right and left on campus today

A recent book by Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, rings true to me and offers numerous original insights. It’s based on 200 hours of interviews with 77 student activists on four flagship state university campuses.

The progressive activists include liberals (who define liberalism as support for the Democratic Party) and leftists (who disparage liberalism). On campus, most find courses, professors, majors, and co-curricular opportunities–such as multicultural centers–that align with their views and interests. Progressive donors and foundations fund such opportunities by donating to the institutions, which remain in control of the students’ experiences. None of the leftist students have leftist parents, and often they have been radicalized by courses. This does not mean that professors brainwashed them; sometimes, rigorously presented material radicalizes people who choose to study it.

The progressive students are especially concerned about their own universities’ policies, whether regarding diversity, climate, or labor issues. They form close relationships with favored faculty and staff. However, many are frustrated when their institutions fail to change; and their faculty and staff mentors–who are employees with job descriptions and supervisors–cannot help them wholeheartedly. (In my experience, many employees are also torn between their personal political views and a professional ethic of neutrality.)

Progressive students who work with national or global organizations or networks provide free or cheap labor as “service”; some even raise money as canvassers. In short, they give more to national progressive efforts than they get back. Their activism rarely opens channels to post-college employment, and some even want to return to academia as staff or faculty.

The conservative activist students range ideologically from moderate institutionalists and intellectuals to MAGA radicals. However, they are fewer and they form more of a community on each campus than the progressives do. They express few complaints about university policies and are rarely interested in that topic. They are critical of campus culture, and they blame their fellow students more than the institution for perceived leftwing bias. In any case, they are mainly involved with national organizations and networks.

Conservative donors and foundations are leery about contributing to universities–or at least to their liberal arts, academic components–but eager to support conservative students directly with paid internships and other opportunities. Conservative students meet peers from other campuses at national gatherings and move readily into post-graduate jobs. They get more than they give from national organizations.

To the extent that conservative activists intervene on their own campuses, it is mostly by inviting speakers in the hope of influencing campus culture. For conservative national organizations that fund speakers, controversial visitors represent an attractive wedge issue. Although conservative students are deeply divided about the merits of the more controversial speakers, they are united about free speech. Besides, protests against conservative speakers attract national publicity that plays well on the right.

This sociological account explains more about politics on today’s campuses than a narrow focus on the universities’ own policies or an analysis of generational proclivities, such as an alleged turn away from liberal values. As always, most people behave according to incentives and norms–including radical people in radical organizations.

For me, the book raises complex normative questions (what should we want from higher education?) and policy questions. I hope to address those matters further in a review-article about this book and several other interesting recent works on higher education and politics.

See also what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.