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A Civilized Debate
Towson University is the latest battleground in a controversy over a student group whose presence is growing on college campuses.
Youth for Western Civilization appeared on the scene in 2009 as a co-sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference, sparking the interest of students across the country to start university chapters of their own. It has grown from about eight college chapters in its first year to about 15 today, with Towson as one of its newest member institutions.
The group has garnered a lot of attention for its stated standpoint -- opposing “radical multiculturalism, political correctness, racial preferences, mass immigration, and socialism” -- and particularly from hate-awareness groups saying it could have white nationalist ties. The group's leaders vigorously challenge such assertions.
Today, growth in the group is “two steps forward, one step back,” according to its founder, Kevin DeAnna.
“YWC is challenging the multicultural interest groups that receive a great deal of resources and support from the administration, not just at Towson, but at practically every campus in the country,” DeAnna wrote in an e-mail. “You have to expect resistance when you confront privilege.”
Towson sparks debate, concern
In many ways, the reaction at Towson is representative of the reception YWC has had at other college campuses. Last week, the student government approved the Towson chapter’s constitution after hours of debate from students demanding that student officials vote against the group, calling the YWC and its members racist and homophobic.
But with the First Amendment at his side, Matthew Heimbach, Towson’s YWC president, watched as the student government voted to officially recognize the group.
Heimbach, a junior studying history, said he didn’t expect the audience of about 150 to be so “toxic.” “It was two hours of the most hardcore leftist activists on campus spewing hate at us,” he said.
Heimbach said he decided he didn’t want to be “silent anymore,” and chose to start a YWC chapter at Towson after he talked to national group leaders at a booth at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC.
“I wanted to break the culture of apathy that I’ve noticed at Towson,” he said. “No one is standing up for the silent majority of students. We have the fringe groups … and they have the total command of the dialogue on campus.”
Some of those “fringe” group leaders say the YWC is delicate in how they phrase their beliefs, masking their true intentions.
Kenan Herbert, president of Towson’s Black Student Union, said it’s disheartening to see such a group fly through the approval process given the history of the struggle minority groups like his own went through for the same recognition.
“I think there is going to be some serious disruption [from YWC] while they are here,” said Herbert, a senior studying biology.
Herbert said he met with Heimbach before the student government vote to talk over the burgeoning issues. The YWC was interested in co-sponsoring events with the Black Student Union, like Confederacy Week, Herbert said.
“I thought he was pretty bold to even ask that, knowing what the Confederacy means to the black community,” Herbert said. “To ask me to co-sponsor the event, it’s kind of a slap in the face.”
But the discussion was civil and Herbert said he has no personal problems with Heimbach. He said he is just concerned that Heimbach’s group will work to dismantle the curricular infrastructure in place for students seeking out a diverse education. Zach Kosinski, programming coordinator for Sex Out Loud, a group advocating sex education, and member of the Queer Student Union, joined Herbert in voicing concern. He helped draft a letter to the student government, asking leaders to bar YWC from being affiliated with the university and thereby make the group ineligible for student activity funding.
"We wanted to illustrate to them that it's not just their mission statement on their website," Kosinski, a junior studying sociology, said. "There are other intentions and motives behind that."
Kosinski said several lesbian and gay students expressed concerns, saying that potential events, like a Straight Pride Week, would undermine the feeling some students had that for the first time in their lives, they were free to be themselves.
But Heimbach said YWC is just standing up for the conservative students on campus who feel voiceless. The only other conservative outlet is the Towson College Republicans, Heimbach said, and some perceived a void in the discussion.
The Towson College Republicans released a statement regarding the student government vote, saying “while our chapter may not align with the political views, philosophies, or tactics of Youth for Western Civilization, we believe that they deserve the right to be SGA affiliated and to organize on campus.”
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
DeAnna, the YWC's founder, graduated from American University with a master’s degree in international relations in 2010. It was at American that DeAnna started Youth for Western Civilization.
Since then, groups have emerged at about 15 colleges, including Elon, Liberty, Washington State and Vanderbilt Universities, as well as the Universities of Connecticut and North Carolina at Chapel Hill; newer chapters have sprouted at colleges in New England and northern Virginia. Others have faded away and groups have lost members, such as at Boise State University.
This ebb and flow, DeAnna says in his email message, has made it clear to the group's leaders that it is more effective to make the organization member-based rather than chapter-based.
By recruiting members already in leadership positions on their campuses, the network of members can grow without having to create a separate chapter, DeAnna said. He himself is now a regional field director at the Leadership Institute, which helps educate and train conservative activists in public policy in Arlington, Va.
“Each YWC member has a responsibility to lead the conservative movement on their campus,” DeAnna wrote. “The network is more important than the organization.”
For now, the next step at Towson is to set up a speech by Bay Buchanan, former U.S. treasurer and sister of the conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, for early October.
Past YWC-sponsored speeches have not gone without incident. In 2009, former U.S. Rep Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, was invited by YWC to speak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Protesters interrupted the anti-immigration advocate’s talk, cutting the speech short and breaking a window in the process. Chancellor Holden Thorp publicly apologized to Tancredo after the incident.
The group also drew ire after the Southern Poverty Law Center published a story about YWC on its Hatewatch website, citing potential ties between the group and white nationalist groups.
Those allegations are just not true, Heimbach said. Its agenda has nothing to do with hate -- it is all about conservative principles, he said. With university recognition, Heimbach said he can now move forward with organizing events supporting Israel and traditional marriage at Towson.
DeAnna said YWC’s goal is to build its network and infrastructure so members can stay involved even after they graduate. In the short term, he said, he’d like to see students confronting important issues like illegal immigration head-on at their campuses.