June marks the 20th anniversary of The Stanford Review and earlier this year Review staffers and alumni gathered in Palo Alto to celebrate the occasion. The Review has published every semester since 1987, making it the second-oldest continuously publishing conservative student newspaper in the country. During this time, the Review has provided a source of conservative commentary to the Stanford campus and has been a persistent thorn in the side of the university administration. In fact, in one of the Review’s finest moments, a Review staffer even defeated a university-imposed speech code in court. However, perhaps more importantly, The Review’s 20-year history provides good lessons about conservative student journalism and the rising fortunes for conservatives on many college campuses.
Conservative newspapers have sprung up on too many campuses during the last 25 years to keep track of. However, it seems that a vast majority of these efforts are relatively short lived. Why it is that papers like The Dartmouth Review and The Stanford Review have enjoyed continuity while most others have not? The simple reason is that both The Stanford Review and The Dartmouth Review succeeded in developing reliable networks of alumni donors early in their history. Of course, the fact that Review founder Peter Thiel went on to found Paypal.com has certainly helped the paper’s financial condition. However, the success of Thiel and other undergraduates at developing a solid fundraising base placed the Review on solid financial footing well before the dotcom boom of the late 1990s.
Indeed, when I get a chance to talk to students involved with conservative newspapers, I always encourage them to think about long-term fundraising. Most students who fundraise for conservative papers, understandably spend most of their time thinking about how they can raise just enough money to publish another issue. However, the way to ensure the longevity of any conservative paper is to establish a solid base of alumni contributors. Recruiting good staffers every year can be a fickle process and a one bad editor-in-chief can easily undermine years of hard work. However, if a paper can effectively raise money, it is considerably easier attract the staff that will sustain the paper for an extended period of time.
The Review also teaches some good lessons about how Stanford has changed over the years. In the mid to late 1980s, Stanford was a much different place. The faculty senate vocally and shortsightedly raised a number of objections to placing the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on campus. Perhaps more notoriously, Jesse Jackson frequently visited the Stanford campus to rally opposition to Stanford’s Western culture course requirements. In fact, one memorable day during the late 1980s Jackson marched a team of undergraduates around campus chanting, “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Western Culture has got to go!”
Today the campus is much different. One gets the striking impression that many university administrators did not particularly like the fact that Stanford was one of key battlegrounds in the in the ongoing controversy over multiculturalism. As such, the campus today has a decidedly techie feel to it with high number of undergraduates majoring in engineering, the hard sciences, and computer science. To a certain extent this has probably contributed to less interest in politics than on other college campuses. In fact, during the late 1990s it seemed that Stanford was the campus that politics had forgotten.
Certainly this depoliticization of the university does detract from the campus dialogue on political and cultural issues. However, it is probably safe to say that conservative undergraduates at Stanford probably face less in the way of shrill hostility than their peers at other schools. Furthermore, the administration has become smart enough to refrain from attacking Review editors and writers directly. While some administrators have certainly tried to undermine and hinder the paper in more discrete ways, The Review’s ability to communicate with donors and alumni has caused many Stanford administrators to realize that direct hostility is not a winning strategy. This trend can be seen at other schools with established conservative newspapers as well.
Overall, it is hardly a secret that university campuses can be difficult places for conservative students. However, one encouraging trend is the emergence of durable campus institutions dedicated to either the promotion or the study of conservative ideas. Some of these institutions are faculty driven such as Robert George’s James Madison Program at Princeton. However, others are led by students such as The Stanford Review, The Dartmouth Review, and the various conservative parties in the Yale Political Union. Community is important to conservatives. And it is heartening to know conservative students can choose one of many top schools, confident that during their stay, they will have the opportunity to be a part of a vibrant conservative community. Now that is something worth celebrating.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. As a doctoral student in political science at Stanford, he served on The Stanford Review’s staff between 1997 and 2002.