Promoting conservative ideas on a university campus is no easy task, as Charles Mitchell (pictured) will attest. As president of the Bucknell University Conservatives Club (BUCC), Mitchell has endured more than his share of what he calls the “unparalleled leftist bias” of the American college campus, a place where it is not extraordinary to hear George W. Bush called a Nazi and black conservatives dismissed as race traitors.
For conservatives, “it’s worse on campuses than anywhere else,” Mitchell says.
In the humanities faculty at Bucknell, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a stunning ratio of 22 to 1, Mitchell says, adding that he could “count on one hand” the conservative professors he has had. Still, he is careful to distinguish between liberal professors who attempt to engage in honest discussion with students and those who simply tell conservative students, “You’re wrong”—or, slightly more subtly, “The research says you’re wrong.”
A rising senior majoring in economics and history at the Lewisburg, Penn., university, Mitchell says he has had a professor bluntly tell him, “Supply-side economics doesn’t work.”
From fellow students, moreover, Mitchell and his friends have received more than a few slurs and ad hominem attacks. One BUCC member, for example, had someone affix a sign to the door of her dorm room labeling her a Nazi.
After a while, though, “you get used to the insanity,” Mitchell told the Arlington, Va.-based Leadership Institute on Wednesday. He hastened to point out that BUCC members do not care to think of themselves as victims: “[Adopting] the victim mentality is bad, even when conservatives do it.”
Most students, Mitchell says, are “disengaged” rather than liberal or conservative. Accordingly, he contends that conservatives need to tailor their message for a demographic that typically eschews political parties for keg parties.
“The same old approach won’t work,” he says. “Campus conservatism is unorthodox conservatism.”
But embracing this strategy “need not mean being less principled,” he adds. “You don’t have to be John McCain.”
Instead, Mitchell urges conservative students to apply their principles to the issues that affect their peers’ daily lives and to use humor in doing so. For example, he recalls that his group once hosted a “root beer kegger” outside the student union to protest Bucknell’s policies on alcohol.
Conservative students shouldn’t be afraid of being seen as novelties, Mitchell says. “If you’re an out-of-the-closet conservative on campus, you’re most likely a novelty anyway.”
Mitchell says that conservative student groups should emphasize what they support rather than what they oppose: for free speech rather than simply against speech codes; for equal treatment rather than against preferences; for intellectual diversity rather than against ideological uniformity. As that last example shows, Mitchell likes to skewer liberals using their own buzzwords—especially “diversity,” which he calls “the number-one mantra of the Left.”
A key point the BUCC makes is that it promotes fairness and evenhandedness on campus—two values that liberals have a hard time dismissing. Mitchell frequently discusses the double standards underlying university speech codes, which are designed with the stated purpose of “protecting” students from being offended but are usually very selectively applied. Plenty of people are offended by plays that take their titles from the female genitalia or that depict Santa Claus as a homosexual—and productions of both have been staged at Bucknell, Mitchell reports—but administrators never step in to protect their sensibilities.
Although professors at Bucknell and most other universities are overwhelmingly liberal, Mitchell says that the greatest problem is not “out-and-out indoctrination” but rather the dominance of “liberal sensibilities” on campus. Faculty research interests frequently coincide with left-wing causes, for example, and most administrators have great difficulty comprehending how an intelligent, compassionate person could possibly oppose racial preferences.
Another roadblock, Mitchell says, is the common prejudice that all conservative students are rich, white, and male. By keeping a high profile on campus, however, the heterogeneous BUCC helps to dispel many of the Left’s straw-man arguments.
Mitchell is careful to state that he has no desire to replace left-wing dominance on campus with right-wing hegemony. “The university should be a place where all viewpoints can be heard,” he says.
In fact, Mitchell argues that the pervasiveness of liberal orthodoxy on campus actually shortchanges liberal students. A belief that is never challenged, he points out, is a belief that is never defended.
And for all his criticism of Bucknell’s faculty and administration, Mitchell says that he is glad he chose to attend the school and that he hopes to change it for the better: “If I didn’t love Bucknell, there’s no way I’d be doing what I do.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.