“The Current State of Political Activism at Selected U.S. Campuses”

Political Research Associates
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March 1, 2003

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Political Research Associates (PRA) has received support from the Ford Foundation’s Unit on Governance and Civil Society to conduct a study of the breadth and content of political activity on college campuses in the United States. Consistent with our mission’s emphasis on openness and tolerance in a democratic society, PRA’s Campus Activism Project will address the concern we share with many educators and campus administrators about an increase in acrimonious political and social tensions on campuses across the country. We understand that these tensions are, in large part, an extension of competition between the two major social movements of the larger society, the Right and the Progressive movement.* Whereas political volatility at colleges and universities is common, we see anecdotal evidence and journalistic reports of increased polarization and an increase in stereotyping and demagoguery between rightist students and progressive students. When polarization is characterized by a high level of incivility, it can – and in a number of cases does – result in an atmosphere of increased intolerance, in which some students feel intimidated and/or unsafe. In other instances, when students feel powerless to influence decisions on campus, they express their frustration as protest that can escalate in ways that make an open and healthy dialogue nearly impossible. National organizations of the Right or the Progressive movements may fan these tensions, or they may encourage debate and competition.

“Winning,” “shaping” and “influencing” young minds is a goal of all social movements. But social movements vary in how much attention and how many resources they devote to the youth sector -- an importance sector because it comprises potential members and future leaders. We seek to learn how successful each social movement is in accomplishing this goal. And this research has consequences as well for the practice and sustenance of democracy. Because democracy depends on a free flow of ideas, it is endangered when there is too little respect for competing ideas or too great an imbalance of power. In such a setting, opportunities for sharpening critical thinking skills are diminished, voices become silenced, fewer people openly participate in dialogue, and the potential exists for less trust in democratic institutions.

Today’s common wisdom is that the Right is by far the more active and effective movement on campuses – investing more money, mentoring, and leadership training to influence and recruit college students – and that the Progressive movement does not have a similar infrastructure to support progressive student activists. But this assumption may prove inaccurate. Without a comparative study of the two social movements’ organizing and activism on campus, even the social movements themselves have no yardstick to measure how effective their campus work is in influencing student beliefs and student activism relative to each other.

The PRA Campus Activism Project will conduct a comparative analysis of (a) efforts by movement organizations from the larger society to organize and recruit students on campus, and (b) the impact of that organizing and recruitment. The study will provide a snapshot of the relative influence of the two major contemporary social movements in the lives and beliefs of college youth. This is new information that is of crucial importance, because students, whose hearts and minds are the object of fierce competition, are the future leaders and decision-makers of the larger society.

Goals of the Project

Goal 1: To produce a rounded picture of political and social conflicts and tensions on campus, the campus activism directly related to these tensions, and the impact of the tensions on democratic principles and practices on campus, such as tolerance, openness, and dialogue.

Goal 2: To describe and analyze the nature, goals and ideology of the programmatic work conducted on campus by national conservative and progressive organizations, their effect on campus culture, and the types of organizing being done on campus by conservative and progressive students and faculty.

Goal 3: To assess the comparative effectiveness of conservative and progressive groups of the competing social movements in advancing their agendas on campus and recruiting student activists with leadership potential to their movements after graduation.


Campus activism can occur both on- or off-campus and may be focused in one or more of several arenas: electoral activity, efforts to bring about policy change, attempts to influence social norms, such as attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion or religion, or, as some students will argue, involvement in community service to affect social change. Our definition of campus activism is any collective student activity that seeks to change something either on campus or off and collective activity by any non-student group that seeks to change something on campus.

Our Assumptions

The Campus Activism Project is based on certain assumptions. First, we assume that campus activism, as we define it, can best be understood by using social movement theory, a sociological analysis of group activity that is increasingly used to examine political activism. In its ongoing analytical work, PRA examines various elements of a social movement’s identity to study such movements across the ideological spectrum, such as how the movement frames an issue, mobilizes resources, crafts an ideology, develops leadership, disseminates information, creates a culture and identity, and stages public events. We suggest that social movement theory is a useful analytical framework that helps us understand activism across different movements that are currently occurring on campus. See Appendix II for a further description of social movement theory.

