During her first two years at the University of Pennsylvania, Stephanie Steward became convinced that she was being treated unfairly because of her political views. In her class on diversity and the law, a professor seemed obsessed with the evils of slavery. Another professor's defense of the estate tax struck her as excessively one-sided. The Daily Pennsylvanian, where she worked, seemed to exhibit subtle political bias. Eventually Steward decided that she had taken enough abuse. So last year the junior launched a newspaper of her own, The Pennsylvania Independent, and this year she will take the publication biweekly. Starting a newspaper costs money (her budget for this school year will run about $15,000). Fortunately for Steward, a portion of that money will come from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a conservative organization that funds college publications.
Steward's story will sound familiar to anyone who has talked to college conservatives. "It takes a little oppression to really get engaged and involved," says Evan Baehr, a junior at Princeton University, where he is editor in chief of the conservative Princeton Tory and president of the College Republicans. Like Steward, Baehr sees himself as an oppressed minority on his campus -- and he, too, has turned to national conservative organizations for remedy. The Tory received tens of thousands of dollars last year from groups such as the Leadership Institute, the Young America Foundation and the ISI to fund its printing costs and to host speakers such as Jonah Goldberg, George Will and Daniel Flynn, author of Why the Left Hates America. Baehr says such speakers are necessary to counterbalance the influence of an overwhelmingly liberal faculty, many of whom he believes exhibit left-wing tendencies in their course materials. Don't conservative college professors also indulge their biases in the classroom? "I'm sure there are equally absurd cases on the other side," Baehr says, mentioning the faculty at Bob Jones University.
Although conservatives currently run the national government and are enjoying an upswing in media influence, conservative activists on campus still draw energy from feeling like a beleaguered minority -- and they're not entirely wrong. In last year's American Freshman Survey, conducted annually by the University of California, Los Angeles, 27.8 percent of college freshmen nationwide identified themselves as liberal or far left while 21.3 percent identified themselves as conservative or far right. It was the first time since 1996 that the percentage of students identifying themselves as liberal or left in the survey decreased; the year before, 29.9 percent had identified themselves as liberal or far left, the most since 1975.
Liberal dominance is more pronounced at elite schools. Dartmouth is widely considered to be the most conservative school in the Ivy League. And yet, according to a voluntary e-mail poll by The Dartmouth, the school's student newspaper, 62 percent of students voted for Al Gore in 2000 compared with 23 percent for George W. Bush. At Princeton, generally considered the second-most conservative Ivy, 55 percent voted for Gore compared with 26 percent for Bush, according to a 2000 poll by The Daily Princetonian (of which I was then editor in chief). At the University of Pennsylvania, probably the third-most conservative Ivy, 67 percent chose Gore while 20 percent chose Bush, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
If these broad measurements -- liberal versus conservative, Gore voter versus Bush voter -- were the only campus trends that mattered to the future health of progressive politics, liberals would be in reasonably strong shape. But unfortunately for progressives, college politics are more complex. I recently spoke to about 30 student leaders at universities throughout the country. Their perspectives on campus activism varied from school to school, but most agreed that though the right is still a minority on many campuses, it is undoubtedly an energized one. Like Steward and Baehr, conservatives are often fueled by two forces: their own sense of righteous indignation at professors, administrators and peers whom they believe have made college campuses inhospitable territory for conservative ideas; and the availability of funding from outside organizations, which allows them to channel this indignation into publications, speaker series -- and, they hope, converts.
The siege mentality of campus conservatives and the substantial financial support they receive from outside groups have not escaped media notice. In May, The New York Times Magazine published a story about the rise of "hip" conservatives at Bucknell University. The Economist followed with a shorter piece in July on the growth of College Republicans, which has tripled its national membership in the last three years. "The leftists who seized control of the universities in the 1960s have imposed their world-view on the young with awesome enthusiasm, bowdlerising textbooks of anything that might be considered sexist or racist, imposing draconian speech codes and inventing pseudo-subjects such as women's studies," The Economist wrote, offering a concise illustration of the current conservative mind-set on many campuses. As a student from Pennsylvania State University told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette while attending a Young America Foundation conference in Washington this summer, "Our group is much smaller than the college Democrats, but at least we are making our voices known."
