This post first appeared on Townhall Finance.
Perhaps no issue is causing more consternation among conservatives than the so-called culture wars on college campuses. Fear that liberals and progressives are indoctrinating their kids has fueled state legislation, redirected the educational futures of their children, and driven alumni to limit their giving to institutions of higher education that, ironically, often provided the very education they used to leverage their own careers and businesses.
While more than a few of these fears, but not all, are grounded in real weaknesses in the academy, too often the tactics for reining in college campus liberalism misses the mark. In fact, they make matters worse, creating more hostility toward the free market and limited government ideas they so passionately want to support.
Our experience at Florida State University, however, suggests a holistic approach grounded in the realities of undergraduate education and the complexities of the culture and politics of higher education can create a more viable and sustainable path forward. Indeed, our experience within a secular institution of higher education suggests winning the culture wars depends on building up four pillars of sustainable conservative activism and institutional support: student activism, administrative leadership, faculty support, and alumni support. Combined, these pillars create a sustainable conservative and pro-liberty culture and presence on campuses.
The Florida State University Experiment
For the past nine years, Florida State has served as a petri dish of sorts for how to cultivate, embed, and nurture a pro-liberty movement among college students in an ideologically and socially secular setting.
More than 1,300 students self identify into limited government, Republican, conservative, libertarian, or pro-liberty groups through their membership in more than a dozen student organizations. A dozen more are “fellow travelers,” not ideologically oriented but largely supportive of this worldview.
Prior to COVID-19, these organizations had a weekly direct reach based on meeting attendance of nearly 250 students. These groups have sponsored controversial and high-profile figures in the conservative movement without incident, including Milo Yianopoulas, Charlie Kirk, and Rachel Campos-Duffy.
Lifting the hood to take a look inside FSU’s culture and politics provides a clue to why this robust conservative movement persists and is growing on campus.
First, despite students voicing meaningful and serious concerns about liberal professors, the campus continues to draw significant pro-liberty students more interested in a solid academic education and a healthy social life than political activism alone. While more than two dozen like-minded organized student groups wax and wane with the level of student activism and the quality of leadership, these organizations provide a broad and diverse framework within which these students can test their own ideas among friends. They provide bountiful leadership opportunities for them to test their skills at managing people, organizing events, promoting professional networking, and honing messages through public speaking.
Importantly, these organizations are self-organizing. They have not been created by faculty or the university administration.
The Role of Administrative Leadership
Second, these groups have institutional support. Despite an overwhelmingly liberal orientation among staff in the university administration, FSU has embraced a culture of tolerance, if not acceptance, of diverse points of view. FSU at one point was called “The Berkeley of the South” because of its student activism during the 1960s. White students in segregated FSU partnered with African American students from nearby Florida A&M University to break down Jim Crow laws in Tallahassee and Florida.
This reputation and tolerance was solidified under a series of presidents, most notably J. Stanley Marshall, who went on to found the free-market James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. Dr. Marshall considered student protest as a “kind of love” because these actions reflected their care for the institution where they had committed four years of their life. That culture persists today through its universal support for student voices as long as they are civil and do not promote or condone violence.
In addition, Florida State has leadership in its colleges and schools that provide active support for conservative voices despite deeply held disagreements on policy and political philosophy. The Dean of the College of Social Sciences, an urban planner by training and profession, has participated in numerous conservative student meetings to reinforce his commitment to ensuring their voice is heard and valued within the college at the highest levels.
The Role of Faculty
Third, the university has faculty who support conservative and pro-liberty voices. While conservatives often lament the lack of limited government faculty in academic departments, the more important measure is general faculty support for conservative ideas rather than embracement of their ideals. The faculty advisors for the more than two dozen student organizations that promote market-oriented ideas and conservative principles are not all free market economists, conservative political scientists, or rogue sociologists. More often than not, they are fellow travelers committed to an earnest and authentic discussion of diverse viewpoints.
Florida State surely benefits from the more than a dozen full-time faculty who self-identify as libertarian, conservative, pro-liberty, or limited government. But these faculty have little influence on the culture or direction of the institution without the support of colleagues who value their commitment to teaching and research independently of their work with students more focused on political activism.
Fourth, the university accommodates and honors the financial support of its alumni. The DeVoe L. Moore Center, one of three free market think tanks in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, was endowed by a local entrepreneur. The center’s donor agreement explicitly recognizes the center mission to support work (and students) examining the role private enterprise and free markets play in the economy. It also recognizes the center’s mission includes a healthy, evidence-based skepticism of government solutions to problems. Founded in 1998, the center now has 30 students working in various capacities to support the center’s mission.
A Holistic Approach
The key to winning the culture wars is strengthening the four pillars of a sustainable conservative movement – student activism, administrative leadership, faculty support, and alumni support – on existing campuses, not tearing down the institutions themselves.
Conservative and libertarian activism is alive, healthy, and growing at Florida State. With more than 1,300 students identifying in this movement through membership in student-led organizations – already the size of a small liberal arts college – the reach is potentially much greater.
The task before us – faculty, administrators, alumni – is to build up the support for these students by working creatively together to strengthen the very institutions these students have chosen to earn their academic right of passage into the professional and business world.