We believe that by examining both student activism and the work of politically and ideologically motivated adults seeking to affect college life, we will develop a fuller, more complete picture of campus activism. Students, after all, are not the only groups politically active on campus. Faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and outside stakeholders invested in creating or maintaining cultures or identities on campus all engage in activities that can be described as aspects of competing social movements. We will include these in our study. An example of social movement-based campus activism is the campus-focused anti-reparations campaign, active since 2001 and spearheaded by rightist David Horowitz and his Los Angeles-based organization, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. We consider activities like this an important aspect of campus activism because they are designed to attract students into their activities, they can have considerable influence over policy-makers, and they are an example of a larger national social movement “framing” an important issue for a student audience.

We underscore the importance of looking across the entire political spectrum of campus activism, including the political Center, as the only way to achieve a full understanding of political activity on campus. Most students, reflecting the public in general, consider themselves “middle of the road” on many political issues. It is this “Center” that both Progressives and the Right seek to mine for membership and support. And it is within this Center that another movement is emerging—one that we are calling “centrist activism.” Increasingly, students express interest in what is often characterized as volunteerism or community service and argue that such engagement qualifies as political work. Sixty-one percent of students participate in some sort of community service during their college years.[1] Campus Compact, a national organization supporting civic engagement and service learning, has been a leader in promoting this engagement and defining it as working for social change. Because many students self-define this activity as political, we will include this type of activism in our study. For reasons we hope to uncover, some students are choosing to avoid direct involvement in Right or Progressive activities and affiliations, yet wish to be seen as involved and engaged in the political activity of social change.

Research Questions

The topic of campus activism is far too complex for us to address thoroughly in this study. We choose to focus on how the political Right and the Progressive movement organize on campus and on their relative levels of effectiveness. We hope to identify strategies that have the effect of either supporting or decreasing tolerance, openness and democratic processes on campus. In particular, the project seeks to answer three groups of questions:

The Content of Campus Activism
· What is the current climate for political debate on campus?

· What are the issues that prove to be the flashpoints for tension and conflict?

· What organizing methods are most likely to inflame tensions to the point of concern for the principles of tolerance and open dialogue?

· What resources, policies and responses are more likely to produce an atmosphere of intolerance or a stifling of dialogue?

The Influence of National Organizations
· What national organizations have chapters on college and university campuses that are designed to recruit students to a particular political orientation or issue activism?

· What trainings, offered by national organizations with a political agenda, are available to students on and off campus?

· What is the role of alumni organizations in shaping the curriculum and in other areas of college life?

· How do national organizations provide resources to promote their agenda and enhance their recruitment on campus?

Impact of Organizing on Students’ Lives
· What percentage of students involve themselves in political activity on campus as a consequence of exposure to the beliefs and activities of national organizations within each social movement?

· What percentage of students who go on to work for movement organizations after graduation were student activists when on campus? What are the principal characteristics that distinguish these students? What was the nature of their exposure to movement recruiting while on campus?

· What percentage of student activism is purely local and/or student-initiated, leading to campus tensions that are independent of the direct influence of national movements?

While our research is primarily qualitative, it does involve both quantitative and qualitative methods. The main data collection will occur through qualitative face-to-face interviews with informants from key groups at selected campuses.

Preliminary Data Collection
We will begin by reviewing both primary and secondary material about student political activity on U.S. campuses since 1940 in order to gain both a sense of the current level of campus activism and a general history of research on the topic. The project will also review official and unofficial campus newspapers at selected schools for the past two years to further identify current political activity and levels of tension on a variety of campuses.

Sampling Campuses
The project will select eight colleges and universities in the United States based on level of student political activity, geographic location, level of selectivity, type of institution and the accessibility of on-line campus newspapers. The sample will be drawn from a list of all institutions offering at least a Baccalaureate degree, ranked on level of political activity on campus as measured by numbers of documented incidents during 2000-2001.[2] All schools on this list experienced some form of political protest activity. The list will then be divided into two equal sections, separating more politically active colleges in the country from less active institutions. The more politically active sections will be sorted into four geographical regions -- East, West, Midwest and South. Four schools will be chosen from each of these categories. From the resulting list of sixteen schools, eight will be selected, with a balance of more/less politically active, public/private, elite/non-elite, and large and small campuses. This final group of eight institutions will constitute the sample for this study. While the sample cannot be considered statistically rigorous, it will provide us with a representative range of schools based on the above factors.