Campus conservatives have made the most of their self-conception as an oppressed minority. Their insurgency is just a natural "reaction against the professors and the administration, which tend to be liberal," says Dan Gomez, chairman of Penn's College Republicans. Alicia Washington, president of Yale University's College Democrats, agrees. Yale conservatives, she says, "knock a lot louder because there are so few of them." And if conservatives find that knocking louder helps them generate publicity, well, that's part of the point.
By contrast, campus progressives, though still more numerous, have two big problems: funding and fragmentation. Yoni Appelbaum, who led the Columbia University organization that dispenses funding to student groups and worked with the nonpartisan Columbia Political Union (CPU), said the disparity was noticeable. "It was far easier for us at the CPU to locate external sources of funding to bring conservative speakers to campus than it was to locate sources of funding to bring Democratic speakers to campus," he says. The funding gap manifests itself in more subtle ways, too. "The liberal magazines don't look anywhere near as nice as the conservative magazines," says Emily Regan Wills, a senior at Yale and a leader of the school's Women's Center. Zac Frank, president of Columbia's College Democrats, marvels at the outside support available to conservative groups. "The national network they have is just astounding," he says. That national network serves as a pipeline for young conservatives, and it has churned out its share of success stories: Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and, most famously, Karl Rove all held national positions in the College Republicans organization.
The number of progressive campus groups often dwarfs the number of conservative organizations, but that is both a strength and a weakness. Harvard's Web site, for instance, displays numerous student groups running the gamut from liberal to radical: the Environmental Action Committee; AIDS Education and Outreach; the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Supporters Alliance; the Black Students Association; the Black Men's Forum; the Coalition Against Sexual Violence; the Coalition for Drug Policy Reform; the Harvard-Radcliffe Women's Leadership Project; Youth at Harvard Against Handgun Violence; Students for Choice; Amnesty International; the Initiative for Peace and Justice and so on. The conservative counterparts are much fewer in number. This phenomenon exists at many schools, and on some campuses, student leaders say, the proliferation of liberal groups can lead to divisions in the progressive community.
It's not simply the number of organizations that matters -- the ideological range of progressive groups tends to be much wider than those on the right. That fragmentation can be healthy, of course -- what is college about, if not debating ideas? -- but it can also create bitter and disabling divisions, particularly at schools with strong cultures of radicalism. Ethan Ris, president of Brown University's College Democrats, says that this past spring the Young Communist League took over efforts to organize protests against the war in Iraq. "We would show up to these meetings and be shouted down and called idiots ... . My members would show up and have such a terrible time, they'd never want to go again." Yale's Wills -- who is herself no centrist; she voted for Gore only because she lived in the swing state of Pennsylvania and would have voted for Ralph Nader elsewhere -- says the progressive community often ends up being dominated by its most extreme voices. "I am shocked often by what I am called moderate for saying," she says. "And 'moderate' in the activist community is a dirty word." Describing some activists as "hard-line" and "off-putting," she adds, "People who get committed to Yale activism often end up being very far to the left."
At Columbia, a school with a long tradition of radicalism, liberal students say that the vocal student chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has a chilling effect on more mainstream progressive activism. "I've met freshmen who've been wary of joining a political group because what they see on campus are these far-left groups who are not their cup of tea," says Samir Arora, who just graduated from Columbia and was president of the CPU. Frank, of the College Democrats, says, "People see any identification with progressive issues as being, 'Oh, that's the ISO again.'"
Progressive students engaged in narrowly focused organizations may ignore liberal electoral politics. "Sometimes it's difficult to work with single-issue groups," says Gerard McGeary, president of Harvard's College Democrats. Alicia Washington of Yale agrees that the strength of identity groups "in some ways does kind of detract." But other campus liberal leaders see identity groups as valuable gateways to political awareness for students who might otherwise remain on the sidelines. "It's a big group of people to get our message out to," says Rich Eisenberg, president of Penn's College Democrats.
