Alternative Voices on Campus

Alternative Voices on Campus

Progressive journals are key in creating a movement, but they lack support.


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.

Without solid support from the university, the need for outside support becomes critical. While the conservative Collegiate Network alone claims to spend $1 million a year on programs related to campus publications, progressive publications can find themselves forced to cut their budgets or unable to start up. When asked to identify the biggest challenge for North Carolina’s Boiling Point, editor Rachael Young did not hesitate: “Funding…we haven’t really come up with a lot; there’s not a lot of money out there for [us].” And there are few funding options. Fundraising events and door-to-door soliciting provide only minor sums of money, and subscriptions do not cover overhead for even the most well-established newspapers. Many American publications depend on advertising to cover production costs, but some alternative papers adhere to strict anticorporate views. Harish Bhandari of the X at the University of California, Berkeley, argues, “We’re a public institution, and I don’t see the place for ads on the campus.” Even if an alternative paper welcomes ads, many students are unable to solicit effectively in their spare time.

In cases where funding is available, progressive papers are often victims of neglect. While the energy from progressive students is there, it is not well channeled by a strong institutionalized network. Starting any type of campus publication requires learning the technicalities of layout, printing and finance, and the nuts and bolts of putting together a paper. Everything from deciding editorial policy to publication format and layout takes time to develop. Student journalists are often reinventing the wheel. While many papers are founded by an energetic group, the paper’s zeal often dies once they graduate.

Conservative campus papers are also affected by these problems, but they have a strong network to maintain continuity and help give their papers some independence from the college. The Collegiate Network provides direct grants to publications and a toll-free advice hotline. The Leadership Institute offers advice to conservative papers on how to become nonprofit groups independent from the college, and it runs seminars on finding advertisers and raising funds from sympathetic alumni. Conservative students nationwide are also linked through conferences run by alumni to train a new generation of campus journalists, who often go on to positions of power, where they affect the larger public discourse.

Progressives have tried to establish their own network of campus papers, but with much less success. In 1987 the Center for National Policy, a progressive, Washington-based think tank, was approached by a group of student journalists with a request for help. The result was a conference of student journalists that year, but subsequent fundraising was disappointing. The CNP managed to raise only $10,000 to fund twenty papers in 1988. In 1994 the Center for Campus Organizing started an alternative publication network and in a matter of weeks had fifty-five publications on its list. Later, when the CCO died, its Campus Alternative Journalism Project became part of the Independent Press Association, where it remains under the leadership of Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the first dedicated CAJP staff member. Today, the CAJP is a nationwide network that offers a website template, an online discussion forum, annual awards and an article exchange service; and answers questions and troubleshoots for its 102 active member publications.

A panel chair at a recent conservative foundation conference emphasized that you get “huge leverage for your dollars” in funding the war of ideas at all levels, but while conservative foundations have purchased storefront property in the marketplace of ideas, most foundations regarded as progressive or liberal simply are not interested in aiding student newspapers. Despite what is often perceived as a shortage of funds on the left, these foundations do have comparable resources but devote little of it to media and broad-based ideological movements. Some of these foundations are actually rather moderate and try not to be explicitly political. Others are engaged in activist work on specific issues. Interviews with a number of foundation officials revealed that many more progressive foundations regard their main responsibility as serving constituencies directly affected by bad policy. Soya Harris, grants manager for A Territory Resource (ATR), a public foundation that supports activist, community-based organizations working for social, economic and environmental justice in the Northwest, explained, “Campus organizing can be very insular and not connected to communities around the campus…. We work with people who need to build power for themselves first.”

Funding grassroots organizing is important, but the foundation community cannot afford to ignore the war of ideas, or we will lose it [see Michael H. Shuman, “Why Do Progressive Foundations Give Too Little to Too Many?” January 12/19, 1998].

If the progressive movement hopes to counter the shift to the right in op-ed columns, talk-radio, cable TV and the Internet, it must work to shape the broader public discourse, a discourse that begins on college campuses. According to Edwards-Tiekert, student publications may start up in reaction to a single cause, but their existence helps to “develop future thinkers.” The process of publishing a paper develops these students’ ideas, making them more effective in their involvement in public affairs.

In the last presidential election, 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters voted Republican. The right is pumping millions of dollars into swaying young people to its side, and its influence is growing. But the student movement has a progressive tradition. Ignoring that tradition and the papers it produces will encourage the march to the right, while supporting them can lead to a new generation dedicated to progressive politics.

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