Project staff will create a series of interview guides, review them with the advisory committee, and conduct interviews with:

· student leaders, faculty who have experience with campus organizing by students, campus ministers and religious advisors who have experience with tensions created by religious or anti-religious beliefs and practices, and key administrators directly involved with student activism;

· leaders of conservative and progressive groups that organize among students on campus for the purpose of recruiting students to a political agenda and worldview;

· college placement officers who are familiar with patterns of employment for graduates over time; and

· foundation program staff who have made grants to support campus organizing by rightist and progressive organizations and/or student groups.

The interview guides will be informed by: (1) the research questions posed above, (2) insights gained from the Literature Review and campus publications, and (3) input from the Advisory Committee. The goal of the interviews is to collect information that identifies types of campus programs, the stated intent and goals of campus programs, if or how these activities contribute to campus tensions, and the effectiveness of campus and non-campus political organizing in recruiting committed movement activists and future leaders after graduation.

Sampling Interviewees
We will select individuals to interview based on their roles as informants at their school or organization. Possible student informant roles include: mainstream and conservative student newspaper editors; heads of active political organizations such as College Republicans, Democrats or other political parties; and leaders of issue- or identity-oriented campus groups such as environmental, peace, ethnic and cultural, free speech or civic engagement organizations. We will make every effort to locate representatives that mirror the diversity of the student body. Staff or faculty informants may include deans, student affairs officials, chaplains, career center staff, or other advisors. We will actively solicit candidates for interviews from PRA contacts and the Advisory Committee.

Based on our literature review of recent campus political activity and information gleaned from our interviews, we will interview representatives from national organizations that have a demonstrated presence on campus. Examples of conservative organizations that may be approached in the interview stage are: the Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition; Accuracy in Academia; Concerned Women for America; Campus Crusade for Christ; National Association of Scholars; Eagle Forum; Intercollegiate Studies Institute; Center for the Study of Popular Culture; International Church of Christ; Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; and alumni organizations, such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Examples of progressive organizations that may be approached in the interview stage include: United States Student Association; Feminist Majority; National Women's Studies Association; American Association of University Women; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Council of La Raza; Union Summer; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; NARAL; U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG's); and the Association of Scholars in Ethnic and Women's Studies.

Examples of centrist organizations that may be approached are: Campus Compact, Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL), Habitat for Humanity, and service fraternities and sororities.

In all cases, every effort will be made to insure confidentiality, including coded tape recordings and notes and no personally-identifiable information in research records. We will seek written consent from all interviewees.

Project Conference
PRA will co-host with a local college a small one-day conference of approximately 40 participants in November 2003. Twenty of the participants will be the members of the Advisory Committee. The rest will be drawn from those who have been involved with the Project, as either funders or collaborators. The purpose of the conference will be for participants to bring their expertise and perspectives to a thorough review of the Draft Final Report and the work of the Project. The Project Coordinator and PRA staff will ask participants and invited guest speakers to comment on the Draft Final Report, to assess its usefulness, accessibility, accuracy, content, and tone, and to make recommendations for revisions.

Final Report

The Project Coordinator, with editorial assistance from PRA staff and the Project Advisory Committee, will write a first draft of the Final Report that both summarizes and analyzes the information collected in the course of the Project. The Report will contain the Literature Review and a introduction to social movement theory as Appendices. A third Appendix will reproduce the interview guides and a list the numbers of each category of interviewees. A fourth Appendix will list a comprehensive bibliography, so that readers can access the best work on the subject of campus activism and social movement theory. A fifth Appendix will list relevant organizations, websites, regularly scheduled conferences, and campus newspapers for further study.

