45 Years and Counting: An Interview with Peter Hart on His 45th Anniversary as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow

​For more than 45 years, the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program has brought prominent artists, diplomats, journalists, business leaders, and other nonacademic professionals to campuses across the United States for substantive dialogue with students and faculty members. Through a weeklong residential program of classes, seminars, workshops, lectures, and informal discussions, the Fellows create better understanding and new connections between the academic and nonacademic worlds.

Roger Bowen, CIC senior advisor and director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program, recently sat down with Peter D. Hart, the longest-serving Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, to reflect on Hart’s 45 years of service.

Hart is regarded as one of the top analysts of public opinion in the United States. He founded Hart Research in 1971, and since 1989 has been the pollster for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Hart’s political clients have included leaders in the forefront of American politics over the past half century. His work has focused on public policy and cultural issues and has served clients such as the Smithsonian Institution, Habitat for Humanity, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the international realm, Hart has conducted studies in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. He also has conducted strategic planning projects for clients such as Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Tiffany & Co. Hart has taught public opinion and public policy at Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Berkeley. In fall 2013, he was a visiting fellow teaching at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. During his most recent visit as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, Hart gave a public lecture titled “The Future of Polling in the 2020 Election” to a group of Albion College (MI) students, staff, and community members in March 2019.

Three photos: 1. Peter Hart sits around table with students who have their hands raised to ask questions; 2. Hart poses ith students, standing next to a statue; 3. Hart stands in front of a map of United States on a projector screen in front of classroom of seated students
Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Peter D. Hart visited Albion College (MI) in March 2019. As part of his weeklong visit, sponsored by Albion’s Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service, Hart discussed “The Future of Polling in the 2020 Election” with students, staff, and community members. (Photos courtesy of Albion College)

BOWEN: You have been a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow for a record 45 years. When you go to a campus, what do you hope students will take away from your visit?

HART: Students have a tendency to look at a college curriculum— and life—in a very narrow fashion. So my real hope is to take blinders off of students.

When the Woodrow Wilson program first asked me to become a Visiting Fellow, I was 32 years old and the other Fellows were in their 50s or 60s. I was asked because I was in a brand new field—public opinion and polling. Given that [my age and new field], I had a different rapport with the students...and I recognized they were wide open to hearing about new subjects.

I try to do two things during visits: Inform students about how public opinion can be used in all elements of our society and how it makes a difference; and give them a real sense of how open they can be in approaching life...I want to teach students about how to look at society and how to approach life through a liberal arts education.

BOWEN: What have you taken away from your interactions with students? And what has the program ultimately meant to you?

HART: Becoming a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow has been transformative for my life. Although I came from an academic household—my dad was an English professor at UC Berkeley— I never expected that I would become a teacher. When the Woodrow Wilson program gave me the opportunity to teach, I found two things. One, I found myself learning so much by listening and by having direct exposure to students of different generations. Two, I recognized that I had an impact on students. Yes, some students went into polling, but more importantly, they were learning and interested in new things...The exposure made my life richer and influenced the way I constructed questions and looked at issues. The Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program is a seminal part of my life. If I hadn’t done this, I would have had a fine professional career, but I would have missed out on some of the biggest joys of life.

BOWEN: The liberal arts college model is about exploring questions—and polling is much the same. How do you determine the questions for your polls and research?

HART: When you take on a project, what you are trying to do is understand where the public is coming from. There are linear questions you need to ask—whether they be factual or introductory. But there are a whole series of “3-D” kinds of questions that will allow you to see a new dimension into what people are thinking. In addition to doing quantitative surveys, I do a lot of qualitative surveys through focus groups....You can ask standard questions, but what makes polling interesting to me is open-ended questions that allow respondents to answer in their own vernacular and in ways that show what’s down in their stomach—their gut reaction—as well as in their head—their intellectual side.

BOWEN: What have been the most significant changes you’ve observed in student opinion and students’ outlook?

HART: One of the first things I’ve done since my very first year as a Fellow is to insist on doing a focus group with the students. The reason is that I want to learn as much as they do. I’ve asked a question over the years that is deceptively simple—“What constitutes success for you at age 45?” The beauty of the question is that you can see changes over half a century. What’s so interesting is at the beginning, if you talked to a woman, family was typically the most important part of the response. It’s not that they didn’t have career ambitions, but what surfaced was “home.” By the time I got into the Reagan era, everything had a dollar value on it...More recently, students have emphasized two things: the insecurity of life [for example in that they don’t expect to have the same job their whole lives like students in earlier generations did] and the pressures of social media....These focus groups have been unbelievably valuable because they have allowed me to understand students and ask the questions I want without the pressures of a client. And by and large I’ve kept the questions consistent through years.

BOWEN: ...And the questions have been nonjudgmental. Would you say students have become more or less judgmental over the last 45 years? What set of values do they bring to the table?
HART: For me, what’s most interesting is students’ sense of equality. Whether approaching gender or racial issues, the push is for more acceptance. There’s a greater criticism for social ostracism....

BOWEN: Are students today more intellectually curious than students were 45 years ago?

HART: I think they are more curious and more worldly. If you go back two generations, there were international events that touched students—especially going back to the Vietnam War era. But I feel current students are much more global, more aware of all the things that are happening around the world....And I think college activism has always been there. If anything, it’s gone from local to global.

BOWEN: In your long and distinguished career, you must have done polls that produced results that surprised you. Can you tell me about a situation when findings were unexpected or showed a big shift in public attitudes?

HART: The most amazing thing I’ve seen in American public opinion has concerned attitudes toward same-sex marriage.  I started measuring this in 1989. In the late 80s and early 90s, American attitudes were overwhelmingly negative against same-sex marriage. One of the things I discovered through polling was that people who knew someone who was gay had totally different attitudes than people who didn’t. Only a small portion of Americans thought they knew someone who was gay then, but as people got to know more, attitudes shifted more in 15 years on that one issue than on any other issue I have measured. To me, it was a tremendous revelation and gratifying to see how open the American public became.

BOWEN: A lot of the polling we’ve seen recently suggests that public confidence in education is declining. What do you make of it?

HART: I think there are two main elements. First, the recent admissions scandal is about as big of a killer as there can be. People already think the elite have advantages over everyone else…and then they read on the front page that some are cheating their way into college and they wonder about a level playing field… Second, college is expensive. There’s no way around it. I think it’s hard for a lot of families and exceptionally hard for students who wish to go on to graduate or professional school. None of that undermines the value of higher education and the way in which college graduates are beneficiaries in our society—with better jobs, incomes, and lives.

BOWEN: We work to address false myths about higher education, but it’s hard to get the messages to stick. What does research suggest is the best way for colleges and universities to build public confidence and understanding?

HART: Too often organizations only look through their own lens. My guess is that you need to see college through the student’s lens. The problem may not be a dollar amount, it might be the psychology of what is hanging over a student’s head    When someone gets promoted at work, they might not praise their college education that led to it, but they will see money coming out of their paychecks for their student loans....There may be a new way of communicating with students [that emphasizes how much further ahead they will get with a college degree].

Interested in Hosting a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow?

Hart is just one of more than 120 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows available to visit institutions for a weeklong campus residency. Institutions interested in hosting a Fellow during the 2019–2020 academic year are encouraged to apply now. View more information about the program.