The Neo-Con Strategy to Fight the Cosmopolitan University

Gregory Zucker


The recent outspokenness of conservative students has led to much speculation coming from the right, left, and center about the changing face of American youth. Are organizations like Students for Academic Freedom giving voice to a silenced group on campuses?[i] Is conservatism spreading as the new youth counter-culture movement in contrast to the progressive movements of the sixties?[ii] Is this just another aspect of the seemingly unstoppable conservative backlash against progressivism, as many on the left have argued?[iii] Before giving a ‘yes or no’ answer to these questions, we must ask three broader questions. 1) What do these students want? 2) Why do they want it? 3) How are they going about getting what they want? The first question involves the movement’s aims, the second, its ideology, and the third requires us to look at its structure. By answering these questions, we will have a clearer idea about the nature of this emergent movement.

The rallying cry for the conservative student movement has been the demand for academic freedom. Matthew Festa, a conservative student columnist and winner of the right-wing Publius Fellowship, lauding free thought at his university (Loyola) and comparing it to other schools writes, “Most other universities say they pride themselves on academic freedom but in actuality practice thought control. I have read numerous stories of newspapers being stolen, students being prevented from speaking out, and people getting in trouble for being politically incorrect.”[iv] There’s no doubt about it, campus politics is a dirty business. Yet, these students argue that they are at a disadvantage by being punished for their beliefs by intolerant liberal professors. Enter David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights, and Students for Academic Freedom.

The Academic Bill of Rights, authored by David Horowitz, consists of eight principles that Horowitz and members of Students for Academic Freedom believe both public and private universities should adopt. While insisting on the right to free thought for both students and professors, it seeks to enforce strict limitations on the views professors can express to their students.[v] For all the polite appeals to and invocations of freedom of speech, Students for Academic Freedom are not asking universities to change, they are telling them to change.

According to a report by The Journal Editorial Report, sixteen state legislatures have already adopted bills that limit what professors say and the notion of an academic bill of rights is being debated in congress.[vi] This may seem to be a somewhat counter-intuitive on the part of conservatives, but as Marissa Freimanis, a conservative student at Cal State Long Beach, put it when interviewed by The Journal Editorial Report, “if it takes the state to do that then that’s what needs to happen.” Freimanis uses nice words like “bring balance” and “pull to the center” to describe what the state needs to do, but it does sound an awful lot like the censoring and monitoring of professors when we stop and think about the actual enforcement of these bills.

By now the aims should be pretty clear; these students want to change the university. It is hard not to be a little sympathetic. That word “freedom” pulls at just about everyone’s heartstrings. We know what these students want; they want to transform the university. They want the university to be monitored and to have it answer to some higher body, the state if need be. In order to control the university, it must be depoliticized so as to prevent the flaring up of passions and, heaven forbid, hurt feelings. It would be difficult to control student groups (that’s a different kind of fight), but it would certainly be easy to control faculty members because they have paychecks to worry about – that’s where Freimanis’ state comes in. On the surface one might take this transformation as a legitimate desire to defend intellectual freedom, but there is also an ideology at play.

The conservative student movement must be placed within the context of recent history. We need only extend our memory back to the 1960s and the social upheaval that took place with universities at the heart, and was perhaps the generator, of the storm. Throughout much of the world, universities became a major galvanizing force for progressive change. They were a space for the questioning of authority and the overturning of norms. This is what conservatives hate about the university – you never know what kind of threat to established views and institutions might emerge from that hotbed of thought. Suddenly, it became dangerous to send your kids to school because they might begin to question conventional wisdom. They might return home for summer vacation and actually take the ideas in those musty books seriously.

Irving Kristol has described the birth of neo-conservatism as a response to failure of liberalism, which culminated in the anarchy of the 60s. It’s not a coincidence that Kristol’s “disillusioned liberals” made the turn to neo-conservatism in the early 70s. These “disillusioned liberals” or “adversaries of the adversary culture” as Norman Podhoretz called them,[vii] who panicked about the political unrest within the university also included Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, and Sydney Hook, among many others. Mrs. Kristol, the eminent conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, has pointed to the counter-culture movement of the 60s that spread from the universities as one of the prime forces that has led to the modern fracturing of American society and, more importantly, its de-moralization.[viii] Clearly conservatives, young and old alike, have not forgotten that American universities were at the center of this upheaval. They do not want to see the same radical opposition within universities reemerge, especially at a point when they are mounting their most ambitious bid for power.

