On tense Berkeley campus, conservative scholar Steven Hayward thrives

Steven Hayward is used to being the odd man out.

In his more than 40 years as an academic and political scientist, Hayward continually has operated on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the majority of his colleagues and students. 

But even the conservative commentator — who is more than used to taking heat at some of the country’s most liberal academic institutions for his stances — says he hasn’t seen such polarization on campus since the 1960s.

“On college campuses today there are so many professors and students with a liberal ideology,” Hayward told Fox News. “There are not many conservative students and those that are conservative are many times afraid to speak for fear of being mocked or trolled by their fellow students.”

Hayward, who is in his second year of a three-year stint as a resident scholar at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, has had a front-row seat to the ongoing ideological battle playing out this year on the leafy college campus between a large far left contingent and a smaller, but growingly vocal hard right.

Starting in February with the appearance on campus of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a number of speeches by conservative speakers and alt-right luminaries ranging from author Ann Coulter to Yiannopoulos’ “Free Speech Week” either have been cancelled or subject to violent protests by members of the anarchist collective Antifa.

“I was there that night,” Hayward said of the February night when Antifa protesters vandalized university buildings and started fires to prevent Yiannopoulos from giving a speech on campus. “I left before it all happened but I went out to see the circus.”

Conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos holds protest signs while speaking at the University of California in Berkeley, California, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Noah Berger - RC1F9EBC0040

Milo Yiannopoulos holding protest signs while speaking at Berkeley last Sunday.  (REUTERS/Noah Berger)

While some — including conservatives who have had their speeches interrupted or canceled amid the protests — blame the school for allegedly suppressing free speech, Hayward balks at that claim and says numerous times in the past the school has hosted various conservative speakers without controversy or violence.

Two years ago conservative firebrand and former Breitbart Editor Ben Shapiro spoke at an event attended by Hayward and the event went almost unnoticed. Earlier this month, however, Berkeley officials doled out $600,000 in security when Shapiro took the stage again on campus. The event went off as planned, but police did arrest nine people, including three on weapons-related charges.

Hayward says the reason the school is seeing so much political unrest on campus this year is due in part to the polarizing nature of President Donald Trump.

“Just look at his tweets,” Hayward said. “They’re meant to draw attention and stir conversation. He has enlivened the extremes of both sides — left and right — to mobilize.”

On UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza — the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s — anti-fascist protestors denouncing Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions vied with members of the rightwing Patriot Prayer group and students in “Make America Great Again” hats for space to demonstrate.

While the dueling demonstrations went off peacefully, there was a large number of UC Berkeley and state police officers on hand and, at one point, law enforcement cleared part of the plaza amid a bomb threat.

Given the tense atmosphere on campus, some conservatives might be thinking of keeping their head down and lying low until the dust settles. But that’s not Hayward.

“I love it,” he said of the debates taking place on campus. “While I may not agree with some of the tactics taken by both sides, this is what is supposed to be happening. An open political discourse is part and parcel of American democracy.”