Higher Ed Is Dominated by the Left. So Where Should Conservative Students Turn for Help?

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It is no secret that college campuses have become a bastion for progressive thought and activism. With so many universities striving to push their left-wing agenda on young people, the work of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is more important than ever.

On today’s episode of The Daily Signal Podcast, Charlie Copeland, ISI’s president and CEO, shares how his organization is working on college campuses all over America to provide students with an educational background on conservative thought. Copeland weighs in on the state of high education today and what trends he is seeing across university campuses.

Listen to the full episode or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: We are joined by Charlie Copeland, president and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISI is an organization that’s focused on providing college students with an educational background on conservative thought.

Charlie, thanks for joining us.

Charlie Copeland: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Bluey: Well, Charlie, as you and I know, students across America are heading back to campus, or in many cases probably already there, and ISI’s mission is to inspire them to discover, embrace, and advance the principles and virtues that make America free and prosperous.

Tell us, as those students are now back in their classes and experiencing all the joys of campus life, how do you go about accomplishing that on so many of these bastions of liberal thought in America?

Copeland: We’ve been around since 1953, and so we’ve got some pretty good experience. The first place that we start is with our faculty associates. We have a network of faculty, conservative faculty and libertarian faculty, on campuses across the country. Interestingly enough, they do exist. They’re woefully outnumbered, but they do exist.

We’ve been offering graduate student fellowships since the early ’60s. About 600 faculty on campuses across the country are actually ISI graduate student fellows. Then there’s another almost 2,400 faculty that are on the campus that we’ve engaged with in one way or another, and we communicate regularly to them with content ideas, with curriculum ideas, and other information about conservative ideas and where the educational space is in conservative circles.

In return to that, they provide us access to some of their students. We are really looking for bright, deep-thinking, intellectually curious conservative and libertarian college students who really … understand that there’s something else out there than what they’re being fed by 90% of the faculty, and they’re looking for it, and they find it through our faculty associates.

Then we also have a few staff that we have of regional directors, and they’re usually just a year or two out of college. They carry a caseload of college campuses, and they go and they meet with students and help those students develop ISI societies. They help those students organize and host lectures and debates.

We’ll also work with students to set up student journalism programs and student newspapers. We’ve got on almost 60 campuses conservative-focused, if you will, coming from the conservative side, investigative journalism newspapers that do stories on campus.

It’s really very robust, and it’s across the board.

As I said, we have these faculty members that help us identify students. We have our staff, our regional directors that help identify students. Then we have other students that will say, “Hey, I know this young student, male or woman, or whatever, and they’d love to get involved in ISI,” and we dial them in.

Lastly, we do a lot of social media outreach. Any parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle or student who may be listening to the podcast, if they go to join.isi.org, they can sign up and get an intellectual starter kit, which includes a book from Russell Kirk and some other material, as well as Modern Age, which is an intellectual journal we’ve got, and some regular updates on conservative thought, both from economics, policy, philosophy, and politics.

Virginia Allen: That’s great.

Well, you’ve now served as ISI’s president since 2016, after a career in politics and business. Can you share about the founding of ISI and why your predecessors saw the need for an organization that would advance critical thinking among college students?

Copeland: We go back a long way. We were founded in 1953, and our first president was William F. Buckley Jr. We’ve got some big shoes to fill over those many, many years. He started ISI, or became the first president, after writing his book “God and Man at Yale,” in which Bill Buckley pointed out, and, again, this is 1953, that the campus culture was being increasingly dominated by a progressive, secular, left-leaning faculty elite. So he started this, and we’ve been working away at it ever since.

Flash forward to today, where, as I mentioned, we’ve got almost 3,000 faculty associates that we work with, we’ve got 100 societies on campus, we run almost 200 lectures and debates every year.

What we’re looking for is, again, that really bright, deep-thinking, intellectually curious conservative or libertarian thinker who’s going to go on when they graduate and be a leader somewhere. They’re going to be a leader in their community, a leader in their state, a leader in the country, and maybe that’s in business or maybe it’s in politics, maybe it’s in the law.

The founders of The Federalist Society that have done such a great job identifying and promoting conservative justices were all ISI alumni. Two members of the Supreme Court, Sam Alito and Neil Gorsuch, both participated in ISI programming when they were on college campus.

I could go on and on with the number of folks that you and I would would all know out there that went through ISI programming.

We want to identify those kids because we firmly believe that one person with courage and intellect makes a majority … We know they have the courage and we know that they’re bright, and we want to make sure they understand where these root and foundational principles come from and why they are still appropriate to today’s culture, to today’s society, to today’s world—as a matter of fact, they’re more important today than ever—and why these are the tickets that will continue to make Americans, and frankly, the rest of the world, prosper and grow.

Bluey: Charlie, thanks so much for sharing that impact that you’re having. One of the things that I think is fascinating is the involvement you have on such a deep level on so many college campuses across this country. As you talk to students, or maybe some faculty in certain cases, what issues do you hear coming up over and over again today that our listeners should be aware of?

