Politics & Policy

The Alternatives

A brief history and celebration of conservative newspapers on campus.

It has been about eight months since National Review’s own Jay Nordlinger glided through the antechamber of the Inn at Harvard. He was on his way to deliver a paean to conservative courage on campus. The occasion? The Harvard Salient, our only journal of right-leaning opinion here in Cambridge, was turning 21. I proceeded to emcee the event after closing the doors to Harvard Crimson photographers and other riff-raff from Harvard Square.

The dinner has stayed with me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the pleasure of introducing Mr. Nordlinger, along with our other keynote speaker, Prof. Harvey C. Mansfield.

The Harvard Salient was founded in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year in office) by a small band of Harvard students. Prof. Mansfield was an adviser from the very beginning. There was the distinct need, then as now, for a serious venue of expression for conservative principles and ideas, and the Harvard Crimson was not it. Neither, by the early ’80s, was The Harvard Independent, which had split in 1969 from the Crimson over the latter’s automatic leftism. The Salient provided a distinct forum for truly alternative opinion and dissent, and it has continued to do so for these 20-plus years. Fortunately, as we were reminded at our banquet, this has not meant following in the footsteps of so many on the campus Left and losing our sense of humor.

Those of us at the dinner thus recalled how, during the 1980s, after some students built a mock shantytown to urge divestment from South Africa, the Salient followed suit — by offering a mock Gulag.

We also toasted former Salient business manager Ted Wright, who during an anti-impeachment rally at Harvard in 1998 featuring Alan Dershowitz and Barney Frank organized a Gore-for-President, pro-impeachment anti-rally. At the rally, Ted passed out cigars, and ended up with his mug in the Boston Herald.

The dinner was especially memorable for me because of the opportunity it provided to reflect on the phenomenon of which my darling rag is a part: the continuing story of conservative journalism on campus. It is an inspiring story of shoestring budgets, sleepless nights, and perseverance in the face of what is still often fierce student, and occasionally administration, animosity. It is a story that demonstrates one of the founding premises of modern American conservatism. As the famous title of one of Richard Weaver’s books puts it, “Ideas have consequences.”

The story usually starts in 1978, with inflation rapidly approaching double digits and U.S. influence around the world diminishing. The time was ripe for vigorous conservative counter-action. But with a mélange of neo-Keynesianism and lingering Great Society gimmicks passing for policy, there was little sense that one could translate strong ideas of liberty and freedom into action. Bill Simon, President Ford’s Treasury secretary, and Irving Kristol, famed public intellectual and a founder of neo-conservatism, got together to change the picture. In 1978, they established the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA).

The institute would “seek out promising Ph.D. candidates and undergraduate leaders, help them establish themselves through grants and fellowships and then help them get jobs with activist organizations, research projects, student publications, federal agencies or leading periodicals.” At stake was nothing less than the formation of what Simon, in his 1978 book A Time for Truth, called a “powerful counterintelligentsia.” Simon’s point was simple: The very Americans who should be on the front lines defending institutions of ordered liberty, i.e., businessmen, were the ones underwriting their own destruction — by supporting academics who openly subverted American principles. This had to change.

The IEA received significant start-up funds from corporations such as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, and General Electric. Opponents have tried to “out” such contributions as evidence of unspeakable corruption. But Simon was proud of the collaboration; he called for it openly and in his book justified it philosophically. “Funds generated by business,” he wrote, “(by which I mean profits, funds in business foundations and contributions from individual businessmen) must rush by multimillions to the aid of liberty, in the many places where it is beleaguered.” (Emphasis added.)

The IEA ended up playing a pivotal role in the rise of conservative college papers founded in the early Eighties. The new decade saw the founding of, to name just a few, The Dartmouth Review, The Michigan Review, The Primary Source at Tufts, The Harvard Salient, The Princeton Tory, The Oregon Commentator, and The Virginia Advocate. IEA also organized conferences where the editors of these new papers could connect, as well as learn more about journalism. Describing the launching of my own paper, founding father Terry Quist reminisces, “The IEA was absolutely critical in providing the start-up money for the Salient.” With an initial grant of several thousand dollars, the early leadership could “focus on assembling staff and on generating quality writing instead of flogging local cigar stores and Chinese restaurants for $50 ads.”

Still, the influence of the IEA must not be exaggerated. The new student newspapers — along with arguably every other great movement on the right over the last 30 years, from pro-life, to anti-gun-control, to school-voucher groups — were first and foremost a grassroots phenomenon. It was the papers that took the initiative and approached IEA — not the other way around.

Leslie Lenkowsky, secretary-treasurer of the IEA until 1983 (when he left for a stint in the Reagan administration) and president upon his return in 1985, recalls how funding student newspapers was not even part of the original idea: “We did not (and could not have) anticipated the student newspapers; in fact, we thought that most of the grants we made would be to younger scholars of ‘conservative’ bent who could not otherwise get assistance for their research. However, first students at the University of Chicago and then at Dartmouth approached us about funding alternative student newspapers and the board (myself included) concluded that their work was close enough to our intended purpose to justify support.”

