Ask most people to name a marginalized minority in need of support, and
you'll probably get answers like Native Americans, single mothers on welfare or perhaps even a Republican senator who voted against impeachment. Ask David Kalstein, however, and you'll get a very different answer: conservative college students.
If you're thinking anyone who believes conservatives are a marginalized
minority needs their head examined, you haven't spent much time on a college
campus recently. On campuses across the country, small but vocal groups of conservative students are organizing to demand the respect they claim they have been denied by the liberal majority. Thousands of right-leaning young people have joined this radical -- or is it reactionary? -- cause, fed up with what Kalstein, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and the editor of Campus, a nationally distributed conservative newspaper, describes as "abuses and bullying on the part of faculty, radical student groups and university administrators."
In their self-description as young radicals fighting the good fight against an oppressive administration, Kalstein and his conservative brethren seem to be
positioning themselves as the modern-day equivalent of the New Left of the
'60s. Yet the vast majority of politically active students in the '60s were mostly left to their own organizational devices. (Even charges that the young revolutionaries were being guided and bankrolled by Soviet agents only applied to a tiny minority of the student population.) But in 1999, those who fancy themselves Enemies of the State have numerous foundations whose sole purpose is to support them in their fight against the purported liberal hegemony. Which leads to the question: Are campus radicals like David Kalstein a product of the universities they are aligned against or the foundations on which they depend?
Although such chicken-and-egg questions remain under debate, it's undeniable that conservative foundations are playing an increasingly powerful role in shaping conservative student activism. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), one of the most prominent of such groups, funds more than 60 "alternative" (i.e. conservative) newspapers at top colleges around the
country, as well as the aforementioned Campus, which has a circulation of
250,000 and a cover price of $0. Along with similar organizations, most notably the Young America's Foundation (YAF), ISI pays for prominent conservative speakers like Dinesh D'Souza and Oliver North to speak at campuses across the country, arranges all-expenses-paid organizing seminars for conservative students and funds a number of student fellowships. Located on private estates named after benefactor F.M. Kirby, both ISI and YAF operate with budgets estimated to be upwards of $5 million.
Such money may be going toward a worthwhile cause, if you buy the
description of contemporary college life these organizations and their members
present. As depicted by conservatives, institutions of higher learning seem
practically Orwellian in the way they attempt to mold students. A recently
published book by Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate, "The Shadow University,"
brings together many of these accusations in a 320-page attack on the modern
university's "hidden, systematic assault upon liberty, individualism, dignity,
due process and equality before the law." Kors and Silvergate claim that
cases such as UCLA's suspension of a student editor for running an anti-affirmative action cartoon and the University of Massachusetts' optional separate residence halls for students of color demonstrate the existence of "a tyranny that seeks to assert absolute control over the souls, the conscience and the individuality of our students."
Conservative activists don't confine their outrage to the pervasive liberality of student life; they're just as vehement in their attack on curriculums gone wild. YAF is the leader in this department with its annual report, "Comedy and Tragedy," which chronicles -- with Starr-esque precision -- classes at 55 top colleges with "a preoccupation with race, sex and class" and "a virulent prejudice against Western culture, the United States, the free market and religion." The report reads like it was prepared by a computer programmed to find any course with a non-conservative term in the title, resulting in seemingly important classes like the University of Virginia's "Marx" being listed alongside those arguably less essential courses such as DePaul's "Rock Journalism."
Although neither ISI nor YAF are new organizations (the former is
celebrating its 45th anniversary), both have grown significantly in prominence in the past few years. They have developed not only sophisticated campus outreach programs, but also strong public relations efforts that have garnered increased media attention. One telling example involved an introductory English class at Swarthmore College that taught a book that addressed homosexuality and AIDS in a graphic manner. YAF used the incident to get papers around the country to run stories about the "filth" that now passes for literature on college campuses. (Fanning the media flames, the group misrepresented the book as being taught in a class mandatory for English majors, which it was not.)
Such successes have resulted in skyrocketing budgets and resources for both groups. Young America's Foundation recently used some of those resources to acquire
the Reagan Ranch in California, a longtime retreat of the former president
and patron saint of young conservatives. The group plans to preserve it as a "historic site" and to use it as the setting for its new Ronald Reagan
Leadership Development Program.
Like David Kalstein, Richard Delgado, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, is also angry about political influences on campus today. Yet for Delgado, the most dangerous influences are not "PC Nazis" imposing their liberal agenda on the young, but groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Young America's Foundation.
Delgado is part of a growing backlash among academics who believe that to whatever extent higher education has fallen, conservative foundations have pushed it. In his book "No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda," Delgado and co-author Jean Stefancic argue that conservative groups have used superior media relations, strategic thinking and, of course, monetary resources to move public opinion in their direction and depict liberalism in an unfair light. Delgado sees the growth of ISI, YAF and their brethren not as a response to a liberal takeover, as such groups claim, but as part and parcel of the larger swing toward conservatism of the past 25 years.
