Progressive and Conservative Campus Activism

Executive Summary

U.S. colleges and universities have a long tradition of political activism. They are centers of intellectual activity in which concentrations of young people live in close proximity and can experience new ideas and constructs about the world. The public expects that our campuses will erupt from time to time in response to national and international crises, but many are surprised when they do.

Today's common wisdom is that conservative students are more effective on campuses than progressives, since conservative organizations provide more financial support and organizational assistance to students than do progressive groups. To what extent is this true? Political Research Associates (PRA) conducted a study of campus activism in the United States in 2003. We wanted to know how politically involved today's college students are. What issues are student activists using to mobilize their peers? Who influences the direction of campus activism? And what happens to activists once they graduate?

Using the tools of social movement theory, PRA examined both conservative and progressive campus activists and their organizations and observed the impact of the social movements from the larger society on student groups at eight representative schools. Such a comparative analysis provided a way for us to observe the relative influence of the two major social movements on the range of political activity on these campuses.

Project staff compiled an advisory committee of experts on the study of campus activism, conducted an in-depth literature review, chose eight representative schools, identified key student leaders, and faculty and staff, interviewed 86 individuals on- campus during 2003, and received completed questionnaires from 20 interns or young staffers. We held a colloquium on a draft of this report for a select group of advisors and incorporated many of their recommendations into this final version.

Our findings are summarized as follows:

Energetic college students all over the country are engaged in campus-based activism, but their numbers are small.

Although both conservative and progressive students organize on campus, the sum total of activist students is small compared to the overall student population. Progressive organizations out- number conservative groups by a 4:1 ratio, with a range of issue-specific groups being the norm for progressives and a single, general conservative organization the core of conservative campus strength. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, almost equal numbers of first-year students identified as progressive and conservative in 2003: 27% as progressive, and 23% as conservative. Perhaps just as relevant is the fact that 50% of first-year students label themselves independent or unaffiliated.

Campus activists are confronted with the challenge of mobilizing the vast majority of students who have other priorities besides political activity. Despite unpromising odds, small numbers of campus activists create and often sustain a wide range of campaigns, representing various perspectives on issues related to the environment, labor, reproductive rights, free speech, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people, multiculturalism, and the war. When major issues emerge, as they did in 2003, like the war in Iraq and affirmative action in university admissions, activists are able to generate a high level of student interest and mass mobilizations.

Conservative and progressive students approach activism differently.

Because there are fewer conservative organizations on campus, usually a core group of activists coordinates campaigns across several issues. Progressives tend to maintain an array of issue-based organizations that do not regularly function with a coordinated strategy unless they create a coalition of progressive groups.

Conservatives' shared view of themselves as being in the minority and enduring a hostile environment on campus shapes their public education and political activity. They tend to use "fortress reasoning," focusing on the need to protect themselves from their numerous opponents. Conservative activists recast some of the terms that have proved successful for progressives in the past, such as valuing freedom of speech and diversity. Progressives, however, share no such common message; instead, they usually generate multiple issue-based messages from their various organizations. They describe a common feeling of fragmentation.

We were interested in the level of tensions between activist groups that traditionally disagreed on hot-button topics. The war in Iraq and the affirmative action court cases created a focus for both conservative and progressive activists.

Political mentors are absent from campus.

Virtually all the student leaders we interviewed described themselves as arriving at college with their politics already developed. For the most part, their political mentors were their parents or teachers. Both conservative and progressive students expressed disappointment that they could not find similar mentors on campus, especially from the faculty. In turn, the majority of the faculty we interviewed preferred to remain distant or exhibited disinterest when asked about their involvement with campus political groups. A few faculty members, mostly progressive, were actively engaged with student activism. All our sample schools had Student Affairs Offices that provided, at a minimum, organizational support and training to student groups. However, student leaders rarely mentioned staff in these offices as their mentors. Without access to ideological or strategic support on campus, students report they seek it elsewhere.

Students are responding to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation as they perceive them on campus.

