The Right Wing on Campus
nuradha Mittal is the founder
of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank. In 2005 the Institute
published a paper outlining the role of right-wing organizations
in shaping political dialogue on college and university campuses,
prompting this interview.
CRANE: What has been the role of the right-wing on college
campuses in the last decade or so?
MITTAL: Very often people think of a college campus with an image
of the 1960s. Kent State and the free speech movement come to mind.
We tend to believe that college campuses are basically hubs of political
activity. After all, we have environmental studies departments,
women’s studies departments, ethnic studies departments, multi-cultural
curricula. It is true that in the mid-20th century, especially after
the GI bill, very different kinds of people came to college campuses
for the first time. Sons and daughters of people who could have
never thought of going to college were suddenly in colleges and
they were questioning the status of those in power. We saw the involvement
of students against the war and for women’s rights and civil
rights.That is when the right moved in.
John Simon was Secretary of Treasury under Nixon and Ford. In his
A Time for Action
he urged the corporations and the
right wing to see what was happening. The attack was coming, he
said, from academia and it was very important to challenge it. A
similar call was included in the Lewis Powell memorandum where he
said that this left needed to be crushed.
It has been a very carefully crafted strategy by the right wing
to take over campuses the last few decades. Millions of dollars
from conservative foundations have reshaped the debates on college
campuses. You find national networks being created, for example,
the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or think tanks like the Heritage
Foundation. These are the institutions funding right-wing publications
on college campuses. A very systematic attack on freedom of speech
and liberal professors.
If you look at the survey sponsored by the American Council of Education
in 2003, it reported that only 17 percent of college freshmen considered
it important to be involved in an environmental program. In 1992
the number doubled. In 2003 a majority, 53 percent, said they wanted
affirmative action to be abolished while only 55 percent favored
reproductive rights, compared to two-thirds in 1992.
Affirmative action is a big one. Over the last few years, the right
wing has been organizing these bake sales across campuses. If you
are a white student or faculty, you pay more for your cookie, whereas
if you are a student of color, or faculty of color, you pay less
than 50 cents. They simplified the message to convince students
that affirmative action is unfair.
Those kinds of hypes have been very successful. Fifty-three percent
of students in 2003 believed that wealthy people should pay a larger
share of taxes than they do now. In 1992, 72 percent of students
felt that richer people should pay more taxes.
Let’s go back to the Powell memo you mentioned What was
in that memo? Who is Powell?
Lewis F. Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President
Nixon. He wrote a memorandum in 1971 to Eugene Sednar, Jr., director
of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warning that America’s economic
system was under a broad attack by communists, new leftists, and
other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both
political and economic. And that “the most disquieting voices
joining the chorus of criticism came from the college campus, the
pulpit, the media, intellectual and literary journals, the arts
and sciences, and politicians.” So he recommended that the
business community confront this by building organizations that
would use careful, long-range planning and implementation.
It was the same message that in 1978 William Simon echoes in his
A Time for Truth
A Time for Action
. He urged
the right to rise and create a new set of institutions capable of
leading the United States into a new age. He took funding from large
corporations to support counter-intellectuals in the struggle. In
1978, he and Irving Kristol started the Institute for Educational
Affairs, which played an important role in the rise of conservative
What about the chasm between funding of science and technology
versus humanities and liberal arts?
In this whole effort to support the counter-intellectuals, corporate
investments in universities have helped to dramatically change the
mission of higher education. You have the revolving door between
the CEOs and the university administrators to the corporate research
and development in university labs. Basically, corporate influence
has transformed every aspect of university life. At the same time,
we have seen an attempt to de-fund humanities departments because
they are supposedly the stronghold of leftist professors. They use
the alumni, for example, who are often donors to the universities
and dictate how their money is used. And that is not used for funding
chairs in humanities programs. In the case of biotechnology you
find in the state universities and the University of California
system a strong takeover by the biotech companies. They have access
to patents on research that is conducted in these state universities.
One of the biggest issues we have to deal with is that this corporate
takeover is altering academic priorities. It is undermining the
independence of university teachers, determining what research is
done at the universities. Cal Bradford, a former Fellow at the University
of Minnesota’s Humphries Institute for Public Policy, was denied
an extension of his contract after he criticized the university’s
ties to corporations. In his words, “…basically the outside
funds determine what universities will teach and research, what
direction the university will take and the corporate donors decide
to fund chairs in areas that they want research done. And their
decisions decide which topics universities explore and which aren’t.”
What other tactics do you see the right using?
Let’s look at Students for Academic Freedom, started in 2003
by David Horowitz, who is not a student. It encourages the states
to adopt its very noble sounding Academic Bill of Rights. It is
about insuring that right-wing professors are hired in universities,
that certain kinds of books are taught in courses. This campaign
resulted in the Colorado State Legislature hearing from students
and faculty in 2003. Their claim was that left-wing professors ridiculed
conservative students, graded them down, and they attemped to recruit
them to leftist causes. So this Academic Bill of Rights has now
traveled to several states, including Georgia, Missouri, Michigan,
Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and California. In Florida in March 2005,
a bill inspired by this Academic Bill of Rights, was adopted, which
would basically allow Florida’s public university students
to sue their professors for leftist “totalitarianism,”
that’s what they call it. It was approved in the legislature.
