Throughout 2003 and into 2004, a surge of protests roiled American campuses. You probably think the kids were agitating against war in Iraq, right? Well, no: students at UCLA, Michigan, and many other schools were sponsoring bake sales to protest . . . affirmative action. For white students and faculty, a cookie cost (depending on the school) $1; blacks and Hispanics could buy one for a lot less. The principle, the protesters observed, was just that governing university admission practices: rewarding people differently based on race. Indignant school officials charged the bake-sale organizers with “creating a hostile climate” for minority students, oblivious to the incoherence of their position. On what grounds could they favor race preferences in one area (admissions) and condemn them in the other (selling cookies) as racist? Several schools banned the sales, on flimsy pretexts, such as the organizers’ lack of school food permits.
The protests shocked the mainstream press, but to close observers of America’s college scene lately they came as no surprise. For decades, conservative critics have bemoaned academe’s monolithically liberal culture. Parents, critics note, spend fortunes to send their kids to top colleges, and then watch helplessly as the schools cram them with a diet of politically correct leftism often wholly opposed to Mom and Dad’s own values.
But the Left’s long dominion over the university—the last place on earth that lefty power would break up, conservatives believed—is showing its first signs of weakening. The change isn’t coming from the schools’ faculty lounges and administrative offices, of course. It’s coming from self-organizing right-of-center students and several innovative outside groups working to bypass the academy’s elite gatekeepers.
There have always been conservative students on campus: more than a half-century has passed since a just-matriculated William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, lamenting his alma mater’s secularism and launching the author on his now-legendary career. But never has the Right flourished among college kids as it does today.
The number of College Republicans, for instance, has almost tripled, from 400 or so campus chapters six years ago, to 1,148 today, with 120,000-plus members (compared with the College Democrats’ 900 or so chapters and 100,000 members). And College Republicans are thriving even on elite campuses. “We’ve doubled in size over the last few years, to more than 400 students,” reports Evan Baehr, the square-jawed future pol heading the Princeton chapter. The number of College Republicans at Penn has also rocketed upward, says chapter president Stephanie Steward, from 25 or so members a couple of years ago to 700 members today. Same story at Harvard. These young Republican activists, trudging into battleground states this fall in get-out-the vote efforts, helped George W. Bush win.
Other conservative organizations, ranging from gun clubs (Harvard’s has more than 100 students blasting away) to impudent newspapers and magazines, are budding at schools everywhere—even at Berkeley, crucible of the sixties’ student Left. And right-of-center speakers invited by these clubs are drawing large and approving crowds. “At many schools, those speeches have become the biggest events of the semester,” Time reports. One such talk at Duke by conservative author and former Comedy Central host Ben Stein, notes Time, attracted “a bigger crowd than the one that had come to hear Maya Angelou two months earlier.”
The bustle reflects a general rightward shift in college students’ views. Back in 1995, reports UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, 66 percent of freshmen wanted the wealthy to pay higher taxes. Today, only 50 percent do. Some 17 percent of students now value taking part in environmental programs, half of 1992’s percentage. Support for abortion stood at two-thirds of students in the early nineties; now it’s just over half. A late-2003 Harvard Institute of Politics study found that college students had moved to the right of the overall population, with 31 percent identifying themselves as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats, and the rest independent or unaffiliated. “College campuses aren’t a hotbed of liberalism any more,” institute director Dan Glickman comments. “It’s a different world.”
Youthful attitudes are volatile, of course, but this rightward trend may intensify. In a mock election run by Channel One, which broadcasts in public schools, 1.4 million high school students reelected George W. Bush in a landslide, with 55 percent of the popular vote and 393 electoral votes—greater than the 51 percent of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes that he actually won.
