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Ivy League Conservatives: An Endangered Species

It takes a huge effort for conservative voices to be heard on the unfriendly ground of elite schools, writes Travis Rowley. But it can be done.

by
Travis Rowley

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March 9, 2008 - 12:50 am

One frustrating aspect of the fight against the political indoctrination campaigns conducted by most American universities is the often quick demise of promising ventures pioneered by conservative students. Especially in recent years, such students have initiated countless insurrections against rabidly liberal campuses, only to see their efforts dwindle in the face of overwhelming scenarios of theoretical imbalance.

The failure to embed traditional theory into the academic fabric is heavily due to the four-year term limits imposed upon scattered conservative activists.

The college experience has a rapid current, and by the time right-leaning students realize the bias of the waters in which they have been submerged, they are already wearing caps and gowns. Dissenting students rarely develop beyond the status of one-time polemical instigators. They are then processed into the real world, leaving behind the same environment they had once encountered — a radicalized campus devoid of any Republican resources.

But a relatively small band of Brown University students have managed to achieve organizational longevity amidst a neighborhood of ideological adversaries. Upon arrival, Brown freshmen have always been able to join the Brown Democrats, the Queer Alliance, the Brown Feminists, the International Socialist Organization, the Young Communist League, or any number of radical, minority student groups. But for the past several years, they have been afforded the opportunity to join the ranks of the Brown Spectator.

The Spectator declares itself “a journal of conservative and libertarian thought and opinion committed to the dissemination and discussion of the ideas and values of Western Culture. … Above all, we seek to foster a culture of rational, intelligent debate at Brown, too often the victim of censorship and political correctness.”

The Spectator was originally founded by several students in the late 1980s in response to a repressive intellectual climate on Brown’s campus. Like so many other attempts at rectifying such conditions, the Spectator only published a few issues before perishing upon the graduation of the students who fueled its publication.

More than a decade passed before the Spectator was revived, this time in response to specific campus controversies regarding Brown’s philosophical boundaries. In the spring of 2001 conservative author David Horowitz penned an advertisement criticizing the idea of slavery reparations, prompting Brown’s minority activists — abetted by other radical students and professors — to steal an entire press run of the campus newspaper that brazenly ran the ad.

Brown’s anti-intellectualism made national headlines, shaming the university by exposing its dumbed-down campus and verifying the worst of what was suspected of the modern academy.

But out of Brown’s embarrassment came the rebirth of the Spectator, this time institutionalizing itself into campus life by drafting a constitution and an editorial hierarchy. The magazine was revived in 2003, but in subsequent years went through a growth spurt, exploding from an original squadron of four editors to a staff of thirty. The Spectator is now a monthly publication, managing its own blog/website and mailing issues to subscribers nationwide.

Having developed into premier reading material for Brown students, Spectator staffers are invited to participate in campus debates, bringing clarity of conservative perspectives to Ivy League students and establishing themselves as not just a magazine, but also as an actively pulsating community. The Spectator constitutes an astounding political presence within a university that intellectual maverick Camille Paglia once called “the most viciously intolerant campus that I ever visited as a lecturer.”

Paglia may be interested to know that for several years the Spectator has been contributing to an ongoing cultural transformation upon College Hill. In 2005 conservative author Dinesh D’Souza came to Brown to promote his new book, What’s So Great About America. Realizing full well that defending the United States has a tendency to invoke liberal wrath, D’Souza expected his visit to be accompanied by protest. But when his lecture wrapped up without incident, D’Souza remarked, “The kind of hard left that I usually encounter at Brown has declined, was absent, or in a post-election funk.”

D’Souza’s observation was accurate. Brown’s campus left is hardly the tyrannical entity it once was. It was humiliated by the Horowitz incident, deflated even further by some of Brown’s own institutional reform, and perhaps crushed for good by the ever-presence of the Spectator.

However, a fluid student body combined with a liberal faculty framework keeps Brown’s campus continuously primed to return to a state of leftist militancy. His awareness of this cycle is why former president of the College Republicans Christopher McAuliffe once advised hopeful campus reformers to “proceed with cautious optimism.” Trust, but verify.

The Spectator remains an ideological minority amongst a politically passionate community, and therefore still experiences — let us say — a lack of appreciation. The Spectator is often referred to as “toilet paper” on Brown’s online discussion forums, and a Brown Daily Herald columnist disdainfully called it the university’s “premier humor magazine” marked by a “hilarious mix of bad writing, bad arguments, and other crimes against journalism.”

Spectator staffers have also acquiesced to the reality that entire stacks of issues risk a short shelf life upon their distribution. “It occurs almost every issue. But the December 2006 issue was especially grievous, with about 200 copies destroyed,” says current editor-in-chief Andrew Kurtzman.

Yet, these independent-minded students remain obstinate, never hesitating to criticize — or even mock — Brown’s most potent activists. The most recent example of their bravado was senior Josh Unseth’s derisive commentary on Brown’s sexual radicals, which included a program called “FemSex” that distributed pornographic pictures of female genitalia throughout the campus. Invoking the university’s own sexual harassment policy that forbids “sexually suggestive … pictures … that may embarrass or offend individuals,” Unseth concluded, “It seemed pretty clear to me, FemSex sexually harassed me.”

Junior Kristina Kelleher can be just as cutting: “Gun control legislation doesn’t stop murders; it enables them by making [criminals] secure in their knowledge that their victims have no means to protect themselves. … Has anyone ever heard of a multiple shooting at an NRA meeting or a gun club?” Ann Coulter would be impressed.

Sophomore Anish Mitra titled his latest piece “Jimmy Carter Needs to Shut Up,” while Linda Zang argued, “If [the U.S.] chooses not to do what it takes to win the War in Iraq today, the geopolitical realities of the global war on terror will force us back to the deserts of the Middle East in the not-so-distant future.”

The Spectator’s most scorching opinions come from sophomore Sean Quigley, who often aims his attacks at the highest echelons of the university. “I sincerely hope that every alumnus or alumna of this university realizes that, in almost every way possible, the administrators of this university are enemies of decent society, and subsequently refuses to donate money so that they cannot fund the further degradation of that which this nation and her people hold most dear.”

And last year, when Brown president Ruth Simmons denigrated the moral character of George Washington for his absence from the abolitionist movement at the time of the nation’s founding, Quigley lambasted Simmons for her “revisionist history” and her failure to recognize that the “Father of Liberty … came to detest slavery … [but] understood the need for a type of prudent change that was commensurate with practicality.” Quigley finished his rebuke by advising Simmons to “shelve her moral hubris.”

The Spectator community has obtained the renegade identity, a reputation that the left most often claims, rather than earns. Campus liberals still think it takes guts to stand up for minorities and pierce their ears.

But Spectator staffers are your classical liberals, upholding liberty and defying the establishment — all while defending supply-side economics, neo-con foreign policy, and Christianity. They do more than anyone to sustain the academic tradition, and to avoid Brown University’s inevitable return to intellectual stagnation.

Travis Rowley is the author of Out of Ivy: How a Liberal Ivy Created a Committed Conservative. He can be reached at trowley@idiversity.org.

Travis Rowley (trowley@idiversity.org) is the chairman of the R.I. Young Republicans and author of Out of Ivy: How a Liberal Ivy Created a Committed Conservative.
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