Amy Binder: Conservative organizations and the suspicion of higher education

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By Amy J. Binder

Perhaps no one in America better personifies the political attacks on higher education than the governor of Wisconsin and would-be Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker. In the years since he took office, Walker has managed to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from public universities in his state and diminished job protections for professors, among other actions.

Walker may have a personal ax to grind with higher education, but it would be a mistake to think that he — or other politicians who attack public higher education — simply harbors individual grudges. Rather, for many years now “dark money” has paved the way for politicians’ symbolic, political, and material attacks on higher education. There are many familiar individuals’ and organizational names funding these attacks — John Olin, David and Charles Koch, the Heritage Foundation — all of whom have had a hand in crafting the talking points that Republican governors and legislatures use in the battle plans they employ.

Now that “dark money” has become a better known story, it’s an opportune moment to think about the ways this agenda has potentially influenced the wider public’s regard for higher education. For decades, a handful of organizations has been working in the trenches with conservative college students. With their emphasis on liberal indoctrination and conservative victimhood on college campuses, these organizations have fostered student activism and suspicion about higher education, which have created fertile soil in which larger-scale political attacks on higher education can germinate and grow. I would venture that they have contributed to undermining confidence in the higher education enterprise, even among those who are reaping its benefits—college grads.

The Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization founded in the late 1960s, now boasted more than $59 million in assets in 2014, and had expenditures of approximately $20 million that same year. Annual expenditures at YAF include organizing campus speaking tours for conservative luminaries such as Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, and many, many others. When not sending speakers to the nation’s campuses, the YAF brings conservative students to it, at regional and national conferences every year. But whether speakers come to campus, or students go to conferences, the Foundation fuels a provocative style. Enticed with such slogans depicting faculty as tree-hugging, gun-taking, wealth-hating, and leftist-loving, students are taught in “boot camps” to fight “persecution” on campus with an “activist mentality confronting their liberal peers and professors head-to-head with “aggressive” tactics. Students take up the charge by staging showy events like “Affirmative Action Bake Sales” and “Catch an Illegal Alien Day.” This provocative style of right-wing activism is designed to poke fun at liberals, get them angry, and attract the media spotlight, and it is based on, and fosters, mistrust of faculty, classmates, and administrators. A staff member at Young America’s Foundation specifically said his organization went after Average Joe students — or, not the ones who attend Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

Another organization, called the Leadership Institute, had $30 million in assets in 2015, and spent nearly $14 million last year supporting conservative students online, on campus, and in their training facilities in Arlington, Virginia. The organization claims to keep a database of “leftist faculty” and “biased textbooks” on some 2,000 campuses, and it has trained tens of thousands of college students over the past four decades to enter politics and use advanced technology to get the conservative message out. One former employee of the Leadership Institute is James O’Keefe, the videographer who produced heavily edited, undercover audio and video recordings with workers at ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, all of which went viral on the alt-right Breitbart.com. While at the Leadership Institute, and like the organization’s other field representatives, O’Keefe traveled to campuses across the nation consulting with students on starting clubs and conservative newspapers.

Like the Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute also gets better traction at public universities, where it delivers a coordinated message to students: You are under siege on your liberal campus, you should not trust your professors, your educational institutions do not favor students like you, and you must use aggressive tactics to counteract the discrimination. They spread mistrust about higher education not only to the conservative activists with whom they work closely, but to other students on campus who may pick up the newspapers they sponsor or events they fund.

Right-leaning students who do not fit the “Joe Average” profile of these two organizations find support elsewhere. The best-known national organization nurturing this disposition is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or ISI, founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley. ISI advertises itself as the premiere organization for the “best and the brightest” among conservative students. It offers seminars on moral and political philosophy (which ISI’s leaders say are lacking on campus), while also providing networking and internship opportunities at the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and other such media. Ross Douthat, the op-ed writer for the New York Times, was a member of the 2002 class at ISI while he attended Harvard, and is now a speaker for the organization. ISI’s 2015 assets totaled “only” $11 million, according to its website.

It’s important to think about how the conservative styles students are learning now on their campuses and national organizations may have an impact on their ideas about higher education and politics later. At YAF and the Leadership Institute, staff encourage students to turn against higher education: to regard college campuses with suspicion about political correctness, multiculturalism, wastefulness, and elitism. This may help explain why even college-educated conservatives can have such a dim view of higher education—alongside voters with lower education levels—and will support cutting funding to it.

What can be done about this situation—is it possible to minimize provocation and misgivings about higher education today to salvage politics about public higher education tomorrow? I think so, but short of a gigantic political watershed, it will be important for faculty and administrators on individual campuses to figure out what they can do to help.

I would not advise university leaders to bar outside speakers and organizations from campus. It’s unconstitutional and it backfires: One need only read about the martyred David Horowitz or Milo Yiannopoulos to see what happens when administrators try to keep incendiary provocateurs away from colleges and universities. Futhermore, there are some speakers associated with the Young America’s Foundation, and even more so in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who offer students greater diversity in discourse, which can deepen their connections to higher education.

Rather, university administrators and faculty — the most immediate targets of the conservative organizations’ attacks — need to be clear-eyed that higher education skepticism is being fomented on their campuses, and they must think about ways to create and strengthen organizational structures that can help all students, including those who identify as conservatives, feel connected to their university and part of a larger community. Helping students who now feel alienated from campus to feel more integrated helps give the lie to the discourse about “elitist, persecuting, alienating, wasteful” colleges.

I am not talking about university leaders creating cultures of “school spirit”—which can actually have negative effects and add to the sense of “fun” students being confrontational, often at black and Latino students’ expense. What I am talking about is bolstering mundane, but very important, organizational arrangements on university campuses, like a lower student-to-faculty ratio. And if this isn’t possible because of funding cuts, making sure that there are more staff on campus whether in residential life, admissions, or administration, who are responsible for getting to know students and who can serve as mentors and advisors to them. Such relationships bind students to campus and build rapport.

It also means challenging students to think of themselves more as members of an intellectual, or smart, community of peers, where they can try out and refine their political ideas with others. This means more emphasis on engaged teaching, more office hours, more faculty connection to students, more efforts at role modeling what it looks like to appreciate, but also constructively critique, one’s campus.

It means building more on-campus housing at public universities, which anchors students in more heterogeneous living situations than when they are allowed to pick their own housemates off-campus and live farther away in more atomized living arrangements.

It means that faculty and graduate student TAs should be highly circumspect about slipping into raw political partisanship in their classes, which alienates conservative and also moderate students.

If university faculty, administrators, and staff are intentional in using the funding they do have to strengthening a sense of community for undergraduates on their campuses, then this is one means for shaping experiences that run counter to public attacks on higher education. Universities play a large role in shaping student identities, and in this case, the types of organizational commitments I have mentioned can counteract the identities sponsored by conservative organizations. With some of these campus-level fixes, at the very least we would have a greater number of conservative alumni who cognitively cannot recognize the caricature of public higher education that conservative politicians and their allies make about their university.

BinderAmy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton) and Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.