Today’s right-leaning kids sure don’t look much like the Bill Buckley–style young Republicans of yesteryear. “Conservative students today will be wearing the same T-shirts, sneakers, and jeans that you find on most 19-year-old college kids,” says Sarah Longwell of the Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which promotes the Western intellectual tradition on campuses. Jordana Starr, a right-of-center political science and philosophy major at Tufts, tartly adds that you can spot a student leftist pretty fast: “They’re the ones who appear not to have seen a shower in some time, nor a laundromat.”
The new-millennium campus conservative is comfortably at home in popular culture, as I’ve found interviewing 50 or so from across the
country. A favorite TV show, for instance, is Comedy Central’s breathtakingly vulgar cartoon South Park. “Not only is it hilariously uncouth, but it also criticizes the hypocrisy of liberals,” explains Washington University economics major Matt Arnold. “The funniest part is that most liberals watch
the show but are so stupid that they’re unaware they’re being made fun of,” he says, uncharitably. The young conservatives, again like typical college kids, also play their iPods night and day, listening less to Bach and Beethoven than to alt-rock, country-and-western, and hip-hop.
Yet the opinions of these kids are about as far from the New York Times as one gets. Affirmative action particularly exasperates them. Chris Pizzo, a political science major who edits Boston College’s conservative paper, the Observer, points to wealthy Cuban-American friends from his native Florida, “raised with at least the same advantages and in the same environment that I was,” yet far likelier to get into the top schools. Where’s the justice in that? Pizzo asks. Worse still, many students argue, preferences carry the racist implication that blacks and Hispanics can’t compete on pure merit—an implication that holds minorities back. “Affirmative action has a detrimental effect on the black community, whether or not we’re willing to admit it,” says Jana Hardy, a biracial recent Claremont McKenna grad now working in urban planning.
The war on terror, including in Iraq, drew strong support from most of the students. Typical was Cornell classics major Sharon Ruth Stewart, mildly libertarian—except when it comes to fighting terror. “We have to use any and all means to defend ourselves from the terrorists, who hate the American way of life even more than the French and Germans do,” she says. “That means bunker-busters, covert ops—whatever ensures America is safe.” University of Maryland junior Nathan Kennedy is just as tough-minded. “I am full-fledged on board with the Iraq war,” he says. “We’ve brought the fight to the terrorists’ door, dealing with the radical fundamentalist Arabs who want us all dead.”
On cultural issues, the students had clearly reached their own, sometimes idiosyncratic, conclusions. Yale senior Nikki McArthur (a big Metallica fan) is, like most of the students I questioned, ardently pro-life—“but not because I necessarily think that an embryo is a full human being.” Rather, she argues, “I think that a culture in which abortion is widely accepted is one in which people have a wrong understanding of children and sex. Children should not be considered burdens.” Jordan Rodriguez, a rugged-looking Evangelical Princeton undergrad, Deke pledge president, and hyperachiever—he was varsity baseball and editor of the literary magazine at his San Antonio high school and a violist in the city’s Youth Philharmonic—is as hard-line as they come on abortion. The practice is “ethically abominable,” he says; it should be regarded as “a form of homicide and prosecuted as such.”
Many of the students, especially the women, value getting married and raising a family with a fervor that would thrill the Family Research Council. “I’m an old-fashioned girl,” avers Cornell’s Stewart. “I think it’s wonderful when a mother can spend the majority of her time devoted to her child’s early years. I plan to do just that.” Reports University of Virginia sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox: “My biggest
surprise in teaching here is that I am coming across growing numbers of postfeminist college women. They tend to be very bright and—other things being equal—would normally gravitate to feminist academics.” Instead, Wilcox notes, they’re looking for “a sane path forward for the revival of courtship and family life.” Polling data suggest that such sentiments are increasingly widespread. A 2001 survey, for instance, found that 88 percent of male high school seniors and 93 percent of females thought it extremely or quite important to have a good marriage and family life (see “It’s Morning After in America,” Spring 2004).