"Campus wars," as Delgado calls them, "are just one visible part of the
struggle conservatives are waging, with the aid of money and brains -- think
tanks and foundations -- to shift America's social agenda radically to the
right." He admits that most college students and professors are liberal
compared to the dominant conservative strain in the nation, but reminds us
that it all depends on perspective.
"If you are a social reformer," he points out, "colleges may not look
very liberal to you. Most are happy to cooperate with the military-industrial
complex ... [they] contain tiny numbers of faculty and students of color and seek corporate support for chairs and programs with little regard for how that
money was made."
Delgado grants that in the '60s, conservative students might have had reason to call themselves a "marginalized minority," but now that claim makes him balk. They have "their own campus organizations, newspapers, leadership training institutes, internships at major newspapers and congressional offices and access to funding," he says.
David Kalstein might think he knows what it's like to be a marginalized
minority, but he hasn't met Hillary Thompson. Thompson is a senior at
Swarthmore College, a school with fewer than 1,400 students and about 10
active and "out" conservatives. As one of a tiny number of conservative
activists on a campus where liberal politics are as safe an assumption as
Christianity at Oral Roberts University, Thompson faces an uphill battle just
to make her voice heard, let alone listened to and understood.
Swarthmore has a long history of liberal dominance, which is why in the past decade YAF and ISI have poured tens of thousands of dollars into it to bring
speakers, support the school's Conservative Union and fund the conservative
newspaper. For both ISI and YAF, this "crusade carried out at Swarthmore College" (in YAF's zealous language) seems to be banking on the notion that where human advocates are too few to create a crowd's roar, money can speak volumes instead.
But perhaps what's most interesting about Thompson is not her status as an endangered species, but the fact that she deplores the groups who have invested so much in helping students like her survive.
As president of the Conservative Union, former editor of Common Sense, Swarthmore's conservative paper, and an attendee at numerous ISI conferences, Thompson has often benefited from such groups' financial largesse. But as someone who has been trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to puncture a hole in Swarthmore's dominant liberal culture, Thompson no longer appreciates such groups' expenditures and advice. "Their ways of convincing the typical student," she says, "are dodgy at best."
According to Thompson, the only thing matched by the extravagant perks lavished by conservative foundations on student-activists -- at conferences, all expenses are paid and an open bar is provided with no I.D. check -- is the groups' complete inability to do anything on college campuses but intensify resentment toward conservatives.
The "political tactics" she's heard touted at conferences have made her increasingly disillusioned. One young woman, according to Thompson, never used to go to church, but discovered in college that it "made people angry" and began attending every week just to piss off liberals. Editors of another conservative paper decided to mock their campus's "wear jeans if you support gay rights" day with a call for a "wear sneakers if you support the KKK" day.
Although these examples might seem extreme, Thompson insists that they spring from the generally hostile, "us vs. them" attitude that ISI encourages. "There is definitely a focus not on principles and not on the person's beliefs," she
says, "but on a backlash against the liberal organizations on campus."
As the editor of ISI's flagship publication, Kalstein has a different assessment of conservative foundations' effectiveness and
usefulness. "ISI and YAF," he says, "provide a much-needed outlet for
students to be exposed to viewpoints that they normally do not hear about in
For Thompson, however, whatever solace she might have found in attending
conferences where she could share war stories with fellow beleaguered
conservatives is not worth the frustration anymore. She no longer plans to
attend any ISI events and has written an article blasting conservative foundations' work on college campuses, which she hopes to publish in the next issue of Swarthmore's liberal paper (the editor of Common Sense declined to print it, for obvious reasons).
"I need to give fellow students arguments that they can't dismiss," says
Thompson, explaining her decision to bite the hand that feeds her.
It's often said that if you want to know what an organization's true motives
are, you need only follow the money. Both ISI and YAF are funded primarily by
conservative individuals and foundations, including such prominent names as conservative philanthropist and anti-Clinton crusader Richard Mellon Scaife, whose foundations donated a whopping $925,000 to ISI in 1997.
What exactly this tells us about these groups' "real" intentions depends, of
course, on whom you ask. Richard Delgado sees their goals as quite obvious: "To
turn our institutions to the right, limit government and regulation ... and
strengthen religion, patriotism and similar traditional values."
Hillary Thompson, cynical about conservative foundations' ability to
actually do anything, says their purpose is "simply a continued existence for their organization."
And, of course, David Kalstein, ever the optimist, says that "what ISI
does is provide a non-indoctrinary, extracurricular means to cultivate [students']
To really understand an organization's purpose, however, perhaps it's best to go right to the source. When YAF reaches out to donors, its call is
simple, clear and direct: "Young America's Foundation reaches society's most
impressionable audience. Many college students are away from home for the
first time. These 17- and 18-year-olds are open to new ideas and new
experiences ... Those who make the effort, invest the most money and
talents, will have the most influence on this age group. Conservatives need to
be competitive or we will suffer an irreparable loss."