Bringing the conservative vision to campuses has nothing to do with making everyone read Burke, Hayek, and Goldwater. It means taming the university and forcing it to finally give in to authority. Conservative students who join the movement see their role as one forcing the university back to the “center” as Marissa Freimanis put it. They look back at the 60s and see only chaos. They find the promise of order comforting. Many kids want their college years to consist of good times and good grades. Perhaps that moment of perceiving those liberal kids on campus as a threat to a secure college life is the moment of young conservative self-consciousness. In this respect, the interests of young conservatives and the older generation are united. Neither young nor old conservatives want to see American universities generate any more upheaval and the older generation is doing everything it can do to nurture and encourage the young.

The massive conservative political machine that includes politicians, pundits, think-thanks, magazines, publishing houses, church groups, etc. has banded together to bring their revolution to the campuses. On the front lines are conservative students. These kids are not new recruits.[ix] The leaders of conservatism only want the converted. Prove yourself in the fight against those progressives on campus and you can move up in the movement. Bully the progressives on campus and make enough of a racket about how they persecute you, then just wait for the higher ups to take notice and recognize your potential for leadership. The American Enterprise Institute, America’s Future Foundation, Campus Watch, Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, Eagle Forum Collegians, Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, The Leadership Institute, Young America’s Foundation, and Young Americans for Freedom are just a few of the many organizations that help to cultivate young conservative minds.

The services and resources these Conservative organizations offer students are without equivalent on the progressive political spectrum. For example, the Young America’s Foundation offers a six-day conference called the National Conservative Student Conference, whose speakers include right-wing celebrities like Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Ben Stein, David Brooks, David Horowitz, and Morton Blackwell (President of the youth-oriented Leadership Institute). The Conference’s website promises that attendees will meet their conservative heroes, network with like-minded students, learn how to spot liberal biases, and go on the counter-attack.[x]

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, sponsored by The American Conservative Union, panels on the agenda included topics like “Battling the Left in Its Privileged Sanctuaries.” Similarly, The Leadership Institute offers training programs in a variety of methods of student activism. It also publishes literature and produces videos that guide students through the steps toward effective activism. These organizations show students how they can bring conservative celebrity speakers to their campuses for further training and morale boosting. Students who take the initiative and invite the most conservative celebrities to their campuses are rewarded by becoming members of The Young America’s Foundation’s “Club 100” that makes them eligible for a trip to the Reagan Ranch, which is yet another center for training conservative student activists.

Here lies the strength of the movement and another appeal: the promise of upward mobility. It’s the promise of a successful career after college that gives conservative students the drive to succeed. Who are the models? Karl Rove got his start as executive director of the College Republicans. The National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, is an alumnus of that Heritage internship. Dinesh D’Souza made his mark as a provocative editor at the Dartmouth Review. Distinguish yourself in your student days and there’s no telling what heights you can reach.

Opportunities for recognition exist through elite conservative training programs and awards offered by groups like the Leadership Institute or the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute. There is the scholarship from the Ronald Reagan Future Leaders Scholarship Program[xi] or the fellowship from the Publius Fellows Program, which is awarded to only ten upper-class undergraduate and graduate students. Then there’s the hotly coveted Heritage Foundation ten-week summer internship, which is open to a mere sixty-four students.[xii] There are also contests, like the recent “Intellectual Morons” essay contest run by the Young America’s Foundation, in which the entrants were asked to bash their favorite liberal “intellectual moron” (the winner wrote on Noam Chomsky, perhaps the right’s favorite punching bag).[xiii] Do a web search for the names of any of the winners of the different elite scholarship or fellowship programs and you will find that they represent conservatism’s most vibrant student activists and writers for college newspapers.