Yet for most of the conservative students I interviewed, traditional values did not extend to homosexuality. Though few support gay marriage, fewer still want the Constitution amended to ban it, and most are okay with state-sanctioned civil unions for gays. “I don’t buy the prevalent argument that recognizing gay unions would undermine the institution of marriage,” says Vanderbilt sophomore Anne Malinee, the strongly pro-life editor of the Vanderbilt Torch, the school’s conservative monthly. “Of all the issues elected officials could be focusing on, why this?” Similarly, Bucknell history and economics major Charles Mitchell, culturally conservative in many respects, isn’t worried about gay marriage. “I believe that homosexuality is a sin, because that’s what the Bible says, but I also believe that if two people of the same sex love each other and can get a priest to marry them, the propriety of that is none of the state’s business.”
What accounts for the growing conservatism of college students? After 9/11, many collegians came to distrust the UN-loving Left to defend the nation with vigor. As of late 2003, college students backed the war more strongly than the overall American population. Notes Edward Morrissey, “Captain Ed” of the popular conservative blog Captain’s Quarters, these kids “grew up on . . . moral relativism and internationalism, constantly fed the line that there was no such thing as evil in the world, only misunderstandings.” Suddenly, on 9/11, this generation discovered that “there are enemies and they wanted to kill Americans in large numbers, and that a good portion of what they’d been taught was drizzly pap.”
Yet a deeper reason for the rightward shift, which began well before 9/11, is the Left’s broader intellectual and political failure. American college kids grew up in an era that witnessed both communism’s fall and the unchained U.S. economy’s breathtaking productivity surge. They’ve seen that anyone willing to work hard—regardless of race or sex—can thrive in such an opportunity-rich system. “I’m only 20, so I don’t remember segregation or the oppression of women—in fact, my mother had a very successful career since I was a kid,” one student observed in an online discussion. “I look around and don’t see any discrimination against minorities or women.” Left-wing charges of U.S. economic injustice sound like so much BS to many kids today.
The destructive effects of “just-do-it” values on the family are equally evident to many undergrads, who have painfully felt those effects themselves or watched them rip up the homes of their friends. They turn to family values with the enthusiasm of converts. Even their support of homosexual civil unions may spring from their rejection of the world of casual hookups, broken marriages, and wounded children that liberalism has produced. “Heterosexuals have already done a decent job of cheapening marriage on their own,” observes Vanderbilt’s Malinee.
Conservative ideas take on even greater allure for students when the authorities say they’re
verboten. From pervasive campus political correctness—the unfree speech codes, obligatory diversity-sensitivity seminars, and school-sponsored performances of The Vagina Monologues—to the professorate’s near-uniform leftism, with faculty Democrats outnumbering Republicans by at least seven to one (at Williams, it’s 51 Dems to zero Republicans), everything aims to implant correct left-wing attitudes in student brains. “There’s a natural and healthy tendency among students to question the piety of their teachers,” Penn history professor Alan Kors noted a few months back. “And for so long the pieties, dogmas, and set of assumptions being taught on college campuses have been found on the far left.” Says Daniel Flynn of the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that trains young conservative activists: “The intention of many in academe is to evangelize left-wing ideas, but in effect what they’re doing is often the opposite: piquing interest in the other side.”
Katherine Ernst, a perky, blond, and diminutive recent NYU grad, confirms the point. Like many students I queried, Ernst already leaned right when she arrived on campus. But the left-wing propagandizing of her professors made her conservatism rock-solid. “One professor, right after September 11, gave a terrorist-sympathy speech that went, you know: ‘Oil, oil, oil, they’re poor, we take advantage of them, it’s really complicated, blah, blah, blah.’ It was something that I and many other students living in our financial-district dorm really enjoyed,” Ernst says acidly. “The worst professor I ever had, though, was for a course in administrative law,” she recalls. “Every class—no exaggeration—included at least five references to ‘Bush was selected.’ ” A final straw for Ernst came when a professor—“a for-real communist”—walked out of a class he was teaching “to take part in some stupid protest march.” So there you have it, says Ernst: “You pay thousands and thousands and the prof takes off to carry a no justice, no peace sign around Union Square Park. How could anybody exposed to this kind of stuff not become a raging right-winger?”