Copeland: There are a handful of issues, and they revolve around, as you might imagine, things like free speech. They revolve around intellectual diversity. They revolve around feeling that you are able to espouse and debate the ideas that you believe are correct. Maybe you find out that they’re not, but they’re afraid to necessarily even raise those points. It’s gone beyond just sort of this, ” … I don’t want to look like I’m the only one in the class,” to, in many cases, a fear of property and physical safety.

We, last year, identified what we thought were five of the most compelling activities of suppression of free speech, and that suppression of free speech came not only from fellow students, which were probably the least frequent suppressive activities, but from the faculty or the administrations themselves.

That’s what I think is much newer today, over the last 20 years, than you might’ve seen previously on college campus, is the administration and the faculty themselves really driving a dogma and a perception down to students that, if you don’t parrot back to us what we’ve said to you, we will affect your grades, we’ll affect what courses you can get into, we’ll affect what housing you might even get into, because the administrations and the faculty have significant leverage over students.

It is a power structure, and our students are the ones that are on the receiving end of that.

Then sometimes you wind up with the Antifas of the world and groups like that that are physically assaulting students, but it really is the universities themselves that have created bureaucracies that are trying to stamp out conservative or libertarian or free thought.

Allen: One of the key debates among young people and across America right now is gun control. When you speak with students on this issue, what are some of their concerns?

Copeland: The average student that we work with is not all that worried about gun control writ large, other than they believe in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Obviously, they’re as affected as the rest of us are by these instances of mass shootings that get so much publicity. …

Again, our students are really bright, insightful young people, and they know it is not a soundbite issue. Whenever anybody says, “Oh, well, I’m just for commonsense gun reform,” well, what does that even mean? It’s when they start saying, “Well, we should do this or that,” that all of a sudden common sense disappears, and our students recognize that.

We’ve had students, even over the summer, write in some of our student journals editorials that are research-based across the board talking about, is this a mental health issue or is this a broader denigration of our culture issue? Should we have red laws? Should we not? What is the impact of these shootings versus the impact of just being on a college campus?

Every year on every college campus, there are acts of violence that do not get the coverage that a single grotesque act does, like Dayton or El Paso. And both Dayton and El Paso, as we all know, were conducted by individuals that had very different worldviews, although they both believed in the green agenda. But that’s not what was driving them. It was an anger, as far as I can tell, about American culture.

Our students, I think, very much understand that, to a certain extent, because they are in an area of culture on the college campus that is not the “preferred culture” by the administration and the faculty. They understand the harshness that now occurs and how social media creates a pile-on mentality.

I think that they’re very thoughtful and they’re very upset, but they don’t believe that you’re just going to solve this by snapping your fingers and saying, “Well, if we had ‘red flag laws’ and identified folks with mental health issues … ” because much gun violence is not committed by people with mental health issues, but they are people that are disconnected from society. Our students see that connection as directly as anybody else because they’re outnumbered on campus so significantly.

Bluey: Charlie, it’s so refreshing to hear you talk about the students having a principled point of view, and value for the founding principles of this country, and also the critical thinking skills to hopefully decipher what they hear about and read about.

We’re already here at the beginning of the the academic year and hearing stories about the political correctness on college campuses. We just had on The Daily Signal Podcast Penny Nance talking about her and her own son’s experience at Virginia Tech, for instance.

What advice do you have for parents who might be looking to ISI or to you personally for advice on some of the things that they’re hearing about on their children’s college campuses and how maybe the values that are reflected from those administrators stand in such stark contrast with those of their own family? What do you have to say to them?

Copeland: First, I would say to them, have their son or daughter go to join.isi.org, and make sure that that they’re tied into an intellectual community of bright, deep-thinking kids that are national in scope, and also involved in that community are our faculty associates across the country. And thirdly, involved in that community is our alumni base, which goes back decades. We’ve got alumni in almost every community around the country. That would be No. 1, join.isi.org.

The next thing I would certainly do is reach out to every campus … Our faculty associates are on 37% of college campuses, and most of those are on the elite schools, the large state schools, as well as some of the smaller liberal arts colleges.

So, there are conservative faculty members that are there, and reach out to us and get the name of who that faculty member is and go talk to them.

In addition to that, one of the questions I would ask that faculty member is, “Who are the other faculty members that may not be conservative on this campus, but who value viewpoint diversity and are good teachers?” Because there are good teachers on the left who recognize that no ideology or no set of beliefs has all the answers to all the questions that face society. If we had those answers, we would have solved them by now.

So, who are the good professors that will challenge you and make you think, even if those professors come from the left? Because there’s value in hearing and debating that type of viewpoint.

The last piece is identify other students who are not … There’s these radical, dogmatic, left-leaning students who aren’t really there to learn, but they’re there to threaten and cajole.

You can do well on almost every college campus across this country, but when you are a conservative or a libertarian and you want to try to investigate those intellectual backgrounds, you have to do more work, and you have to be very focused on what you do and avoid the useless courses that really junk up most college curriculum at this point in time.