Another problem for the liberal side is durability. Single-issue liberal organizations often ride on the energy of a handful of students and may not outlive their graduations. Changes in world events may also make narrowly defined groups obsolete, scattering to the wind the political energy they briefly harnessed. Groups that sprang up to oppose the Iraq War this past spring are a prime example. "Things form as news forms, and then they die as news dies," Lucretia Fernandez, press secretary of Indiana University's College Republicans, says of some progressive groups on her campus.
Still, campus conservatives say that the sheer number of liberal groups gives progressives more opportunities to lure students to campus activism. "Any sort of liberal issue has a group at Penn, as opposed to the conservatives, who, as of now, have us," says Gomez of Penn's College Republicans. With more groups, he says, "you can mobilize so many more people, even though they may not be united by a common leadership." As a result, conservatives at Penn and Princeton say they are trying to emulate the left by encouraging the formation of new right-of-center political groups more narrowly tailored around specific issues.
A bigger nemesis for both groups is a familiar one: apathy. Getting the message out about political issues is a particular challenge when great swaths of the student body aren't listening. To have a conversation with current college students about political activism, it's practically a precondition to acknowledge that many students simply don't care about the great debates of our time, or don't think that political engagement is worth the trouble. There is, of course, some sample bias at work here: It makes sense that the average activist would view his or her peers as politically apathetic, just as the typical cellist would probably view other students as insufficiently interested in attending orchestra concerts. And yet it is impossible to avoid the fact that conversations about politics at colleges big and small, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, private and public invariably turn toward the fact that "the majority of students are apathetic," as Josh Fisher of the Bucknell Caucus for Economic Justice put it in speaking about his campus. Asked whether students at Bucknell are generally left or right of center, he says he doesn't know. "I couldn't say definitively because most people avoid topics of conversation like that," he says. "It's sort of an anti-intellectual environment." Katerina Seligmann of Columbia's Amnesty International chapter acknowledges that most of her peers are politically left of center. But, she adds, "There's a difference between people being liberals and people being activists."
Cutting through this apathy is the greatest challenge faced by campus activists, left and right -- and possibly the one idea that unites the two sides. "When we're registering people by ourselves, we get 10 people per hour," says Eisenberg of Penn's College Democrats. "When we're registering with the College Republicans, we get 50 people an hour." Gomez, his Penn counterpart on the right, says that debates between the two groups -- which take place once or twice a year -- draw "the most participation of any one event that either of us do."
Humor is another way to coax students out of apathy, and a little effort goes a long way. Conservatives have been out in front on this one, probably because it's easier to poke fun at the establishment when you perceive yourself as being outside it. The New York Times Magazine documented how Bucknell conservatives have made a rite of annually penning something called "Penis Monologues," a response to the feminist play The Vagina Monologues, popular on many campuses. The stunt generates outrage and publicity, which is exactly what conservative students want.
Liberals may be watching and learning. Shortly after this year's State of the Union address, Peter Hackeman, opinions editor of The Bucknellian, the student newspaper, wrote a satirical draft of Bush's speech that wasn't bad. "Our intelligence sources tell us that Saddam has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production," he wrote, "but they were actually to be used for those low-tech phones with string connecting two aluminum cans... . Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide. Just what are these string-and-can phones to be used for? If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning." Not as outrageous as the "Penis Monologues," to be sure, but give Bucknell's liberals points for effort.
The Iraq War was fertile ground for campus activism on both sides of the political spectrum. But most students agree that national politics in the last two years has moved into territory where campus conservatives feel more comfortable than their liberal peers. "It became a lot easier to be a conservative at college after September 11," says Angel Rivera, president of Indiana University's College Republicans. Following the terrorist attacks, groups with names such as the Princeton Committee Against Terrorism and Columbia's Students United for America sprang up. Though many of these groups had bipartisan memberships, they clearly leaned right.