Chapel Hill journalism major Debra McCown would agree. At her school, she complains, the liberal profs tend to “ram their political views down students’ throats.” One incident particularly outraged her. “I watched as a classmate, required to attend class in his military uniform, sat there silently as the professor ranted about how every member of the U.S. military is a ‘baby-killer’ who enjoys violence—because what could he possibly say to a teacher who pronounced such things, with him sitting there in uniform?” Bucknell grad Tom Elliot (profiled in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article on young conservatives) experienced “quite a bit” of hostility in the classroom. “I was constantly singled out and made to look ridiculous—responsible for the right-wing ideas being lambasted by the professor that day,” he observes. Tufts’ Jordana Starr listens to her media and politics professor berate conservatives week after week: Bush’s reelection is the “apocalypse,” Bush is an evil draft dodger, ad nauseam.
The leftism that so angers these students includes the hey-ho-Western-civ-has-got-to-go theories that inform college courses from coast to coast. “In too many classrooms,” says former Reagan education secretary William Bennett, “radical professors teach their students that Western thought is suspect, that Enlightenment ideals are inherently oppressive, and that the basic principles of the American founding are not ‘relevant’ to our time.”
College course catalogs often read like satires. Want to study English lit at, say, Penn? Freshmen take introductory classes like “Secrecy and Sexuality in the Modern Novel,” taught by—no joke—Heather Love. In the course description, Dr. Love explains that “many of the books that we consider ‘great literature’ ”—the obligatory postmodern scare quotes signaling the supposed absurdity of the idea of aesthetic quality—“are noted as much for what they don’t say as for what they do.” Deconstructing Herman Melville and other dead white males, Dr. Love promises to uncover “what, if anything, they are hiding” about homosexuality, pederasty, and incest. That’s for first-year students. Dr. Love’s upper-level course “Theories of Gender and Sexuality” focuses on “reproductive rights; pornography, ‘sex work’ [prostitution in human-speak], and free speech; . . . and transgender activism,” among other themes that seem to have zilch to do with English lit. Other English majors get to explore “postcolonial literature” with Professor Cynthia Port, who relies on radical authors Edward Said and Frantz Fanon to “revise imperial narratives, challenge assumptions about identity and otherness, and scrutinize the politics of language.”
Want to learn history at Brown? “Europe
from Rome to the Eighteenth Century,” taught by
Professor Amy Remensnyder, will chart “the complex divisions” of various groups within European societies “according to gender, class, and ethnicity,” the holy trinity of postmodern intellectuals. “In the end,” says William Bennett, “the central problem is not that the majority of students are being indoctrinated (although some are) but that they graduate knowing almost nothing at all. Or worse still, they graduate thinking that they know everything.”
A student, conservative or otherwise, who doesn’t buy into the West-is-the-worst line can “have an awful time of it,” says Harvard junior Jordan Hylden. “It is quite difficult in fields like literature, anthropology, the social sciences, and even religion to even be informed,” he complains. “It’s like an ivory echo chamber, where only the ‘right’—subversive, anti-Western—ideas get a hearing.” Small wonder that enrollments in such fields have plummeted. The percentage of undergrad degrees in the humanities, nearly 21 percent in the mid-sixties, fell to 12 percent or so by the nineties and has never climbed back up.
Some conservative students stuck in a left-wing echo chamber keep their real views to themselves and parrot the “correct” line, fearing that otherwise they’ll get a low grade. One earnest Princeton freshman, for instance, had to write a paper on same-sex marriage, which he opposes, for a constitutional-law course taught by a pro-gay-marriage professor. “I radically altered my position to make it more in line with what my professor’s beliefs are on this topic and many others—and I know what those beliefs are, because she insists on starting each class with a diatribe covering any number of current political issues, in addition to mocking Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas consistently,” he says. A 2003 survey by the Independent Women’s Forum found that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of students had felt forced to check “their intellectual and philosophical honesty at the door in order to get good grades.” A brand-new American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey finds that half of all students—not just conservatives—at the top 50 colleges say that profs frequently inject their political views into courses, and almost one-third think that they have to agree with those views to get a good grade.
