Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Here’s a Better Way for Conservative Student Groups to Garner Attention

You can pay thousands of dollars for controversial speakers, or you can help your fellow students.
August 30, 2019
Here’s a Better Way for Conservative Student Groups to Garner Attention
Conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted to the University of California, Berkeley campus where he is expected to speak to dozens of supporters on September 24, 2017. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

College students are trickling back to campuses around the country, settling into dorms and apartments, finding their classroom buildings, and also joining organizations that appeal to their interests and hobbies. 

Conservative student groups, I learned during my time in school, often suffer from the same problem: membership. It’s not necessarily because there aren’t any conservatives on campuses, but because there’s often a social stigma with being a known conservative on campus. 

Here’s the thing: In many cases, those groups respond to that stigma not by engaging with critics, but by trying to drown them out. They’ll bring a high-profile speaker to campus, spending a ton of money to guarantee outrage from their ideological foes while wrapping themselves in the banner of free speech.

But I’m not sure how much longer we’ll have that cover. As National Review columnist David French points out, there was a time when free speech codes and restrictions sprang up to silence conservatives on campus, but now there are networks of lawyers ready to defend free speech on campus.

“The battle for freedom has been fought and won. Your speech may be free, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Truly confronting illiberal political correctness requires personal courage. Without it, the battle for the First Amendment will have been fought in vain,” he writes.

What would make it a lot easier is if right-leaning students started dedicating some of their time to showing that conservatives aren’t all the evil people we’re made out to be. Imagine this: what if we proved that in a capitalist society, private charity could help people who are down on their luck?

If the purpose of these chapters is to influence a particular campus with conservative ideas, other students will be much more receptive if you express a desire for the student body to flourish—not polarize. When you begin to see yourself as part of a whole, you realize how self-destructive it is to bring provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.

For the most part, it appears that Milo’s days are over, thankfully. And many speakers who are prominent on the campus circuit have ideas that, even though they might scare lefties, are worth hearing. But is it worth thousands of dollars in speaker fees and then more to cover the security costs? Is that really the best way to spend your entire budget?

Such expenses can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. What if you used that money to feed the homeless in your college town or organize donation drives for local children who need school supplies or winter coats or athletic equipment. That’s a much more positive way to get media attention.

Or, even closer to home: What if you fed your own campus? A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reveals a hunger crisis on America’s campuses—that 30% of students aren’t getting the nutritional value they need. Could you imagine how effective an argument against socialism you would make by giving fresh fruit while wearing a “Socialism Sucks” shirt?

Instead of seeing speaking events as the end all of their chapters, national student organizations should divide their budget for campus chapters like this: 40% for speakers, 30% for activism supplies and promotional material, 30% for charity.

What are speakers making these days? Ben Shapiro reportedly commands up to $30,000 a pop, doing five or six speeches a year. 

Just to get a sense of what other speakers charge, I asked a few current student activists at other colleges how much it cost for their groups to bring a speaker: Nigel Farage in 2019 cost $20,000 to speak at Lock Haven University, funded by Young Americans for Liberty and Turning Point USA; Dave Rubin in 2019 cost $12,000 to speak at the University of Nebraska, funded by Turning Point USA; Bay Buchanan in 2019 charged $2000 to speak at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, funded by Young America’s foundation.

Most other activists I know haven’t spent more than $5,000 on a single speaker, but Shapiro works exclusively with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) affiliated chapters whose annual speaker budget is $463,000, nearly double what it was last year.

Why do student groups choose to spend so much money on a single event? Wouldn’t it be both cheaper and more persuasive to be a positive force on their local campuses? Allow me to offer my cynical perspective: that its more valuable for national conservative student organizations to inflame political tensions on campus by being rabble-rousers, and more valuable to students who are asked to go on Fox News to give their woe-is-me testimony.

Maybe it’s hard for local chapters to get money for service instead of speakers, because it doesn’t raise any profiles. That’s not the end of the world. You can still volunteer your time for free. You can spend a day picking up trash on the beach, helping freshmen find their classes, tutoring your peers, or planning social events.

Students who are considering their options for student organizations right now should ask themselves these questions? Will you fall into the trap of depersonalizing your political opponents and fighting fire with fire? Or will you rise above the awful standard our politicians have made for you and do something constructive with your time? Before you decide, just think: It’s much harder for someone to call you a Nazi if you are handing them a sandwich.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the article was published with the wrong byline. It was written by Willliam Nardi.