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The Right-Wing Plot to Take Over Student Governments

American conservatives keep attacking left-wing academics for what the right wing is actually doing.
Charlie Kirk speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Charlie Kirk speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. 

The right-wing attack on American universities has found its newest target: student governments. Turning Point USA is a non-profit organization focused on promoting right-wing ideology on college campuses through tactics that include supporting clubs, arranging speaking tours, publishing a "watchlist" intended to intimidate liberal professors, and now staging a nationwide campaign to elect their supporters as presidents of university student governments. They're touting a plan to take over the presidencies in every Division One university in the country, as well as a select group of other schools in the swing states of Florida and Ohio. The group's goal is to defund progressive student groups in order to reshape the campus culture in a conservative mold. What's worse, absent any organized response, it might just work.

Turning Point USA was founded by a right-wing provocateur named Charlie Kirk. Kirk vaulted to prominence as an 18-year-old wunderkind who managed to create a secretly funded organization based on whining about how hard it is to be a rich white man on a college campus. Kirk has created his brand by spinning the imaginary hegemony of political correctness into a kind of bogeyman that reliably scares up vast sums of money from donors. Now he's trying to buy student governments.

Michael Vasquez, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, broke the story about Kirk's efforts to use his organization's wealth to undermine fair college elections last May, though at the time Kirk denied that any such plan existed. Now Vasquez has obtained and released a detailed slideshow that lays out Turning Point's plan for "winning back our universities." The presentation emphasizes that student governments often hold the keys to funding for student groups, including funding for campus speaking events. Turning Point claims that it has already won 54 student government presidencies and that, given sufficient funder support, it's ready to scale up around the nation. The plan concludes with a list of targets: The Big Ten, ACC, PAC 12, SEC, and Big 12, then a select list of 49 colleges and universities in the swing states of Florida and Ohio.

Again and again, I am struck by how closely right-wing attacks on college campuses embody the precise allegations that conservatives like to level at the left. There is no organized liberal mission to control college elections, police conservative viewpoints on campus, force ideological homogeneity on students, or track right-wing professors (and there are many right-wing professors, especially in certain disciplines and types of schools). It's true that some elements at some universities skew left, but that's likely because it's a refuge for many professors from the mighty conservative corporate and political enterprises that dominate the planet. The American right, aided alas by far too many allegedly centrist writers, keep attacking left-wing academics for what the right wing is actually doing. Right-wing provocateurs and their violent supporters are what's threatening free expression on campus—not safe spaces or trigger warnings. Christian schools make students worship the flag and believe in hyper-specific theological dogma (it's often not enough to worship Jesus; you have to worship the right kind of Jesus), enforcing groupthink to a degree impossible at secular universities. Now, Turning Point wants to take over your student government as well, to make sure that only the right groups get funding.

What can be done? Since I'm in the Twin Cities, I called Erik Dussault, assistant director of Student Unions and Activities at the University of Minnesota (a school that appears on TPUSA's list of targets). Dussault didn't comment on Turning Point specifically but expressed concern over the possibility that outside groups would try to influence campus elections. Fortunately, he told me, Minnesota has a longstanding system that Dussault hopes will protect students. First, the student government at the University of Minnesota does not control how student fees are spent; that power belongs to a separate fees committee. Second, campaign finance is closely monitored and governed by strict internal rules. There are limits on how groups can spend money and limits on the ways that student groups (funded by student fees) can endorse candidates, and the overall system is intended to level the playing field for campus elections. The goal of these rules, Dussault tells me, isn't to stop outside groups from wielding influence, but just to make sure that every student has a fair shot at elected office.

Outfits like Turning Point and the missions they fund represent a true threat to freedom of expression on college campuses. You can't raise money with bake sales to compete against a millionaire-funded political machine; all you can do is make sure that the rules enforce fairness for all candidates. And when you do, people like Kirk will whine that they are being discriminated against because they've been forbidden from spending all their cash on campus. Let them whine. Don't be fooled.

Given the latest depredations of the right-wing machine, every college and university in America should immediately audit its procedures for college elections in order to protect the integrity of student government. Turning Point has made its target list known. Don't underestimate it. It's a shame to have to treat college elections with such scrutiny, but as Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, if you are facing an organized threat, your response has to be organized too.