The other thing is you need to have a sense of humor. It is so easy to be outraged at some of the, really, just childish things that other students and faculty and, honestly, the administration will do. If you let it eat you up and let it get you angry, you’re playing their game.

Roger Scruton is going to be speaking at our annual dinner. Well, he’s leaving a video message for us. He’s ill. But he talks about finding beauty in the world. I think that is something that conservatives do much better than liberals, is look and identify true beauty, not just this passing fad. I think that if we’re happy warriors who identify the right professors and the right students, you will be successful.

Allen: I love that expression, happy warriors. Thank you for sharing that.

You mentioned social media and how ISI is adapting to the way students get information today. What are some ways conservatives can more effectively communicate with Gen Z and with other young people?

Copeland: I think that everybody hangs out in Twitter, and Twitter is a little bit of an outrage factory. It’s designed to be that way. You can’t have deep intellectual discourse in 280 characters or less.

It’s fun to participate there and be there and that kind of stuff, but if you really want true discussion and discourse, social media is not the place to do that. …

You look at some of these folks who founded social media companies, and they clearly are not very good at interpersonal relationships, which is probably why they created computer programs to handle their interpersonal relationships for them.

If you really want to have discourse, you’ve got to go do that in person. You’ve got to go to an election. You’ve got to go to a debate. You have to have a discussion group or a reading group.

I would use social media largely to try to create those events and those opportunities to sit down with one, two, five, 20 other people and talk about the deep ideas and how to apply them to today’s community and culture.

Bluey: Charlie, I’m so glad to hear you say that. We often hear that same type of advice from our president at Heritage, Kay Coles James. What she does in terms of showing up—

Copeland: It’s good advice.

Bluey: Yes, it certainly is.

One of the other ways that you’re having success at ISI is through conservative journalism and teaching people the principles and the practices that go into creating some of those successful dialogues and discourse through campus publications.

Tell us more about that journalism program and what kinds of work that students are doing through ISI’s support.

Copeland: The student journalism program, we’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and we’ve got 57, 58 papers. They’re investigative journalist-type papers. If a student wants to start one of those papers, again, they can go to our website, and there’s an area on that website where they can indicate that.

We have a staff member here who actually ran a student newspaper when he was in college a couple of years ago and is a very bright and smart young man, and we’ve got a lot of great things going on there.

We have a couple of classes that we will offer throughout the year to help them get started, a couple of conferences that we invite student journalists to so that they can get an understanding of, “How do I do this? How do I run a student newspaper?” I use air quotes on that because only a handful of them actually still print hard copies. They’re largely web-based at this point in time.

It’s one thing to put content up on the web. It’s another thing, “How do you go and get the stories? And what kinds of stories should they be looking for?”

Then we help to promote those to other outlets, so that, in some cases, they can be picked up by national media and others and maybe even create the point of the sphere of a specific issue that might have occurred on a campus, whether it’s about free speech or whether it’s about viewpoint diversity or whether it’s about inappropriate behavior by a faculty member or what have you. We really want to encourage those papers along.

Then we offer, every year, 10 summer internships, paid internships, that we place our student journalists at major media outlets—Raleigh News & Observer, National Review—and we offer 10 full-year paid when you graduate fellowships at similar national or regional news outlets. We’ve got folks at places like USA Today, for crying out loud, and The Wall Street Journal. We’re very cognizant of trying to place these really bright kids who are great writers at these outlets because they do a great job.

In the last year, 70% of our fellows who wanted to stay in journalism were able to get jobs within the journalism area, and some of our alumni: Marc Thiessen, columnist at The Washington Post; Jonathan Karl, ABC News; Laura Ingraham at Fox; and Katrina Trinko at The Daily Signal.

Allen: Thank you for mentioning The Daily Signal.

Can you tell us just one more time about how students can get involved with ISI?

Copeland: The best way for a student to get involved in ISI, because it’s easy, is join.isi.org. You just put in your email, where you’re going to school, or if you’re at school, what grade you’re in, and we will send you an intellectual starter kit and we will get you onto our regular weekly email message, which usually includes three or four different five-to-seven-minute reads on conservative intellectual thought and history.

We’ll also be able to tie you into whether there’s a local ISI society there or if we have a faculty associate on that campus, as well as perhaps get you tied into debates and lectures.

We offer about five or six regional conferences every year. We have a summer honors conference, as well as we offer a freedom of virtue conference. That would be the No. 1 way.

No. 2 way is to look for an ISI society on your campus, as well as whether or not you think there’s a conservative professor on your campus. That professor is likely an ISI faculty associate and can get you tied in as well. But the best way is join.isi.org.

Bluey: Charlie, that’s great. Congratulations again on the success you’re having at ISI, and thanks for spending the time with The Daily Signal to tell us about it.

Copeland: Thank you very much, and thank you guys for what you do.

Bluey: We look forward to keeping in touch and following your work.

Copeland:
You bet. Thanks so much.