The Fight for Students' Minds

February 16, 2005

Liberals are tired of getting their hats handed to them -- and not just in presidential elections, either.

Today, Campus Progress, which is backed by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, opens a campaign to try to win back to liberalism the hearts and minds of American college students.

That seems odd, given the prevailing sense that campuses are dominated in numbers by left-leaning students and professors. But leaders at Campus Progress argue that because of the highly effective work of a dozen organizations that support conservative campus papers, bring right-leaning speakers to campuses, and train future leaders, liberals have been losing the battle of ideas on campuses -- in much the way conservatives have dominated the airwaves in talk radio.

"There are more progressive students on campuses, but our numbers are slipping, and there's nothing to ensure that they stay with the cause," says Ben Hubbard, who is campus programs director for the Center for American Progress. 

Hubbard says groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Collegiate Network, the Young America's Foundation and others together spend $35 million annually on college campuses, according to the groups' federal tax filings. Compared to that, Campus Progress's $750,000 annual budget seems a pittance. The group will spend $40,000 of those funds this year to help start liberal student newspapers at four colleges -- Ohio State and the Universities of Chicago, Kentucky and Michigan -- and support existing papers at nine others.

The group has also created a Web site, which began publishing at midnight today, to be a "clearinghouse for information about progressive causes and ideas geared specifically to college students," says Hubbard. It also started an aggressive ad campaign that features inflammatory quotations from conservative icons like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, and urges liberal students to "Connect. Engage. Speak Up."

And it plans a series of campus appearances by liberal speakers, beginning today with a session on the future of the black political vote at Howard University, featuring Al Sharpton and (from the other side) Armstrong Williams.

The conservative groups to which Campus Progress is responding take some pleasure in the group's creation. "They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and their model is the same form as ours," says Sarah Longwell, director of public affairs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 

Longwell challenges Campus Progress's fundamental thesis that liberal students lack voices for their causes on campuses. "Conservative publications on campus have been successful because they're an alternative to the liberal orthodoxy on campus," she says. "Campus Progress's attempting to sponsor liberal publications on campuses is redundant, because . there are already liberal publications on campus: They're called the campus daily papers."

Still, ISI and the other conservative groups "welcome all voices into the world of journalism and ideas," she says, and "look forward to the energy that any of these new publications may add" to the debate on campuses.

And with that, the battle is joined.

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