Such self-censorship may become rarer, thanks in large part to several national organizations whose efforts to bring diversity of thought to academe are starting to pay off. These groups help create right-of-center student clubs, and they sponsor conservative talks—giving students the self-assurance to express conservative views publicly and fostering campus dialogue. “There is no coercion or imposition going on,” Bucknell’s Mitchell editorialized in the Washington Times. Rather, a demand for conservative ideas “is simply being met by, you might say, intellectual entrepreneurs.”
Perhaps most significant is Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), founded in 2003 and already boasting 130 campus chapters. Its key initiative is a campaign for an “Academic Bill of Rights,” which enjoins universities not to deny tenure or fail to hire teachers solely because of their “retrograde” conservative politics, and to ensure that teachers keep their classes from becoming left-wing propaganda sessions. “What I’ve set out to do is to try to restore the educational principles that were in place before the generation of sixties leftists infiltrated the university and corrupted it by transforming it into an ideological platform,” explains founder David Horowitz. Legislation enacting variations of the bill is on the move in 19 states. In Colorado, state colleges adopted a version of the bill “voluntarily,” to prevent the legislature from imposing even tougher rules.
In lobbying for the bill of rights, SAF publicizes horror stories that its chapters gather: a Spanish instructor telling his class, “I wish George Bush were dead”; a public policy prof telling a student headed for a conservative conference in Washington, “Well, then, you’ll probably fail my course”; a law professor proclaiming, “We all know that the ‘r’ in Republican stands for racist”; and a criminology teacher who asked students on a test to explain why George Bush is a war criminal, and then gave an F to a student who answered that Saddam Hussein, not W, was the monster. Horowitz says that conservative kids have usually just accepted such classroom demagoguery. “They’re conservative, and their disposition is to suffer: ‘That’s just the way colleges are,’” Horowitz says. “What I’ve done as an ex-radical is to encourage them to see the injustices done to them as injustices—and do something about it.”
Needless to say, the university establishment is downright angry about SAF’s campaign—all the more so because it turns the Left’s own language of “diversity” and “rights” against it. The liberal American Association of University Professors, in textbook Orwellian fashion, declares the Academic Bill of Rights a “grave threat” to academic freedom. In Colorado, Horowitz recounts, “A student whose professor at a state school threw him out of class, saying, ‘I don’t want your right-wing views in my classroom,’ testified at a legislative hearing that the bill would be a good idea, since it would curtail that kind of behavior. Once the student gets away from the microphone, the chairman of the philosophy department from the state university in question comes up, jams the kid in the chest with his finger, and says, ‘I have a Ph.D. from Harvard, and I will sue your fucking ass if this bill passes.’ ” A legislator, overhearing the threat from this anti-Socrates, noted: “That’s exactly why we need this bill of rights.”
The idea of intellectual diversity seems to be catching on even where the Academic Bill of Rights hasn’t yet appeared. Consider Columbia University, currently embroiled in controversy because—as the New York Sun has reported—pro-Arab professors have promoted a venomously anti-Israel classroom agenda, jeering at students who disagree. In response, the liberal Columbia Daily Spectator, the school’s major undergraduate paper, called for greater political balance on the faculty. “By not having a conservative voice hawk its wares in the hue and cry of the academic marketplace, Columbia is failing its students,” the paper argued. “It should be self-evident that a faculty that speaks with unanimity on some of the most divisive issues of the day is not fulfilling its duty.”
SAF helps college kids resist classroom demagoguery, but where can a student go for teaching that doesn’t ignore or denounce conservative ideas or traditional learning but instead explores them sympathetically? Some students look to the new conservative media—talk radio, Fox News, the blogosphere. “Excluding one great economics professor, I learned more from listening to Rush Limbaugh every day than from all the NYU professors I’ve had,” says Katherine Ernst, not really joking. Several students told me that they read National Review Online and FrontPage daily as reality checks on their classes.
