On Wednesday, July 13 the Center for American Progress holds one of our most important programs since our launch: the first Campus Progress National Student Conference. More than 600 young people from across America will gather in Washington for a full day to discuss critical issues; learn policy, advocacy, and media skills; and hear from a wide range of speakers.
Why are we doing this? After all, it's accepted as a given among much of the media and public that American campuses are lock-step liberal indoctrination centers, where lonely conservative students struggle to express their views. Noting these perceptions, journalist Howard Kurtz recently asked about Campus Progress, the Center for American Progress's new effort to support progressive students, “Isn't that a bit like pumping sand into the Mojave Desert?”
But the reality on campus is very different than the popular perception – and it is rapidly tilting rightward. Conservatives, now dominant in government, seem to be aiming for control of remaining frontiers. Today there is strong evidence of an intensified conservative effort to grab the upper hand in the campus world.
Conservatives already have spent 30 years intensively organizing on campuses and now spend over $35 million annually pushing their agenda to students, with support for student publications, visiting speaker programs, training sessions, and mega-conferences. A recent newspaper story highlighted the paid jobs, free dorms, and sumptuous food the conservative Heritage Foundation lavishes on its summer interns. Conservative funders spend tens of millions more for academic chairs and fellowships. Conservative activists have led a persistent effort to eliminate affirmative action programs that enhance campus diversity.
All of these efforts have created a well-known new generation of younger conservative leaders – the Ann Coulters, Dinesh D'Souzas, and Sean Hannitys who dominate the agenda. Meanwhile, a Washington, D.C. coalition meeting of progressive groups on any given issue is likely to be directed by the same people who led those meetings 20 years ago.
No one doubts, and polling shows, that the majority of students and other youth tilt progressive. But that margin vanishes as young people get older, in part because conservatives are effectively investing in, and promoting, new generations. Progressives – not so much.
Now conservatives are doing even more to deepen their influence over campuses. For example:
• Right-wing activist David Horowitz moves across the country lobbying state legislatures and university overseers for a so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” aimed at having the government regulate the content of professors' teaching – dictating what professors must teach and what they cannot teach.
• Conservative campus groups joined with conservative media and politicians seeking to tar all “liberal” faculty with a bizarre statement by an obscure Colorado professor, Ward Churchill, and dragged out that controversy for weeks.
• James Piereson, long-time director of the conservative Olin Foundation, announced that when the foundation finishes distributing its assets this year, he plans to create new efforts to counter liberal influence in academia. He told a reporter, "There are some people who are prepared to spend large sums of money to address this problem."
Now clearly, liberals do predominate in college and university faculties. That shouldn't surprise anyone: Academic inquiry, and modest faculty salaries, tend to attract liberal minds, just as, say, tobacco industry lobbyist positions tend to attract conservatives.
But ask students whether most of their liberal professors spend their time working with them to organize for political change on electoral reform or clean energy. Most professors focus on their scholarship, or perhaps their classroom skills. Sometimes it takes a determined, organizing effort from outside to connect like-minded students and professors on a campus for extracurricular efforts to discuss real-world issues and work for change. Conservatives have done this effectively; progressives haven't.
Nor does liberalism drive policy in the university president's office. Administrators, increasingly dependent on corporate support and fearful of skilled conservative message machines, often bow to conservative pressure these days.
Finally, campus conservatives have concentrated on building a united, cohesive movement, bound by common values. Young progressive activists, meanwhile, are separated into single issue groups or pursue party politics; they rarely find common ground.
As a result of all this, it is conservatives who are winning the battle of ideas on campus these days. Progressives have been out-hustled and need to fight back – with serious, comprehensive efforts to strengthen progressive voices among young people and to empower new generations of leaders. If progressives do not step up to meet these challenges, they risk widening the conservative advantage for many decades to come.
That's why the Center for American Progress launched Campus Progress.
It is an indication of the importance of this work that President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote address at our July 13 conference. Other speakers will include Rep. John Lewis, Paul Begala, Thomas Frank, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Dee Dee Myers, Carol Browner, Rolling Stone cartoonist David Rees, rock musician Ted Leo, and NBA athlete Adonal Foyle. The program also will feature journalists from the New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Village Voice, American Prospect, Washington Monthly, and Vibe Magazine; leaders from U.S. unions, religious groups, and top non-profits; outstanding staff from the Center for American Progress; and many up-and-coming young leaders. You can access the full conference schedule here.
We've organized a number of events around the conference to make this program even more valuable for attendees – a second-day intensive training program for 60 student journalists; a lobby day on Capitol Hill for students pressing Congress to act on Sudan; a screening of a vital new film on sex education and gay rights in a Texas community; a lunchtime speaking program on campaign finance reform; and social/networking events to connect this community of students.
The conference attendees represent a broad spectrum – young people of different backgrounds, faiths, schools, hometowns, and areas of interest. This is the first step in building a movement of young progressives that is better informed, better trained, more diverse, and more united than any generation before.
Campus Progress already has involved thousands of young people, and it gains momentum every day:
- We help students make their voices heard on key issues, for example:
· We supported student mock filibusters at Princeton, other campuses, and in Washington to protest the nuclear option and extremist judicial nominees.
· We worked with students in Rhode Island and Ohio to hold debates on the John Bolton nomination.
· Working with our Center for American Progress colleagues, we support the efforts of the student-led Genocide Intervention Fund to aid the people of Sudan.
With all of these efforts by Campus Progress, we are seizing an opportunity to reverse the rightward trend on campus and turn the tide in a progressive direction.
David Halperin is the director of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.