“We shouldn’t have to have this conference,” Roger Custer, director of the National Conservative Student Conference, said in an interview Monday after delivering the meeting's opening address. "But these students are so isolated on campus."
In its 28th year, the Young America's Foundation annual college student gathering is a well-established Washington tradition -- with roughly 400 attendees and a speaker list including Newt Gingrich, Robert Novak and David Brooks. Still, speakers talk with a marked sense of urgency.
There is little tolerance for the conservative viewpoint on campus, panelist after panelist agreed. The charge of a liberal slant in academe is nothing new, but the assertion found new life in each speech. The sense of victimization shone through in the organizers' description of the conference as a place for students to “learn about conservative ideas and how to advance them in the face of liberal hostility.”
"Some people think because Republicans are in power, there is no need for conservative thought on campus," Custer said. "But the truth is, students become liberal by osmosis.”
The five-day-long conference is designed, among other things, to arm students with strategies to deal with their liberal counterparts, Custer said. Patrick Coyle, director of campus programs for Young America's Foundation, told students that they have to be ready with talking points when holding an event, because "the left is out there now thinking about how to attack your ideas and how to undermine the event."
Last month, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress held its second annual Campus Progress event, where students and speakers made their calls for continued campus activism.
Coyle, the co-author of "The Conservative Guide to Campus Activism," told the students in attendance that a major focus of their efforts should be bringing conservative speakers to campuses. He said that when he was a student at Pennsylvania State University in the mid-1990s, he was appalled by the number of liberal speakers and the dearth of conservative voices brought to campus as part of the university-sponsored series. He said students should ask trustees, alumni and state representatives to monitor how their colleges are spending taxpayer money.
Custer, who attended Ithaca College, said he compiled a report called "The Case for Intellectual Diversity," which listed a line-item record of all the money spent by the college on bringing what he called "leftist" speakers to campus. His message -- one that he said students should continue to use -- is that the university should want a full range of opinions.
Tom Burton, a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, said that after coming to the foundation's conference last year, he decided to become a student senator. Burton was elected chairman of the campus's College Republicans chapter and motivated friends in his group to join the university's speakers committee. Together, Burton said group members convinced the speakers committee to bring a conversative speaker, the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education founder Star Parker, to campus in the coming year.
For other political action tips, Coyle said students will be given an updated copy of the “Campus Conservative Battleplan" that outlines event possibilities. Custer said he doesn't want students to get caught in a purely reactionary mindset. Speakers urged students to celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein on campus and to expand the scope of existing events, such as the Young America's Foundation-sponsored "9-11: Never Forget Project," in which students place about 3,000 flags -- one for every person killed in the Sept. 11 attacks -- on campus grounds.
Christina Miller, a transfer student who is attending Hillsdale College in the fall, said she looked forward to taking some of the lessons back with her to the conservative campus in Michigan. A number of students identified themselves as being from Hillsdale or other colleges that are known for their conservative leanings.
Alex Herbitter, a freshman at Auburn University's Montgomery campus, said he has heard some of the conference's messages before. “It is preaching to the choir," he said. "But for some people, there has never been a preacher to preach to them.”
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