When I arrived at the University of Georgia as a freshman in the fall of 2012, I quickly discovered that there was no forum for center-right thought on campus.
So in May 2013, I gathered with a handful of undergraduates to give voice to intellectual conservatism on campus. We decided to found a campus publication modeled after magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard. Our publication, the Arch Conservative, quickly flourished as we exposed the shenanigans of the campus Left. We used journalism as a tool to foster a strong community of liberty-minded students and professors, and to bring true intellectual diversity to UGA by introducing our left-leaning peers to conservative ideas and hosting prominent conservative speakers.
In the fall of 2014 the Arch Conservative became a member of the inaugural class of ISI Societies, which provided us with the funding and network we needed to continue our growth.
Bring a Conservative Voice to Your Campus
If you're hoping to foster intellectual diversity and bring together like-minded students, the first thing you need to do is determine the particular needs of your home campus, and then form a group specifically to fill that niche. Knowledge of your campus climate is key: every college, from Ivy League schools to large public universities to small liberal arts academies, has a different way of grappling with the Great Ideas of the West.
At the University of Georgia, conservative thought finds a wider audience than at many peer institutions. After all, we’re the chief public university in a red state. Even if students don’t profess political conservatism, their personal values often align with the ideas our ISI Society is interested in reviving. Even the surrounding town of Athens, though undeniably left-leaning, celebrates community and intellectual inquiry in music, art, and entrepreneurship.
So when my classmates and I decided to bring a serious conservative voice to campus, it helped knowing UGA had a ready audience. We designed the Arch Conservative to provide local journalism with a brash energy and to stand on convictions and without taking itself too seriously. ISI’s Collegiate Network provided design and layout resources, grants for printing magazines, and an Editors Conference that connected us to sister publications and kindred spirits across the country.
Following our first print issues and regular online content, students at UGA began to look to the Arch Conservative for a thoughtful interpretation of campus events, rooted in enduring principles. My colleagues and I covered campus “hate speech” crimes, vandalism of Students for Life posters, gubernatorial gaffes, the Athens mayoral race, local tech entrepreneurship, and more. Several stories were picked up by national news outlets, including our objections to the Georgia Board of Regents’ decision to ban tobacco at state schools and a university-sponsored field trip to Planned Parenthood.
For all the successes during our first year of publication, we were made less headway in forming the enduring community we had envisioned. One challenge we confronted was a general lack of familiarity with the intellectual tenets of the Western tradition—an area of growth for us student leaders also. We responded to this need by starting a debate and discussion group to complement the print and online publication.
Empower Your Group
I learned that the ISI Societies would be modeled on the Collegiate Network program from which the Arch Conservative had already benefited. Student groups nationwide would compete for ISI’s funding and mentoring through an application process. To be considered as an ISI Society, my UGA colleagues and I had to develop a business plan and projected budget for the following school year, including plans for guest speakers and group discussions. We needed to have a faculty adviser, leadership structure, and succession plan in place, and we needed to have recruited enough members to sustain regular meetings. In other words, ISI was looking for groups that could be permanent presences at their schools, not fizzle after a couple of meetings (something that happens all too often amid the hectic pace and many distractions of college life).
In the late spring of 2014 the Arch Conservative was among the thirty Societies whose grant applications ISI accepted. Since then, the Arch Conservative Society has been thriving. Our group gathers regularly over pizza and sweet tea to discuss conservative ideas and campus events. We have hosted supportive UGA faculty and local journalists, enjoying lively conversation about state politics, energy and transportation policy, and Atlanta charter schools. We have held film screenings, laughing along with the moral clarity of Groundhog Day and puzzling over the more arcane scenes in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Events like this have attract participants from beyond the Arch Conservative’s editorial team while stimulating discussion and like-minded community, even if our fellow students are not interested in journalism.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the impact an ISI Society can have on campus discourse than the debate we hosted in March between two nationally known journalists, Zach Carter of the Huffington Post and Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner. Generously sponsored by ISI and the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, the debate asked the question “Which better serves the poor: Uncle Sam or free enterprise?” The event attracted more than fifty attendees from outside our membership, and for most it was their first exposure to a serious discussion of humane economics: Carter provided a philosophical defense of governmental regulation of markets, while Carney showed the human flourishing possible under a laissez-faire economy. One student told me she discussed the arguments with a friend for an hour afterward, and several others took ISI books to read after the event.
Keeping the Dialogue Alive
Every student leader I’ve talked to could tell a different story about the value of ISI programming on his or her campus. For some, the Collegiate Network has equipped students to write well and respond with thoughtful conviction to illiberal progressivism. For others, ISI conferences and seminars have introduced them to the intellectual tradition behind their beliefs. Now, for a new generation of undergraduate scholars, the ISI Societies program offers the friendship of local communities with the training of the mind that endures beyond college.
We were able to bring intellectual diversity and community to UGA. I'm confident that you can do the same for your campus, too.
Elizabeth Ridgeway is a junior at the University of Georgia. She is publisher of the Arch Conservative and secretary of the Arch Conservative Society, both sponsored by ISI.
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