BOSTON — Former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg used his commencement address at Harvard University on Thursday to bash a U.S. academic culture that he described as increasingly intolerant of ideas from outside a narrow liberal spectrum.
Citing the campus protests that caused luminaries including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde to back out of planned speeches, Bloomberg criticized students and faculty for being hostile to ideas that clashed with their own ideologies.
Standing amid the centuries-old stone buildings of Harvard Yard, he compared the atmosphere in U.S. academia to that which prevailed during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s campaign to ferret out Communists in public life.
“In the 1950s the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas,” said Bloomberg, who started his career on Wall Street before launching the news and data company that bears his name. “Today on many college campuses it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.
“A university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think,” he said. “That requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudice.”
He noted that during the 2012 presidential election, some 96 percent of political contributions from faculty and staff at Ivy League universities such as Harvard went to Democratic nominee Barack Obama, with few backing Republican Mitt Romney.
Bloomberg, former president George H.W. Bush, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and five others were honored at the ceremonies.
Bush, 89, received the doctor of laws degree. Franklin, 72, who performed the national anthem, received a doctor of arts degree.
Attendees expressed surprise at the tone of Bloomberg’s speech.
“It was more political than I expected,” said Tina Schwartz, 36, whose husband graduated from Harvard. She said she appreciated Bloomberg’s points about “standing up to the liberals on campus and being more open-minded to speakers.”