Central to waging the battle against progressive forces on campus is having a newspaper or magazine. For this the hugely successful political provocateur, and himself a one-time student activist during his tenure as editor of The Dartmouth Review, Dinesh D’Souza, is a prime role model. His Letters to a Young Conservative is full of advice on how to use the publication as a means to provoke progressives on campus and promote the conservative cause.[xiv] It’s most important lessons: always go out looking for controversy and make as much noise as possible. Whenever the left speaks up on campuses, conservative students are always quick to respond and they make sure that their response gets more media coverage.[xv] By counter-attacking progressive activism on campus and making more noise with their responses, conservative activists have sought to drown out the voices of campus activists who oppose their views. Many winners of conservative scholarships and fellowships got their starts through their work as newspaper editors and writers.

The attack has two fronts. It’s not just a matter of battling progressive student groups, but also of trying to silence faculty and force the university to change as an institution. That’s where David Horowitz with his Academic Bill of Rights comes in. What is significant is that conservative students are playing a key role in that agenda. Conservative students have acted as agents of organizations like Students for Academic Freedom, by monitoring the discussions that take place in classrooms throughout the country and reporting to people like Horowitz whenever they sniff out a leftist on the faculty.[xvi] For example, Ben Lepak, a Ronald Reagan Scholar, was recently lauded on the Students for Academic Freedom website for creating the Oklahoma University Ideological Society. The Society was created to monitor the voting affiliations and reading lists of professors at Oklahoma University.

It is the cohesion of the conservative political machine that gives cause for alarm. Were Horowitz, conservative student activists, and the writers and pundits who support them doing this alone this could all be countered by vocal liberal student activists and liberal writers and pundits. The fact is, however, that the conservative activists, unlike the liberals, have the political power to back their interests. Conservative politicians on the local, state, and national levels are speaking at these student conferences. Some of these politicians and policy-makers are former activists themselves. As noted above, sixteen state legislatures have already begun to make the conservative program for transforming the university is already becoming a reality. There is no reason to think it will stop there. Liberal politicians have shown a lack of wherewithal to oppose their conservative counterparts on various more important occasions and it seems doubtful that they would be able to oppose them on this matter as well.

The real problem is a disorganized and unimaginative left. The left is not thinking on the grand scale. It does not cultivate its young intellectuals and activists. In addition, progressive students do not band together in the way that conservative students do. They are fractured among interest groups that focus on specific issues. The older generation has not worked hard enough to fashion an intellectual vision, let alone a program, that can help to create solidarity in the way that the right’s elders have. Progressives are letting themselves be pushed into a corner because of their own inability to fight back.[xvii]

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank, has recently tried to come to the aid of progressive students by establishing Campus Progress, an organization that educates campus lefties on how to respond to their right-wing counterparts.[xviii] The organization is primarily oriented toward the Democratic Party, a fact that does not make one optimistic. The problem with these types of organizations (as with the Democrats) is that they are propelled less by real vision than by the frantic realization that something must be done. Without vision, it does not matter how many organizations are created.

These new organizations also miss the major problem on college campuses. For Campus Progress, it’s a matter of training progressive students to win the college debate on the Iraq War. Conservatives, however, know that the big issues are fought out in the halls of power and in the media. They do not leave it up to kids to win the important arguments; for that they have the elders. On college campuses, conservatives are targeting the university itself. Progressive students are led to believe that debates on gun control or abortion or affirmative action are what the fight is all about. Meanwhile, the sphere that they rely on for this discourse is slowly being destroyed under their noses. Until organizations like Campus Progress and its kind recognize this and come to the defense of the university, their activities are meaningless.

There is a deeply problematic legacy of the 1960w, which must be addressed. Many progressive activists still view the university as an oppressive institution, as the enemy. Progressive students often look to any authority as bad authority. This stubborn position of complete non-compliance with authority hurts more than it helps. This is not to say that there should not be a healthy tension between students and the university, but only that it should be recognized that the alignment of interests might make an enemy into an ally, for a while at least.