Many see this trend not as evidence that undergraduates have converted to neoconservatism en masse but rather as a manifestation of how contemporary college students feel about institutions -- such as the military -- that were largely opposed by their parents. In the most recent nationwide UCLA survey, 45 percent of students agreed "strongly" or "somewhat" with the idea of increasing military spending. In 1993, that number was 21.4 percent. Supporters of the Iraq War understood this situation. At Columbia, for instance, the College Republicans chapter was careful to advertise its rally as a "pro-troops" event rather than a "pro-war" one, explained Dennis Schmelzer, the organization's executive director. "The war in Iraq has been a great issue for us," says the group's president, Ganesh Betanabhatla.
A debate raged at the school over whether to bring the ROTC back to campus. And some liberals -- revealing, perhaps, the inclinations of their generation -- have found it difficult to dismiss the arguments of their more conservative peers. Dina Schorr, a founder of Toward Reconciliation, a Columbia group that advocates peaceful resolutions to international conflicts, struggled with the question of whether to sign a petition advocating the ROTC's return. "If all of these liberal campuses don't have ROTC," she explained, "then how can you expect the military to change?" In the end, she signed.
On social issues, however, college students remain generally liberal. "Social issues [are] really our best shot among young, educated kids," says Owen Conroy, president of Princeton's College Democrats. Whatever else characterizes today's college students, this is surely the Tolerant Generation. The percentage of students supporting gay rights has consistently grown in UCLA's survey in recent years. Last year a record high of 59.3 percent supported gay marriage while a record low of 24.8 percent favored laws limiting homosexual rights. It is well documented that students are growing more ambivalent about ever having an abortion or personally approving of one, yet recently a majority still favored abortion rights. And 39.7 percent support legalizing marijuana, up from 16.7 percent in 1989. "It's definitely harder to sell them on socially conservative ideas," says Gomez of Republican efforts to enlist Penn students.
Whatever frustrations Gomez has experienced haven't sapped his sense of mission. Last year, to spark interest in their group, Republicans put up signs around campus that asked, "What Would Reagan Do?" When many were torn down -- as campus posters often are -- Gomez took it as a sign of anti-conservative bias. "If there were posters saying, 'What Would Carter Do?' they wouldn't have gotten torn down," he says. The deeply held belief that they are being persecuted on college campuses may make some conservatives seem a little paranoid. But it may also be strengthening their resolve.
College liberals confront a paradox: their parents won many aspects of the battle for campuses some decades ago -- freer sexuality, affirmative action, greater curricular and cultural diversity. Liberals of that generation came to dominate faculties, notably in the liberal arts. Today it's conservatives who feel like the opposition, and it's a lot easier to be outraged, dogmatic and zealously energized if you're not in charge.
But it's not clear that liberals are completely in charge. It's true that professors in departments like English, sociology and women's studies are disproportionately left of center, but in the parts of universities that lead directly to real power -- business schools, law faculties, economics departments -- the opposite is often true. Diversity of ideological views is, of course, healthy. When conservatives complain that their sociology professors teach from a liberal vantage point, liberals can retort that it's good for conservatives to challenge themselves by studying with liberal sociologists -- just as it's good for liberals to challenge themselves by taking economics courses with market fundamentalists.
To spur activism, liberals have no shortage of topics to tap. The anti-sweatshop movement, which crested on campuses about four years ago, placed progressive activists in direct confrontation with their school administrations and also garnered sympathy from large portions of normally apathetic student bodies. Campaigns for higher wages for the lowest-paid workers at colleges have achieved similar results.
There are any number of other issues -- from the death grip of commercialized athletic departments on university decision making to the outrageous use of federal work-study money to fund menial campus jobs rather than meaningful service opportunities -- that are ripe for exploration by thoughtful, progressive undergrads. When campus liberals have enjoyed success and garnered publicity in recent years, they have carved out creative positions on issues that have allowed them to challenge both the institutions where they study and the larger society. Their victories have suggested that beneath the apathy, idealism is still the natural condition of youth.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)