But if a student is really lucky, he’ll find a prof like Princeton political scientist (and City Journal contributor) Robert George, a rare conservative who not only survives but also thrives in academe. George has sparked
passionate intellectual interest among students. “Professor George’s stamp on our intellectual formation is unmistakable,” confided one. Students particularly admire George’s approach to intellectual debate. “For our papers,” says Duncan Sahner, the intensely serious editor of the Princeton Tory, the campus’s conservative magazine, “he stresses the need to engage in what he calls the ‘strongest possible lines of counterargument.’ Straw-man parries, he says, only hurt conservatism.” Moreover, Sahner adds, “His interactions with those who disagree with him are great examples of professional courtesy.”
George has also helped students expand their intellectual horizons through his fast-growing, four-year-old James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a model of liberal education in the old-fashioned sense. It runs high-level lectures by such conservative thinkers as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield, as well as such notable liberal scholars as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Michael Sandel. The program also enables George to appoint half a dozen
visiting Madison Fellows, whose ranks have
included such conservative lights as political scientists Angelo Codevilla and Hadley Arkes.
“All of a sudden,” says one Princeton faculty member, “you’ve got a critical mass of conservative adults on campus, and conservative views become live options for students.” And Princeton’s right-leaning students have formed a little platoon around the Madison Program—as I discovered when, on short notice on a crisp November day, George gathered 25 or so of them to speak with me in front of a roaring fireplace.
Since few schools—and even fewer elite schools—boast such profs and programs, other national groups have rushed in to supply some of what’s missing. The Virginia-based Young America’s Foundation (YAF), for example, sponsors more than 200 university lectures a year by leading conservatives such as Horowitz, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, and anti-feminist critic Christina Hoff Sommers. Every year, thousands of students attend YAF’s conferences on the principles of a free society, some held at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, which the group bought in 1998.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), founded in 1953 but reinvigorated in recent years, is perhaps the biggest force fighting the Left’s campus domination. It sponsors hundreds of conservative campus lectures a year, rooted in “the enduring Western intellectual patrimony” of political and economic liberty, limited government, the rule of law, moral truth, and personal responsibility. ISI’s talks are usually more highbrow than YAF’s: regular speakers include classicist (and City Journal contributing editor) Victor Davis Hanson and historian Forrest McDonald. Another key initiative from ISI: a series of short student guides, written by first-rate scholars such as John Lukacs (on history) and Gerald Bradley (on constitutional law), that show undergraduates how to educate themselves in the traditional academic disciplines. Hundreds of thousands are now in print. In addition, ISI provides a guide to colleges that, among other features, warns college applicants about the schools that are particularly PC and shows them how to find teachers committed to scholarship rather than indoctrination. Says Roger Kimball, whose pioneering Tenured Radicals exposed the Left’s campus stranglehold 15 years ago: “ISI is an indispensable ally in the fight against spurious claims to ‘diversity,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘enlightenment’ in the university, while also providing a beacon that serious students and scholars can follow with genuine profit. As Voltaire said about another supremely important fixture in the universe, if ISI did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.”
One of ISI’s biggest boosts to campus conservatism has been to expand the number of right-leaning student publications. For some $1 million a year on printing costs and journalistic training, ISI now boasts 85 or so member publications at schools ranging from elite Columbia and the University of Chicago to small community colleges—a 50 percent jump from just a few years ago. More than 800 kids currently work on the papers.
At their best, these publications mix serious analysis of both national and campus issues with impertinent anti-liberal humor. The Virginia Advocate at UVa is a good example. A recent issue featured a thoughtful interview with conservative critic Paul Cantor on popular culture, as well as the latest installment of a satirical
column written by “The Stinky Hippy” (a recurring complaint of right-of-center college kids). An autumn issue of the Stanford Review mock-reported on “The Penis Dialogues: A journey
of self-awakening . . . and penises”—but also
editorialized with sharp intelligence about “Musharraf’s Deception” in the war on terror.