Progressive activists observe forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia persisting at their schools, despite the impact that previous activism has had on higher education. They view their work as far from over. Conservative students challenge progressive assessments and compensatory practices, dismissing them as "unnecessary" programs, "sub- standard" academic offerings, or simply "unfair." National conservative spokespeople stimulate discussion on these topics, providing students with arguments against affirmative action, feminism, multiculturalism, and area academic programs such as Queer Studies.

Activists at the single-sex school and the historically Black university in our sample use a gender or a race lens more readily than student leaders at the other schools to interpret and analyze their campuses and the issues that interest them. Historically Black fraternities and sororities are examples of organizations with legacies of both service and social action that provide an unusual, and often overlooked, source of activism.

Debate is unpopular on campus.

Contrary to popular opinion, most college students do not enjoy debating political topics. Often the public hears about acrimonious confrontations between student groups or between students and their administrations over hot-button topics in the culture in general, such as the Middle East, terror- ism, reproductive rights and racism, as well as over campus-specific concerns like union organizing on campus. Both politically uninvolved students and current student activists reported that they do not value political debate. Either they were intimidated by what they described as a confrontational situation, or they did not expect that engagement in for- mal or informal debate affects opinions. Most student leaders in this study, with the exception of law students, believed that debate wasted their time.

Many implications emerge for civil society of a generation of young people who do not value debate or do not have the skills to engage successfully in it. We suggest that, without a politically engaged population of young people and leaders who can and will conduct conversations across difference, we cannot expect a similarly engaged population of adults.

National political organizations successfully influence campus groups with resources, mentors, and incentives.

Both progressive and conservative groups from the general political sphere are interested in student activists. These groups regularly become involved with students, often without having a visible presence on campus. Some of their methods include:

  • using students as foot soldiers in electoral or other campaigns;
  • establishing campus affiliates;
  • training students to be leaders;
  • supporting student-led organizations such as newspapers or clubs with training, materials, and funding;
  • engaging student support through student activities fees;
  • providing attractive organizing supplies;
  • producing low- or no-cost events with political messages that tour campuses;
  • offering incentives to individual students for participation in their programs.

Conservative organizations use a coordinated strategy of national organizations to provide these services. Progressive organizations, while more numerous, are far less strategic in how they provide support.

A "leadership pipeline" exists for both progressives and conservatives, but their approaches differ.

While there appear to be about equal numbers of opportunities for leadership development for conservative and progressive students, each group has access to different types of such programs. Centralized training opportunities, from summer schools to national conferences, exist for conservatives, but no equivalent, prominent, and multi-issue programs are advertised to progressive students. Although such training does exist for progressive activists, it is harder to identify.

Internships, now considered a necessary part of a college student's career preparation, are available in scores of national political organizations. Information about these opportunities is available to students through the internet.

Conservative organizations promote their programs more visibly on their websites. Conservative groups tend to focus on developing public figures or stars, while progressive groups primarily develop lower-profile organizers. This distinction is relevant in part because of the general absence of political mentors from campuses. Conservative stars perform mentoring roles for students.

Centrist students are not actively recruited by either conservative or progressive campus activists.

The majority of college students engage in community service, volunteer work of some sort, or service learning. These numbers are growing as a result of directed efforts across the political spectrum to improve civic engagement among young people. Centrist students, those whose politics are neither entirely conservative nor progressive, constitute 50% of college students today. They are the largest body of potentially engaged students on U.S. campuses. Many centrist students engage in service work, but are not motivated to join activist groups on campus.

Surprisingly, neither conservative nor progressive activists report that they target this cohort of students. Centrist students are often the ones who report being "put off" by activists' recruitment styles. We believe these students constitute an undeveloped source of potential activists.

Researchers, college administrators, national political organizations, and campus activists themselves must look more closely at the status of activism on U.S. campuses today.

This further analysis will contribute to a better understanding of the effectiveness of both conservative and progressive student movements. While this report makes several contributions to the field of studying campus activism in the United States, much more remains to be learned. Several groups -- college administrators and national political organizations, as well as students -- can enhance their awareness of the status of campus organizing by encouraging further research. Such study will contribute to a better understanding of the effectiveness of student movements in the United States today and may predict their future influence and contributions to social movements in general.

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