With the input received at the one-day Campus Activism Project conference, the Project Coordinator will revise and finalize the Project Report. It will then go to the designer and to the printer, for an initial printing of 1,000 copies. Based on our experience in publishing previous PRA reports, such as our most recent report, “Rights for Some: The Erosion of U.S. Democracy,” the Campus Activism Project Report will be approximately 20,000 words, professionally designed, and bound as a booklet.

The principal product of the Campus Activism Project, the Project Report, will be distributed without charge to all the Project’s stakeholders, including the Advisory Committee, interviewees, key helpful contacts, and organizational and individual collaborators. The Executive Summary of the Report will be made available electronically on the PRA website (www.publiceye.org) and on the websites of collegial organizations with which PRA shares links. Advertisements for the sale of the Report will be placed in magazines, newsletters, and journals concerned with the two dominant social movements, higher education, and/or issues of democracy and an open and tolerant society.

With the assistance of Principal Investigator Jean Hardisty and other PRA staff, the Project Coordinator will generate op ed pieces based on the Report and will seek to have them published in newspapers and journals. Finally, an article based on the Report will be submitted to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Evaluation of the Project and its products will be ongoing and will draw heavily on outside experts. Advisory Committee members, for example, will assess the accuracy, readability, and internal organization of the drafts of the Concept Paper, Literature Review and of the final Report of the Campus Activism Project. At each stage of this assessment, the Project Coordinator will make necessary revisions.

The November 2003 conference in Boston will serve as a peer-review process for the Report. Conference discussion and feedback regarding the Report’s usefulness, accuracy, accessibility, content, and tone, and will inform the final revisions to the Report. Conference participants will also be asked to evaluate the conference itself, by completing and submitting an evaluation form before they leave the conference.

And finally – as is the practice with other PRA publications – several months after the release of the Report, PRA will send out an evaluation form to a random sample of those who have received or ordered the Report. In the survey, several questions will ask the recipient to rate the usefulness, layout and quality of the information presented in the Report. Further questions will ask what aspects of the Report they found most significant, and how they feel the Report will affect their work. Once this data is aggregated, it will help the Project to evaluate the Report’s strengths and weaknesses, as seen by its readers.

Key qualitative indicators will emerge from the Project evaluation described above. The ability of the Project to proceed seamlessly from one stage to the next will be largely dependent on the input provided by outside experts on the accuracy, thoroughness, and overall quality and value of drafts of the Concept Paper, Literature Review and the Report of the Final Campus Activism Project.

A clear, useful, and readable Campus Activism Project Report is the most important product of the Project and the principal benchmark of the Project’s success. A successful Report will: (1) be widely disseminated; with at least 1,000 print copies in circulation, along with the Executive Summary available on PRA’s website and on at least three of the organizational websites linked to the PRA website; (2) receive substantial print media attention; (3) provide new information to the general public; and (4) stimulate new thinking and research. The issues it addresses will become a subject of national debate, especially within the two social movements whose activities the Report will address and on campuses across the country.


Some Definitions of Terms from PRA

At PRA we have tried to clarify our use of terms not only to understand for ourselves what we study, but also to provide useful ways for others to learn about political movements. We observe political movements in the United States through several lenses, such as structure, ideology, and strategy.

The Right

PRA uses this term to describe the major conservative social movement in contemporary U.S. politics. We sometimes capitalize Right in our educational materials to emphasize the fact that the Right is a social movement.

Ideologically, the Right ranges from the paramilitary, neo-nazi, and white supremacist organizations of the Far Right to the right wing of the Republican Party, now dominant in electoral politics. Within this ideological range are many different sectors, which often agree and often bitterly disagree on ideology and on policy issues. The sectors also differ in style, varying in zealousness and the methods employed to attain political power and influence. At PRA we identify six sectors of the Right: the Far Right, neoconservatives, right-wing libertarians, the Christian Right, the secular Right, and the corporate Right. We do not include moderate Republicans as a sector of the Right.

Each sector is composed of organizations, core leaders, grassroots followers, publications, media outlets, and public figures. The emphasis on networking and coalition-building within and among the sectors varies over time. Effective networking is often cited as a factor in the Right’s success.

