Alternative Voices on Campus
Vanderbilt University in Tennessee is a traditionally conservative school. The majority of students support President George W. Bush, according to Jay Prather, editor of the Vanderbilt alternative newspaper Orbis, and there has been no significant antiwar demonstration on campus since Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in January 2002. But that doesn't mean there is no voice of dissent. The November 20, 2002, edition of the Orbis led with a story about Iraq's acceptance of a UN deadline for arms inspection, reporting that "the outcome was an achievement of a new form of American assertiveness which is founded as much on military, economic and political dominance as it is with the merit of its arguments or shared principles." Amanda Huskey, an editor at the Orbis and the author of the piece, says she has found a forum for her antiwar sentiments in the paper. "The paper invites different voices to share their views that otherwise might not be represented or heard," she says. "It allows me to write outside the box while hopefully generating public dialogue and debate."
Alternative campus publications have become an important venue for people like Huskey: progressive students looking for a chance to be heard. Despite the often high level of intellectual debate among college students, in many areas of life they are just starting to figure it all out. Political opinions are forming and campus newspapers are framing the debate. For students, the campus media are their first and often only news source. For progressive students, the alternative campus media are also an important rallying point. Progressive opinion journals on campus bring students together, creating a movement from a scattering of newly formed notions about how to make the world a better place.
Progressive publications have been galvanized in recent years by antiglobalization protests, the Ralph Nader campaign, reaction to September 11 and the prospect of war in Iraq. Today, the presence of progressive media on campuses is an important asset for movements challenging sweatshop labor, undemocratic global institutions and campus worker exploitation. The establishment campus media's pretensions to objectivity generally stop them from pursuing activist goals and providing in-depth coverage of issues important to progressives. The best campus alternative papers, by contrast, can weave a surprisingly large amount of intellectual and philosophical debate into typical journalistic content. Jenny Stepp, former editor of the Boiling Point at the University of North Carolina, explained that "post-9/11, it was really important to get out there and present the left idea of things and explain why, instead of just saying no [to war].... One of the publication's most important functions is to provide that forum."
But alternative papers like the Boiling Point are struggling, and progressives off campus have been slow to harness this powerful tool. The papers lack support from prestigious alumni and foundations. Conservatives, by contrast, have long paid attention to college papers. For two decades, organizations like the Collegiate Network and the Leadership Institute have channeled conservative money and support to a network of campus newspapers, now numbering about eighty nationwide [see sidebar]. Alumni of conservative campus periodicals fill the ranks of think tanks and Capitol Hill offices as well as journals of opinion and other media outlets. For Dinesh D'Souza, as for many conservative pundits and authors, his political education began while working on a college paper, in his case The Dartmouth Review. "It was my first exposure to conservative ideals," D'Souza says. Karen Paget, a contributing editor at The American Prospect, writes: "Conservative funders pay meticulous attention to the entire 'knowledge production' process. They think of it in terms of 'a conveyer belt' that stretches from academic research to marketing and mobilization, from scholars to activists."
Alternative campus papers can stimulate people to move their thinking in new directions, put topics on the campus agenda and shift campus discourse to the left. As one example, in summer 2001, the liberal Dartmouth Free Press obtained a copy of the college's report on institutionalizing diversity the weekend before it was to be released. By that Monday, the Free Press had produced an entire issue devoted to in-depth analysis and opinion pieces from many different perspectives, a day before a short article appeared in the campus daily. The Free Press illustrates that a separate publication devoted to opinion journalism can make a much greater impact than a few scattered op-eds in the established daily paper.
Alternative publications also help create a sense of shared community. As arguments are articulated and defended, students who are sympathetic to progressive views or are uncertain become more engaged in intellectual development and strengthen their beliefs. According to Orbis editor Prather, "At Vanderbilt it takes a special effort to find a liberal viewpoint." Students with progressive views often experience a sense of political isolation and retreat into specific identity groups rather than aligning themselves with the general progressive movement. Eric Young, a marketing consultant for progressive social justice organizations across North America, warns that "so often people who want to be fighting the good fight cluster into identity groups. They lose sight of those end goals and become fixated on the boundaries of their individual group." Alternative publications like Orbis become a rallying point, and with a more cohesive left community comes a chance for campuswide progressive discussion.
One major problem for alternative papers is that most are dependent on university funding. Since they tend to devote a large part of their efforts to criticizing the same administrations and student government officials that hand them money, what results is often an adversarial situation. Sonya Huber, former staff member at the Center for Campus Organizing, the founding organization of the Campus Alternative Journalism Project, points out that "a publication will say something to upset the university president and their funding goes right down." The Messenger at City College of New York, after publishing an investigative story exposing the university's secret surveillance of students with hidden cameras, found itself declassified from an "official graduate publication" to an "undergraduate club" with less funding available.
At Governor's State University in Illinois, the dean of students demanded to review the Innovator before it went to press, after it had been running articles critical of the administration. Editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty and staff reporter Steven Barba responded by bringing a legal challenge against the school. The school's defense rests on an interpretation of the Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, concerning high school control over an in-class publication. The Innovator's challenge has yet to be decided, leaving open the possibility that the university-funded Innovator could be considered a nonpublic forum and thus subject to censorship. This case is one of many concerning school censorship and allocation of student fees to support overtly political publications.