Network Aims to Help Harassed Campus Conservatives

Though Christopher Flickinger calls himself "dean" and poses in parodistic photos waving a small American flag and looking stern, he says he's never been more serious about eliminating what he claims is pervasive anti-conservatism on college campuses today.

"When I was on campus, I had no help," the recent Ohio State University graduate told "I was harassed, intimidated, shouted down."

Flickinger, schooled in broadcast journalism, said he wants to provide the support he never had as a lonely conservative in college. That's why in November he launched the Network of College Conservatives to act in part as "a link for these conservative students, to let them know they are not alone."

Running the Web site solo from his Pittsburgh, Pa., home, Flickinger said he wants the network to be much more than a shoulder to cry on. Conservative students are still easy targets of liberal intimidation, he claims, but more than ever, they have a growing body of legal and activist support groups to turn to — and he wants his organization to be top among those resources.

Flickinger added that his group plans on "exposing and letting people know what is going on" on campuses by creating a clearinghouse on the Web site for students to pass along information about individual schools and professors.

"By exposing left-wing educators, providing information on liberal and conservative activities on campus and educating students on conservative thoughts, views and opinions, the NCC will counter the liberal bias throughout America's institutions of higher learning," reads the network's mission statement.

But not everyone believes that conservative students are as harassed or marginalized as they say they are or might have been in the past. Megan Fitzgerald is director of the Center for Campus Free Speech , described on its Web site as an organization "dedicated to preserving the marketplace of ideas on college campuses across the country."

Fitzgerald said her center defends speech by liberals and conservatives alike, and her own experience at the University of Wisconsin found that conservatives were vocal, organized and enjoyed the same platform as any other ideological movement on campus.

"I would say, my senior year, the student government, probably a majority of the members would have identified themselves as conservative," said the 2003 graduate

Other critics add that plenty of examples can be offered of anti-liberal attacks on campuses, most of them tacitly permitted by college administrators.

"There is a real blind spot on the part of conservatives, where they think conservatives are the only ones being repressed," said John K. Wilson, a graduate student in Chicago and author of "The Myth of Political Correctness: the Conservative Attack on Higher Education."

He noted several recent incidents of anti-Iraq war protesters being shut down and penalized across the country, including a group of Hampton College students who barely avoided expulsion this month for handing out "unapproved" fliers critical of the Bush administration. He also cited numerous examples of thwarted protests and students being manhandled by campus security for questioning the presence of military recruiters on campus.

"Conservatives have been very effective in promoting their own victimization," Wilson added.

Several conservatives acknowledge that as the country has become more equally divided among conservatives and liberals, today's student bodies are more reflective of those ideological differences.

"It used to be that some conservatives would concentrate on putting their heads down and just getting through," said David French, president of the legal group Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education, which recently supported the right of a University of Wisconsin resident assistant to hold Bible study sessions in his dorm. "Now they are more confrontational."

French said when he was at Harvard Law School 11 years ago there "wasn't a lot of hope" about doing something to counter the anti-conservative bias on campus, but he has seen some positive signs at Harvard since then.

"Now, there is a real sense that the cultural momentum in the [conservative] movement has actually made it to the academy," he said.

Sarah Armstrong, chairwoman of the Connecticut Union of College Republicans and a junior at Connecticut College, said her group has increased membership to 2,000 throughout the state and has even made inroads into Wesleyan University and other schools considered by many to be liberal bastions.

"[We're] very aggressive," in terms of organizing, Armstrong said. Still, she said, the anti-conservative bias is alive and well and most of it comes from the professors, "the people who should know better."

Earlier this year, professors Robert Lichter of George Mason University, Stanley Rothman of Smith College and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, released a surveywhich showed that 72 percent of college professors polled held liberal views on current topics such as abortion rights, the environment and homosexuality. However, the debate continues over whether professors let their personal views affect their teaching in the classroom.

Conservatives say they do. Efforts have been made by the group Students for Academic Freedom and conservative author David Horowitz to encourage states and school administrators to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights," which would attempt, in part, to prevent professors from pushing personal ideology in the classroom.

A number of states have been considering legislation that would require some form of the bill. Meanwhile, the state of Pennsylvania has recently formed a legislative panel that is investigating potential academic bias in its own institutions of higher education.

"This is where reform should happen: on the local levels, on the state levels," said Flickinger, whose ire is mostly directed at what he says is liberal bias in the classroom. He said a "quiet rebellion" is occurring among students who Flickinger calls "(Rush) Limbaugh babies" — students were brought up in households where the popular conservative talk radio host could be heard. "They have developed critical thinking skills and don&'t take at face value what the left is saying."

But Wilson and Fitzgerald say anti-conservative bias in the classroom is not as problematic as Flickinger and others suggest. Wilson said most professors do hold liberal points of view and are registered Democrats, according to the surveys, "but [those surveys] don't tell you anything about the professionalism of the faculty or whether those professors are abusing their positions."

Fitzgerald claimed her professors hailed from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

The American Association of University Professors released a lengthy opposition to the Academic Bill of Rights when it was published by Horowitz two years ago, saying it threatens the very freedom it purports to protect. Campus activists suggest that the conservatives behind these efforts merely want to restrict or censure professors with whom they don't agree.

"It does seem like they are people who don't think their ideas have a lot of widespread following and they are uncomfortable with that fact so they are just trying to shut down the other side. It seems, more than anything, an attempt to silence professors, shut them down, restrict them," Fitzgerald said.

Wilson said conservative religious colleges across the country have much stricter policies regarding speech and behavior, and Web sites like NCC seek to work as "spy" sites that smack of fascist tactics to "out" liberal professors.

Flickinger said he welcomes the criticism, and since launching NCC has received hate mail along with letters of encouragement. Meanwhile, the site has already registered conservative students from more than 60 colleges and universities in what he says he hopes will offer "camaraderie through numbers."

"Hopefully, we'll bring this quiet revolution to a loud, boisterous battle," he said.