In the words of sociologist Sara Diamond, "To be right wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society. Throughout the history of U.S. right-wing movements, we...see this recurring pattern as one organization after another worked to bolster capitalism, militarism, and moral traditionalism."[3]

The term New Right was adopted by the conservative coalition built in the 1970’s, that helped elect Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. That broad coalition is no longer known by its original name. Now its sectors are usually identified more specifically. Journalists and researchers speak of the Christian Right, or the “new Republicans” or sometimes “neo-conservatives.” But precision in the use of these terms is rare.

In PRA’s Campus Activism Project, we will explore the campus work of four sectors of the Right: the secular Right, the Christian Right, neoconservatives, and right-wing libertarian organizations and individuals. In general, we will not explore the activities of Far Right groups or the corporate Right.

The Progressive Movement

The other major social movement of our era, the progressive movement, promotes an ideology that supports a more equal distribution of wealth and power and promotes human rights. This movement also spans a broad ideological spectrum and is made up of a number of sectors, including leftists, liberals, liberal libertarians, and reformers.

These sectors differ ideologically, sometimes working in coalition and sometimes vigorously competing with each other. For instance, liberals sometimes enter alliances with leftists and sometimes move to the political right and ally with reformers. Centrist liberals shun alliances with leftists and often prefer to work with those to the right of liberalism.

At PRA we use the term “progressive” to include all the sectors of the U.S. social movement for social justice and equality. When possible, we use the more precise title of the sector being discussed. As in the case of right-wing groups and individuals, allegiances and alliances within the progressive movement are constantly shifting and realignments are common. Often a particular campaign or a particular issue will attract different sectors that will, for that moment align in unique ways. An example is the current campaign against globalization, which has attracted both leftists and reformers.

The progressive movement generally seeks to promote a more egalitarian society, often envisioning a strong role for government in redistributing wealth and protecting the rights of more vulnerable members of society. The means to achieve this vision range from a complete change in the institutional power structure of US society to the reform of existing laws and institutions to assure a more equitable society.

The Campus Activism Project will focus on activists and organizations from all the progressive sectors. Where possible we will identify the specific ideological sector being discussed.

In the political and ideological space between the Right and the Progressive movement is what journalists call “the political center.” The political center is not a social movement, but nevertheless plays a crucial role in the distribution of power and the direction of public policy. Centrists range from the apolitical, who are uninvolved and unconcerned with electoral politics and are not involved in advocacy for an issue or a cause to those who actively support the status quo and oppose the positions of both the Right and the Progressive movement.

The two social movements compete for the hearts and minds of those in the center. But centrists are not simply the passive targets of both social movements. Centrist political activity seeks to maintain existing social arrangements and preserve stability and prosperity in a well-ordered and responsible society. Centrism has its own leaders, those who support existing institutions and power arrangements.

When one of the two social movements dominates politically, as the Right does in the early 21st century, the center is pulled in the direction of the dominant movement. This in turn increases the dominant movement’s power.

In the Campus Activism Project, we will identify activism that corresponds to this definition of centrism and reflects neither the ideology of the Right or the Progressive movement as “centrist activism.”


Completion Date

Concept Paper and Literature Review Drafted
March 1, 2003

Interview Guides Prepared
March 31, 2003

On-Campus Student Interviews Conducted
May 7, 2003

Other Interviews Conducted
August 31, 2003

Final Paper Drafted
November 1, 2003

Conference Held
November 30, 2003

Final Report Published
January 31, 2004

[Here we will insert an article (of approximately 2500 words) on the usefulness of Social Movement Theory in describing the Right and The Left, culled from PRA’s existing files.]


* While current usage of terms that describe political ideologies, like Left, Right, progressive, and centrist, can be imprecise, we shall use PRA’s definitions of these terms as expressed in Appendix I of this paper.

[1] The Institute of Politics, “The Campus Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service Survey.” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2002), p.7.

[2] This list of schools, generated from a search of all campus-based protests or demonstrations that appeared in a Lexis/Nexis search of U.S. print media from 2000-2001, is graciously loaned by Nella Van Dyke from Ohio State University.

[3] Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. (New York: Guilford, 1995), p. 9.

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