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When you publish your opinions and analysis on the Internet, it’s inevitable you’re going to get some things wrong.
In November 2016, I wrote that I wasn’t “super worried” about the “Professor Watchlist” put out by Turning Point USA and its wunderkind Charlie Kirk.
I noted that in my experience as a generally politically liberal instructor teaching in places with healthy proportions of conservative students, most students don’t go to college in order to police the ideologies of their teachers. When students are exposed to concepts or ideas they find ridiculous or even offensive, I figured they’d do what they’ve always done, roll their eyes and move on.
I also figured the comically inept website and the fact that similar things had been tried and failed in the past doomed it to irrelevancy. I made Charlie Kirk out to be a young man looking for approval and belonging, rather than an ideologue who believed his own rhetoric about college campuses being “islands of totalitarianism.”
It’s not clear if the watchlist website has even been updated since its inception, and yet I was clearly wrong about the potential influence of Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA.
For one, I misread today’s culture war for yesterday’s culture war. Yesterday’s culture war was a battle for hearts and minds, or maybe a vehicle by which to motivate the hearts and minds of those inclined to vote for one’s preferred candidates. In the case of previous efforts at policing professorial behavior, such as David Horowitz’s The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, the motive went no further than looking for a handy way for the author to make a buck on those culture wars.
But today’s culture war is a battle over political power where the rules and democratic norms are artifacts of a different time.
As a report from last May by Michael Vasquez, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reveals, Turning Point’s goal is explicitly to gain political power in campus student-government associations. Frustrated by progressive-minded campus leaders who advocate for fossil fuel divestment or other liberal causes, Kirk wants to gain access to the “tens of millions of dollars” student-government budgets may command on “Power 5” campuses.
In a 2015 speech to fellow conservatives, Kirk said, “We’re not going to change the professor’s mind. You’re not going to get the teacher’s fired. But the only vulnerability there is, the only little opening, is student-government-association races and elections and we’re investing a lot of time and money into it.”
Money, Turning Point and Kirk have, going from a reported budget of $52,000 in 2012 to a greater than $8 million annual budget in 2017. According to an internal Turning Point brochure acquired by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, Turning Point has earmarked $2.2 million to influence elections on 122 schools, following initial efforts at 40 four-year colleges where they’ve already claimed victory, including UCLA, Syracuse, Purdue, Michigan State and Wake Forest.
This is “dark money,” anonymous donations allowable because Turning Point is designated as a 501(c)3 charity (donors are allowed to claim a tax deduction), as opposed to a “social-welfare group.” In theory, this means Turning Point can neither directly nor indirectly participate in political elections.
But student-government organizations are not political elections, and what Turning Point is allowed to do is a bit of a gray area. Kirk says they do not directly fund candidates. However, at the University of Maryland, the Unity Party withdrew from the race when it was reported by the campus newspaper that they’d received a campaign logo, T-shirts, yard signs and other help from Turning Point without disclosing the assistance.
As Vasquez reports in the Chronicle, Turning Point’s help is kept as quiet as possible, and the candidates they support run highly conventional campaigns, rather than trying to present and further Turning Point’s conservative ideology. “But Turning Point-backed candidates typically don’t talk about safe spaces or Christmas trees on the campaign trail. What’s striking about their campaign platforms is how generic and conventional they are. Combating sexual assault is a common theme, as are reducing student fees and encouraging diversity.”
Once in power, the deeper agenda of dismantling what they view as the progressive policy apparatus of existing student governments and make way for their own ideologies.
Perhaps this will sound controversial, but we should expect and even embrace college campuses as political spaces. They’ve never been hermetically sealed from the larger culture and for generations have been the locus of various protest movements. Students are voting age adults and our contemporary politics have significant impact on the fates of the institutions where they live, study, and work.
But I think we should also remember that these institutions are for students. Whatever one thinks of last year’s events at Middlebury or Evergreen, or the previous year’s at Yale, they were driven by students, organic movements involving student self-expression and actions towards self-determination.
As we’ve seen, these actions can be controversial and result in criticism and pushback. I believe colleges are primarily for students, but this doesn’t mean they’re the only stakeholders.
Things will be messy, students should be encouraged and empowered to sort things out, and to do so while respecting those democratic norms.
Students can do it. They will do it, but we have to make the space for it to happen and remember that institutions exist for them.
At Reed College when students protested the core curriculum Humanities 110 course, some decried actions they perceived as “killing” an important course, but as Chris Bodenner of The Atlantic found, students on Reed’s campus, who felt the original protesters went too far, and “support for the RAR (the protest leaders) seems to be collapsing.” This past fall’s protest was a quarter the size of the previous year’s.
Reed is perhaps the most liberal college in the country, and yet Bodenner reports how they’re able to come together to “debate a diversity of views.”
Turning Point, funded by millions of dollars of dark money seems to have more in common with a culture war approach which embraces partisan gerrymandering and increasing restrictions on voting rights as necessary remedies to combat a liberal scourge.
But those things are profoundly undemocratic, as is running stealth student-government campaigns in order to enact an agenda which is hidden during the campaign itself.
If Turning Point is truly invested in freedom and giving conservative students and issues a presence on college campuses, they should come out of the shadows, and use their voices to express that which they believe.
And if they do decide to do so, they should be welcomed to the battle.
 Both Vasquez and Mayer report multiple incidents where Turning Point possibly crossed these lines.