The fact that the conservative movement has been able to extend its influence to university campuses is just more evidence of how weak the left has become. The current strength of their movement, complimented by the weakness of the left, can only yield ominous predictions. If their efforts remain unchallenged by an equally vibrant movement, conservatism may become more and more appealing to undergraduate and graduate students. One can only presume that this may end with the cosmopolitan university itself transforming into a proselytizing ground, not so much for conservatism as for the blind acceptance of authority. So long as leftists avoid getting their act straight both intellectually and organizationally, all they can do is complain as they watch one of the last bastions of cosmopolitan and progressive thought crumble under the weight of a massive steamroller.

There is hope. Rather than allow the university to be transformed into a mundane and impotent institution, its role as a source of transformation must be recognized and celebrated. This is not to say that anarchy should reign on campuses, but that the university provides a vital space within the public sphere for the giving, sharing, and, most importantly, opposing of ideas. Progressive students must recognize the very real threat posed by the conservative agenda and the nature of that threat. Student groups divided by particular interests can come to recognize that they are bound by a belief in the university’s active function in society. Coalitions of student groups along with left intellectuals and politicians must form in opposition against this attempt to destroy an institution that has given us a center from which to engage our world and voice our grievances with it.

Conservative students have the support of the older generation and they are given the material incentives to fight for the transformation of their universities. They know what they want and have a strategy for how to get it. Progressives do not have a clear idea of what they are defending and why. Without a counter-offensive informed by an intellectual vision, the conservative program will succeed. Right now, organization and program are in conservative’s favor. They are taking the issue of the university seriously, so should progressives. The university is still a vibrant sphere for progressive democratic discourse, if that is lost then there are few places left to turn. The threat is too real and the consequences of its success are too disastrous to treat lightly.


[i] See any number of articles on David Horowitz’s Front Page or the ABC World New Tonight report by Dan Harris, “Conservatives Censored on College Campuses? Free Speech Movement Finds New Group of Supporters.”

[ii] See John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge’s The Right Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) pp. 279-282.

[iii] See for example Joshua Holland’s “Backlash 101: Why Conservatives are Winning the Campus Wars” in The Gadflyer dated 8/18/04..

[iv]  See Festa’s “A Reflection on Four Years” in the Loyola Greyhound, issue: 4/20/04.

[v] For two very good, but very different critiques of the Academic Bill of Rights, see Russell Jacoby’s “The New PC” in April 4, 2005 issue of The Nation and Stanley Fish’s “’Intellectual Diversity’: the Trojan Horse of a Dark Design” in the February 13, 2004 issue of The Chronicle Review.

[vi] Check out the transcript for the September 23, 2005 episode of The Journal Editorial Report, which airs on PBS. This transcript is available at

[vii] See the excerpt from Norman Podhoretz’s The Bloody Crossroads entitled “The Adversary Culture and the New Class” in Twentieth Century Political Theory: A Reader, ed. Stephen Eric Bronner, (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[viii] See Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

[ix] Look at Pam Chamberlain’s study Deliberate Differences: Progressive and Conservative Campus Activism in the United States published by Political Research Associates.  Austin Bramwell also notes this fact in his “Defining Conservatism Down” in The American Conservative in the August, 29, 2005 issue.

[xi] The scholarship is offered by The Phillips Foundation, there website for the scholarship is

[xii] Read more about the Heritage Foundation’s internship in The New York Times article by Jason De Parle, “Next Generation of Conservatives (By the Dormful),” which appeared on June 14, 2005.

[xiv] Check out chapters 4 and 5 of D’Souza’s Letters to a Young Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 2002)

[xv] See Pam Chamberlain’s PRA study, p. 20-22.

[xvi] David Horowitz’s Front Page magazine regularly publicizes the stories of young Conservative students who are faced by the abuse of being exposed viewpoints other than their own.

[xvii] It’s important to note this conclusion is not that different from Joshua Holland’s excellent article cited earlier.

[xviii] See Sam Graham-Felsen’s “New Face of the Campus Left” in the Feb. 13, 2006 issue of The Nation. Also, visit the website: