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Not So Politically Incorrect

June 2, 2009

Despite the recent dust-up at Liberty University, many politically liberal student groups continue to peacefully mingle at traditionally conservative institutions. Conversely, conservative groups continue to thrive in the minority at some colleges known for their more liberal leanings.

Liberty, a fundamentalist Baptist institution in Lynchburg, Va., founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, set off a political firestorm last month when it revoked official recognition of a campus chapter of the College Democrats. Though administrators said they would not stop the group from meeting on campus, they dropped university sponsorship of the club because it supported candidates who favor abortion rights and other views which they said conflict with Liberty’s values.

As many politicians and outside commentators weigh in, the situation at the evangelical institution has remained at a standstill for weeks. Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty chancellor and son of the university’s now-deceased founder, has offered the College Democrats a compromise to which the student group has yet to respond: The university stated that it would renew official recognition of the club if it becomes a chapter of the Virginia Democrats for Life, a political group that opposes abortion.

Kindred Spirits

In Virginia Beach, about four hours east of Liberty, is Regent University, an interdenominational Christian university founded by the Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson.

Last fall, when students formed a chapter of the College Democrats at Liberty, a small group of students at Regent created a similar chapter. The group overcame a number of hurdles to become officially recognized. But, to the surprise of its founders, the club’s major detractors were fellow students, not the administration or faculty.

“I did receive a few negative e-mails and messages on Facebook about starting the group,” said Heather Carr, co-founder of the club and a former Regent divinity student who has since transferred to Claremont Graduate University for personal reasons. “I was basically told to go to hell and that, for starting such a group on campus, that’s where I would probably be going anyway.”

The group did, however, have to make a few concessions to gain the university’s official recognition. Following the same protocol as any other student group at the institution, the Regent Democrats had to pen a constitution which potentially limits its actions in the event that they conflict with the institution’s values.

“It is understood that the University administration reserves the right to change or eliminate any procedure or action that is deemed inappropriate and not in accord with the spiritual standards established by the University,” the constitution reads.

Carlos Campo, vice president of academic affairs at Regent, said this restriction might equate to, for example, inviting a speaker who opposes abortion rights to balance a Regent Democrat-invited speaker who does support these rights. Still, he insisted there are plenty of tenets of the Democratic Party platform that are not “at odds with biblical teaching” on which the group can concentrate its efforts. One prominent example cited in the group’s mission statement is the party’s dedication to help the “poor and marginalized.”

“As the saying goes, God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican,” Campo said. “I’m proud that our students have respected one another, despite the fact that they may have different beliefs.”

Living within the restrictions set by Regent, the Democratic student group has attracted a wide variety of members, from left-leaning moderates to those so liberal that they almost feel out of place at the institution. The group’s co-founder, however, insists that this diverse membership has made the group even more vibrant.

“I am very liberal,” Carr said. “But we have some students who are very conservative Democrats. For me personally, I support gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. But we have a wide spectrum of members. Just because everyone aligns themselves with the Democratic Party doesn’t mean that they support these issues.”

So far, the group has yet to experience any troubles on campus, and Carr and Campo predict smooth sailing for the near future, despite some of the unrest at Liberty. Robertson, Regent’s founder and several times a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has even bestowed his blessing upon the group. Campo said Robertson “expressed very little resistance” to the club and supported promoting Regent as a “place for the free exchange of ideas.”

Not all liberal student groups at traditionally conservative campuses have had the support to stay both active and relevant, however. At Patrick Henry College, a Protestant institution in Purcellville, Va., and subject of the recent investigative book God’s Harvard, a campus chapter of the College Democrats was gone almost as soon as it was officially recognized by the institution.

“I don't presently know the status of the [Democratic] group on campus, but I can assure you no one in administration exerted any negative pressure on them to be low-profile, limit their activities, or disband,” wrote David Halbrook, Patrick Henry spokesman, in an e-mail. “From my understanding, it was never more than a couple of students at one time, and was never ‘active,’ per se.”

Efforts to contact any of the group’s remaining members were unsuccessful. The club’s Facebook group, however, suggests that a number of its founders have since transferred away from Patrick Henry. None of them could be reached.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Almost as far away from Regent and Patrick Henry politically as it is geographically is Hampshire College, a private liberal arts institution in Amherst, Mass. The college, which opened in 1970, is known for its non-traditional curriculum, in which students create their own programs of study and receive “narrative evaluations” instead of grades.

What better place, a trio of students thought, to establish a campus chapter of the Young Republicans than alongside an outdoor club, an organic foods group and a student bicycle-sharing program. Though the club was officially recognized this spring semester, its founders acknowledge that keeping it going at a place like Hampshire will be a challenge.

“Republican. The word is blasphemy on this campus,” writes Benjamin Saucier, the club’s president and a rising junior, on its Web site. “We, as some sort of collective community of students, are united in a common enemy: the Republicans. However, regardless of my personal political opinions, I feel it is this exact notion that is extremely problematic to our college and its growth as an institution.”

Still, despite the club’s ambitions of bringing another viewpoint to what Saucier describes as an ongoing campus debate “strictly between liberals and radical liberals,” it has faced almost no opposition.

“The backlash has been surprisingly minimal,” Saucier said. “Most of the level-headed kids that I’ve talked to about the group think it will be good for the campus. We’ve been in the corner just waiting for a fight and it’s not coming. We came armed to the teeth ready to go, and it’s just not there. As long as you argue your point well, people will respect it here.”

Surprising to Hampshire's Young Republicans is the fact that there is not even a Democratic student group on campus with whom they can debate or plan social events. Michael Evanczuk, founding member of the group, said he might even cross the aisle in the fall and attempt to start a campus chapter of the College Democrats. The competing club, he argued, would only help further legitimize the Young Republicans.

“It’d be great to have a debate,” Evanczuk said. “Our meetings, right now, are really just the three of us. There are at least seven Republicans on this campus; I’m just not sure that they know about the club yet. We’re just trying to plan events and get more publicity.”

While the conservative club has not been able to accomplish much on its liberal campus, it has set its sights on bigger battlegrounds. Saucier said the group has been working with the Republican Party on local and statewide elections in Massachusetts, noting that it would make more of a difference there than at Hampshire. In what may be a sign of the group’s initial successes, Ricky Tsay, one of its members, was recently elected chair of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans.

The irony of having a Hampshire student elected the head of the largest Republican student group in the state was not lost on Saucier, who said that when he introduced himself at a recent meeting of the group, many exclaimed, “You’re from where?!”

 

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