Notes from the Conservative Underground
Challenging politically hostile or apathetic college students isn’t easy. But it’s important, and it can be done. Across the country, students are banding together to publish alternative papers, sponsor contrarian speakers, conduct debates, get people reading conservative classics, and otherwise shake up the stale orthodoxies that muffle campus debate. Here are just a few reports from the field. These ISI student groups show that resistance isn’t futile.
Fighting Leftist Orthodoxy
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a hotbed of experimental leftism in an otherwise fairly conservative state. But the Carolina Review is pushing back.
In 2011 the Carolina Review—a member of ISI’s Collegiate Network of independent student publications—called attention to the university’s attempt to fire one of UNC’s few conservative professors. The paper’s reporting brought so much public pressure to bear that the professor kept his job.
The Carolina Review also exposed the efforts of Campus Y—part of the school’s official Division of Student Affairs—to lobby against a state constitutional amendment defending traditional marriage. Campus Y was improperly using the department’s Facebook account and UNC’s official website, as well as producing pamphlets at school expense.
Carolina Review editors have stood up to university officials too. When the Review investigated UNC’s finances, UNC’s general counsel spent six months stonewalling on a records request for one department’s budget—which the school was legally obliged to turn over. Finally, Carolina Review coeditor Anthony Dent published an op-ed in the local Raleigh News & Observer exposing the school’s obstructionism. The story prompted a state senator to revive a bill to strengthen the state’s freedom-of-information law. If it passes, the UNC system—and the state government as a whole—will be more accountable to taxpayers.
Yale’s Federalist Party
Yale’s reputation for liberalism is well earned. But a conservative subculture is thriving there, thanks in part to the Federalist Party of Yale. This ISI-affiliated club gathers students every week for Oxford-style debates that challenge the best and brightest to hone their thinking. The Federalists have debated such political topics as “Resolved: Cut the Safety Net” and philosophical themes like “Resolved: Natural Rights Are a Social Construct.” Federalist Party chairman Alexander Isper, who attended ISI’s Leadership Retreat in Mecosta, Michigan, has also brought stellar guest speakers to campus, including Cambridge historian Bella D’Abrera and ISI author James Kalb.
The Federalist Party has achieved a lot since its founding in 2010. In the fall of 2012, a member of the party was elected president of the Yale Political Union, one of the country’s oldest and most influential college political clubs.
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The Wabash Conservative Union
At Wabash College, one of the few remaining all-male campuses in the country, the ISI-sponsored Wabash Conservative Union brings together a diverse group of students to discuss ideas and events. The group also hosts speakers such as Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, who discussed science and liberal education in October 2012. And its alternative student paper, The Phoenix—another member of ISI’s Collegiate Network—has become a powerful voice at Wabash through its incisive editorials and analyses of campus controversies.
In September several members of the Conservative Union represented Wabash at the annual Front Porch Republic conference in Holland, Michigan, sponsored by ISI. These intrepid road warriors were excited to spend a long weekend learning political philosophy from some of America’s top scholars. The car was a bit heavier on the way back, since each student took home a pile of ISI books to read and share with friends.
The University of Virginia’s Burke Society
Named for Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, the University of Virginia’s Burke Society is dedicated to learning about the Right’s intellectual heritage and the foundations of ordered liberty. From its humble origins as a collection of five friends meeting and discussing topics of interest, this student group has grown into an influential presence at UVa—one that successfully fought for a much-needed university course on modern conservative thought.
With support from ISI, the Burke Society hosts a number of influential speakers, including Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War against Boys. The society’s more than thirty student members, led by ISI Honors Fellow Roraig Finney, also meet regularly for book discussions, presentations, and debates. Throughout the fall semester, members debated various currents within the conservative movement—libertarian, religious, neoconservative, etc. The in-depth discussions produced a deeper understanding of principles and a renewed sense of citizenship—precisely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he founded the University of Virginia.
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Patrick Henry College’s Alexis de Tocqueville Society
At Patrick Henry College, a small Christian college in Virginia, the Alexis de Tocqueville Society helps undergraduates investigate what it means to be a conservative in a postmodern age.
With the assistance of faculty adviser Dr. Mark Mitchell, ISI Books author and founding editor of the online journal Front Porch Republic, the Tocqueville Society brings in many outside speakers, such as historian Wilfred McClay, Notre Dame professor of architecture Philip Bess, Hillsdale College historian Richard Gamble, Pepperdine University historian Ted McAllister, and freed Sudanese slave Francis Bok, who drew a packed house for his report on the persistence of slavery around the world today. The true highlight for the Tocqueville Society comes after the guest lectures, when the visiting speakers host special seminars just for society members.
Because of its members’ serious interest in ideas, the Tocqueville Society has produced a number of ISI Honors Fellows over the years. Honors Fellows, chosen from a highly selective national competition, are treated to a yearlong program that kicks off in the summer with a weeklong intellectual retreat. Tocqueville Society members are also recruiting their fellow students to participate in ISI regional conferences—where they can meet and make connections with leaders in a wide array of disciplines and professions.