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Students return to colleges and universities this month, and conservatives would have us believe that these impressionable young learners are entering one of the great leftist strongholds – where doctrinaire liberalism, anti-conservative slander, and overweening political correctness go uncontested.

But are students really under siege from liberalism? Or is "liberal bias" on campus the same as "liberal bias" in the media – a conscious weapon of self-promotion that falsely portrays conservatives as victims of leftist orthodoxy?

A look at campuses today suggests we've been duped. Increasingly, it is an organized conservative movement that sets the agenda on campus.

Over 30 years, the organized right wing has built a powerful campus machine. A dozen right-wing institutions now spend nearly $40 million each year pushing their agenda to students. Conservative foundations channel tens of millions more for academic programs, fellowships and professorships. All these efforts have buffed an intellectual sheen over conservative ideology, lured students into the conservative fold, brought press attention to conservative causes, and created new conservative media stars – the Ann Coulters whose shouted distortions now dominate the grown-up airwaves.

The three largest groups – Young America's Foundation (YAF), Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), and Leadership Institute – spent roughly $25 million on campus outreach last year. YAF subsidized some 200 campus lectures by celebrity right-wing speakers. ISI spent nearly $1 million supporting 80 conservative campus publications and $9 million publishing books and periodicals for college conservatives. The Leadership Institute, run by former Reagan aide Morton Blackwell (recently in the news at the GOP convention for handing out Band-Aids mocking John Kerry's military service), boasts a record 3,562 graduates from its leadership trainings last year.

Aided by this national infrastructure, young conservatives have become the most adept self promoters on campus. They embrace a minority status and use it to their advantage.

One example of their campus hijinks occurred last year on about a dozen campuses, when right wing students held "affirmative action bake sales," in which the price of a brownie was determined by a student's race, gender and religion. Some nervous school authorities shut down the bake sales after students took offense – precisely the reaction conservative organizers likely sought. Rather than doing anything constructive to advance discussion on race and equal opportunity, the conservatives took a cheap shot in order to claim they were the innocent victims of political correctness. Like such stunts in the past, the bake sales, skillfully promoted by trained campus operatives, generated substantial media coverage.

No comparable infrastructure exists for progressive students. While surveys show that today's college students remain somewhat more progressive than adults overall, progressive efforts are not as organized or well-funded as efforts on the right.

National environmental and civil rights groups, among others, have built solid campus presences, and students occasionally build a national campaign around a pressing issue. But these efforts wax and wane, and progressive students are separated into various issue "silos." There is little sense of unity — and insufficient effort to counter the conservative focus on strengthening and communicating ideas. Progressive campus publications tend to be underfunded or nonexistent. The College Democrats are less organized and less well-funded than the College Republicans.

The Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the student arm of the Sierra Club, is one of the leading campus groups. The three person SSC staff services a network of 150 environmentally-concerned college chapters on a budget of just $350,000.

Some people argue the left doesn't need organizations like YAF to bolster campus progressives because universities themselves perform that function.

But the reality is otherwise. Look at other examples of a new conservative upstart taking on the supposedly liberal establishment: Fox News Channel as the rival to CNN; the Heritage Foundation as rival to the Brookings Institution; Rush Limbaugh and NPR, etc= In fact, while the new right wing institutions are steadfastly extreme, older establishment institutions, far from being liberal beacons, often strive to be perceived as balanced, or are themselves increasingly conservative.

American colleges and universities are no exception. With administrators more and more dependent on corporate largesse to fund research and build buildings, universities often behave like congressmen seeking re-election in a swing district – pleasing their benefactors and never swaying too far from the center.

There is little doubt that liberals occupy a larger number of professorships than conservatives, but this fact alone says little about political discrimination in the classroom. Robert Frost once wrote, "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel."

Instead of relaxing in the glow of the myth that liberal values rule our campuses, progressive students should assert themselves, communicating what they stand for with a coherent and compelling message.

But earnest students can't do this alone.

A national effort to work with college and university students on the substance, intellectual foundation, and communication of progressive ideas is needed.

Conservatives have understood one simple fact: You cannot secure and expand a lasting movement without resources to keep it alive from generation to generation. Progressives say they understand that, too. The question is whether they make it a priority.

Ben Hubbard is the campus programs director and David Halperin is a special adviser at the Center for American Progress.

An abbreviated version of this column originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 12, 2004.

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