Other actions are about intimidation. There’s a report put
out by Lynn Cheney’s group (the Defense of Civilization Fund)
called “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities are Failing
America and What Can be Done About it.” This report attacks
students and college faculty who oppose the war in Afghanistan and
Iraq. It lists the names of 117 students and faculty and the unpatriotic
statements they made. These unpatriotic statements include, “Break
the cycle of violence” or “Ignorance breeds hate.”
They were considered dangerous to national security. When your name
is put on a list like that, that is intimidation. Students Against
War, a campus group in Seattle, had these post-inaugural demonstrations.
They were chanting at the recruiters and they ripped up their literature.
They were told by the Administration to apologize to the U.S. Army
or they would be responsible for their actions.
You have right-wing organizations helping to shape the message and
providing talking points to conservative student activists. This
is done through annual conferences, journalism courses, internships
at right-wing institutions, and fellowships. For example, the Collegiate
Network Handbook for student activists, which is called “Start
the Presses,” states that media outlets have the power to transform
a minor event or fact into a major embarrassment. If the school
persecutes you, send out press releases, notify alumni, and give
the Administration a public blackeye. So they love it when you have
progressive students going in and tipping over bake sale tables.
They are like, “See, we told you that they are hostile to us.”
Another myth is that campuses are hotbeds of the left; that there
is a Marxist conspiracy in the universities and radicals have seized
the administration of universities.
The thing that they have done very successfully is choose who will
deliver the message. For example, you have conservative women empowering
feminism. So, for example, you have conservative speakers like Ann
Coulter, Kathryn Harris, or Christina Hoff-Summers going to college
campuses to explore questions such as whether women’s studies
programs harm women by propagating feminists myths of women as victims.
Or they have brought in conservatives of color far more successfully
than progressives have. If you look at the Young America Foundation
and their speaker’s bureau, it has right-wingers like Stark
Parker, Clarence Thomas, G.A. Parker, Ward Connelly, and Walter
Williams—these are the “alternative” black speakers
who are put out as spokespeople for black America who are against
affirmative action. Their message is, we need to move beyond race
How much has the right wing invested in this project?
A dozen right-wing institutions have spent nearly $40 million each
year over the last 30 years. In 2004 the three largest conservative
campus organizations were Young America’s Foundation, Intercollegiate
Studies Institute, and the Leadership Institute. They’ve spent
approximately $25 million on various campus outreach programs. These
resources were directed at four goals: training conservative activists,
supporting right-wing student publications, indoctrinating the next
generation, and generating myths about academia’s “liberal
There was a philanthropy roundtable in 1995 where Richard Fink,
president of the Charles G. Coach and Claude Lamb Charitable Foundations,
made use of the economist Frederick Kikes’s model of the production
process to advocate for social change grantmaking. In his words,
“Translation of ideas into action requires the development
of intellectual raw materials. Their conversion into specific policy
products and the marketing and distribution of this product to citizen
consumers.” He was telling the foundations and grantmakers
to invest in change along the entire production continuum, funding
scholars and university programs where the intellectual framework
of social transformation is developed; think tanks where these scholarly
ideas get translated into specific policies; and implementation
groups to bring these proposals into the political marketplace and,
eventually, to consumers. According to the Media Transparency Grants
database, between 1985 and 2000, conservative foundations had given
away at least one billion dollars.
You seem to be describing a systematic, well-organized, and effective
assault. Where is the left that is supposedly already in control
of the universities?
In a recent poll, 27 percent of first year students described themselves
as Democrats, 23 percent described themselves as Conservatives,
and 50 percent have still not made up their minds. This battle has
yet to play out. It’s still up for grabs.
Recently, we’ve seen something big happening on college campuses
where students have organized walk-outs related to the war and military
recruitment. They have organized protests against President Bush.
Rock The Vote was a symbol of youth taking power and that progressives
were recognizing the power of organizing on campuses. Also we have
seen this national student outcry for corporate accountability,
whether it was the success of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers
against Taco Bell or Students Against Sweatshops. Look at the Kill-a-Coke
campaign where students are getting Coca Cola out of the campuses.
You have seen think tanks like the Oakland Institute delving into
this issue. Or you have a student think tank called the Roosevelt
Institute, which has been launched in Stanford. There’s a lot
of activity. There’s Speak Out, which is bringing progressive
speakers to college campuses.
What we need now is a long-term vision that can unite our efforts.
We need funding and resources to implement these strategies and
I think that’s a big question for progressives. Where is it
going to come from? How do we reach out to students who have not
yet identified themselves as progressives? Those 50 percent of the
students—we have the potential to move them in that direction.
Crane is a radio and print journalist whose work has appeared on community
radio stations and magazines across the country.