The campus Left has greeted these publications with outrage. In 2003, at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, to take one prominent example, the Hawk’s Right Eye—judged by the College Republican National Committee the second-best conservative student paper in the country—published a spate of anti-PC articles, until university president Roy Nirschel charged that the paper had “crossed seriously over the lines of propriety and respect,” “flirted with racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric,” and—you guessed it—created a “hostile environment for our students and community.” The school froze $2,700 in campus funds granted to the paper. It was a “death blow” for the Hawk’s Right Eye, says editor Jason Mattera, silencing it for the year.
Student leftists, sometimes with the support of school officials, regularly try to shut down or shut up conservative student publications, practicing what civil libertarian Nat Hentoff calls “free speech for me and not for thee.” A few years ago, for instance, Cornell’s dean of students stood side by side with leftist students as they torched copies of the Cornell Review, which had run an article mocking Ebonics. An official university spokesman defended the burning
as “symbolic.” In 2003, Campus magazine reports, the liberal-controlled SUNY-Albany student
association, solely for political reasons, nixed student activity funds for the right-leaning College Standard Magazine—this, after the magazine had already faced months of harassment from the campus Left, including disruptions of its meetings by radical groups, thousands of copies stolen, and defacement of its display stands with anti-conservative threats. The magazine’s staff, claiming discrimination against their conservative ideas, won a ten-month court battle against the school to have funding restored.
Of course, conservative kids face the same social pressures that all college students do. So how do they fare on the campus social scene? It varies by school. Students I interviewed who attended southern schools said that right-of-center kids were in the majority and set the tone. Harris Martin, a University of Georgia history major who estimates that over 60 percent of students there tilt right, says, “The culture is a distinctly southern conservative one—hunting, football, big trucks and SUVs, camouflage, old baseball caps, fishing, country music, and southern rock.” At Clemson in South Carolina, says poli-sci junior Andrew Davis, “the typical student is Republican,” though most don’t care much about politics.
The more politically correct culture prevailing at other schools, especially the Ivies, can be a problem for conservative students. Several Princeton freshmen, for instance, believed that being seen as a conservative would make it harder for them to get into one of the school’s prestigious “bicker” eating clubs—key sources of social standing on a status-conscious campus, and the places to party. “I’ve avoided writing any major articles for the Tory, because I’m afraid it could hurt me when it reaches the time for me to bicker,” one freshman confessed. Two other students hesitated to talk with me for the same reason, while a third said that she, too, wouldn’t write for the Tory until she had made it into a selective club.
But for all the anxiety of the Princeton students, conservative kids on most campuses are eager to engage their liberal classmates (at least the ones who aren’t burning newspapers) and have sparked a genuinely two-sided conversation that so rarely occurs in the classroom. The University of Washington College Republicans, for example, hold regular debates with Young Democrats and other campus liberal groups. “I like to think that we’re talking to young people who may not have formed their views and convincing them that our views are right,” UDub chapter head Nick Dayton recently observed. The conversation can continue in the dorms. “My roommate and I used to spend hours watching old episodes of The West Wing,” says Yalie Nikki McArthur (currently doing an internship in Washington, D.C.). “She is as liberal as I am conservative, and we always had little political debates during the commercial breaks.”
Conservative students must also deal with the coed dorms and hookup sex, drink-till-you’re-blitzed parties, and general civilizational chaos of life at many schools—vividly described by author Tom Wolfe in his new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons—that liberal educators abetted and encouraged when they rejected any in-loco-parentis duties decades ago and began to celebrate the idea of college being a time of “experimentation” and “growth.” For some libertarian kids on the Right, the social scene is A-OK. “Say what you will about us,” enthuses “conservative libertarian” University of Michigan junior Ruben Duran, “we like to party! More than our fair share of sex, alcohol, rock and roll. Not so much drugs, though,” he adds helpfully. But for some conservative students, especially those from religious backgrounds, the bedlam can be unsettling.
Harvard’s Jordan Hylden, a conservative Protestant, finds Wolfe’s characterization of campus life “depressingly correct.” As well he might, given the dean-supervised tailgate party for the Harvard-Yale football game this November, so out-of-control with drunkenness, drugs, and nudity that it made headlines in the Boston Herald. “Today’s university is without morals or guiding principles, except one,” Hylden contends: “to follow in all things the ideal of ‘to thine own self be true’—individual desires, whatever they are, are affirmed, and the denial of these desires, by yourself or by another person or group, is the greatest possible evil.”
Some conservative students feel considerable pressure to “grow.” Jennifer Mickel, a pretty Princeton sophomore majoring in Near Eastern studies, is a Presbyterian from Monroe, Louisiana, and a moral traditionalist. She’ll drink a bit, but random hookups are a big no. And she gets flak for it. “Many of my girlfriends describe their sexual exploits in graphic detail and tell me that I need to get over my ‘penis fear,’ ” she confides. Many Princeton males, she says, expect sex, or at least “intimate preludes to it,” to follow
a conversation and a dance—and certainly a bite to eat. “I just don’t understand how boys and girls alike can throw around intimate acts so lightly,” Mickel laments. Things are different back in Monroe, where the rules of courtship still apply (a point made to me about their hometowns by several southern students). Lots of students, she says, do eventually get into serious, almost-married relationships at Princeton, but these often grow out of “repeated hookups.” “Perhaps, in a way, it’s like a new kind of dating,” Mickel reflects wryly.
“Binge drinking and hookups are pretty pervasive in collegiate culture,” says Vanderbilt’s Anne Malinee. “Generally, students across the political spectrum, even self-confessed conservatives, participate to some extent.” Recent Indiana University grad (and now law student) Joshua Claybourn agrees: “It’s not uncommon for me to hear, even among conservatives, something like this: ‘I don’t have time for a relationship, so of course I hook up,’ ” he reports. “And I can count on one hand, among the thousands of students I’ve met, those who refrain from drinking regularly.”
Helping students resist such pressures are a growing number of vigorous student religious groups, preaching moderation. College campuses nationwide have seen a “religious upsurge” over the last decade, the Christian Science Monitor reports. MIT, for example, is now home to 15 Christian fellowship groups—“a pretty stunning development for a university . . . where efficiency and rationality are embedded in the DNA of the cold granite campus,” notes the Boston Globe, making the typical liberal assumption that one can’t be both an Evangelical Christian and rational. A
new UCLA survey found that three-quarters
of college juniors say that religious or spiritual
beliefs have helped develop their identities, and
77 percent say that they pray.
The upperclassman leaders of these groups can set examples for younger students, as Princeton senior Renee Gardner, leader of Crossroads Christian Fellowship, tries to do with student drinking. “There’s certainly pressure on most students involved in the typical social scene to drink to excess,” says Gardner, whose conservative values proved no bar to her joining one of the top Princeton bicker clubs. “I’ve chosen—as have many Christian friends—to abstain from drinking in those contexts, not only to make it simpler for us to avoid blurring the line between acceptable and unacceptable levels of drinking, but also to make others feel more comfortable who might not want to drink.”
Conservatives still have a long, long way to go before they can proclaim the Left’s control over the campus broken. The professorate remains a solidly left-wing body, more likely to assign Barbara Ehrenreich than Milton Friedman, Michel Foucault than Michael Oakeshott, and nothing, not even David Horowitz’s indefatigable activism, is going to change that soon.
Nevertheless, thanks both to enterprising students and groups like ISI and SAF, the Left’s iron hold on academe is beginning to loosen. Anyone who cares about the education of our children—and the future political discourse of our country—can only cheer.