Those who insist that the new student papers could not have come into being without corporate prodding might thus do well to consider whether the presence on campus of the radical Left was not, and does not continue to be, prodding enough. The presence of the Left, combined with the electric feeling that Reagan’s election really was ushering in something new, compelled a fresh crop of ambitious student conservatives to seek support and write. No one told us to rebel.

With ample student enthusiasm, the IEA umbrella continued strong throughout the Eighties. After 1985, Lenkowsky worked on putting together a Collegiate Network (CN) of all the papers receiving IEA assistance, in order to streamline the various ad hoc relationships already in place. By 1991, IEA had split into two groups: the CN wing, still known as IEA, and a section dealing with the philanthropy side of Kristol and Simon’s counterintelligentsia equation. The latter today is known as the Philanthropy Roundtable. The CN wing, on the other hand, almost immediately became a part of the new Madison Center for Educational Affairs (MCEA) — itself the result of a merger between what was left of IEA and a little-known entity called the Madison Center, founded by Bill Bennett, Harvey Mansfield, and Allan Bloom (of Closing of the American Mind fame).

By 1993 and ‘94, MCEA’s journalism program had languished — employees were leaving (for various reasons) without being replaced, and money was running low. And so, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) made a successful bid and stepped in to take over the CN structure. William F. Buckley Jr. had founded ISI in 1953, when modern conservatism had to be forged in the face of a contrary Establishment consensus. Today, ISI’s membership stands at more than 60,000, and the Collegiate Network continues to operate under the Institute’s auspices.

The CN has been wildly successful under the leadership of Stan Ridgley, executive director of the CN from the ISI takeover in 1995 to December 2002. It has seen a rise in conservative student newspapers from 38 to 80. Part of the reason may be Ridgley’s own background in army intelligence: Ridgley, one of the founders of The Duke Review, is a no-nonsense guy, with boundless energy for body-slamming the campus Left.

Important as the IEA was, however, we should remember that a good number of conservative student papers existed long before it swung into action. These papers included the University of Wisconsin’s Badger Herald, Right-On at the University of Texas at Austin, and of course The Alternative, soon to become The American Spectator, at the University of Indiana. Conservative journalism in the Sixties, predictably enough, responded in large part to the hate and violence of the anti-Vietnam movement, as well as the SDS culture generally. Given this provocation, some of the earlier papers are especially memorable for the point they made of (sometimes literally) jabbing the Left in the eye. One recalls the pie-throwing story of “Dr. Rudolph Montague of Columbia University” that R. Emmett Tyrrell relates in his book The Conservative Crack-Up. Looking back on those times, Tyrrell muses, “[We] even indulged in what was . . . a specialty of the left, guerrilla theater.”

When the wave of the 1980s did come, it included a good number of more academic journals. Some of them openly disclaimed any political allegiance, not focusing as much on campus issues as on national policy. Articles dealt with arms control, tax policy, school vouchers. Part of this, no doubt, was the neo-conservative geist gusting over from the IEA: Kristol, and the neo-conservatives at large, felt more at home in academia than an older generation of conservatives, and probably wanted to distance themselves from Taft Republicans.

What has remained constant about the conservative student papers from the 1950s to the present day is the particular way in which they have taken on a reigning liberal academic order. Whether combating hatred of America in the 1960s, or consciously enabling scholars through the IEA, or deflating PC pomposity in the ’80s and ’90s, the conservative papers have tried to ensure the integrity of the university through the use of reason — the mode of argument that the university is supposed to nourish and uphold.

This insistence on reason in writing is a phenomenon mirrored in the recent explosion of news and editorial weblogs (or “blogs”), which for the most part tend to be centrist or right-leaning. It is a phenomenon with no national counterpart on the student left, where activists currently prefer protesting to writing or are simply too fragmented to do much of anything.

This, then, is the thread that connects the early papers to the later ones, arguably even paleo- to neo-conservatism — from Nock, Kirk, and Weaver, to Kristol, Glazer, and Wilson. It is an insistence on ideas and intellectual exchange in getting to the truth of political questions, as opposed to a glorification of feeling, on the one hand, and “movement” and violence, implicit or explicit, on the other. American conservatism, in one sense, has never been a “movement.” It continues to be an intellectual journey, and it is one in which college newspapers have taken a proud part.

Here at Harvard, we are still having to journey. Among the fellows this year of the prestigious Institute of Politics, which prides itself on being nonpartisan, there is a single conservative — Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. One can still count the number of prominent conservative faculty members on one hand. Cornel West is gone, but grade inflation continues; and although President Summers has given several tantalizing hints that he supports a change in University policy, the ROTC is still basically banned from campus.

The Harvard Salient will have its hands full in the coming months and years. We can only pray that, in addition to our principles, we hold on to our sense of humor.

— Bolek Kabala is a senior at Harvard.


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