the biggest problem are the ones you either don’t know about or more likely, actively work to suppress. Those are the biases that people don’t want to talk about and those are the ones that I try to get at,” said Dean.
Dean said that in his class he aims to “establish a solid framework for decision-making and the most important parts of that are [for students] to be aware of their own biases, to be aware of their own interpersonal reactions to people because that influences the decision, and to think long term.”
DeStefano said that he recognizes that breaking down barriers and confronting biases is difficult.
“I’m sure that sometimes as a seminar leader I’m attentive to it and sometimes I’m not attentive to it,” he said.
Yale’s resident politicians ultimately face the same challenges as other professors as they work to create open classrooms where students feel comfortable sharing their political beliefs, even if those opinions differ from the professor’s politics.
“We are going to have different points of views about things,” said DeStefano, “and folks need to learn to disagree without saying I’m making a value judgement about who you are and where you come from.”