I just wrapped up my undergraduate career at Columbia University. It was a strange time to be a college student—thanks in no small part to new movements in campus politics, some of which have popped up only in the past few months. The ground has been shifting at college campuses everywhere. But at my alma mater, nothing has changed more than campus conservatism.
During my first year or two, it wasn’t clear that Columbia even needed conservatives. Many undergraduates didn’t care for the student radicals, but we could oppose the radicals from our position as liberals. We could side with the establishment—the university administration, which looked like a sane and neutral champion of free speech that could, if we didn’t make too much fuss over social justice, give us all the room to live and let live. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, worked hard to give us this impression, making sure that terms like “diversity” and “free expression” were never far from the top of our email inboxes. The marchers and sign-holders wanted to disrupt all of that. They were outsiders. But we were insiders, and our politics didn’t have to consist of anything more than affirmation of free speech and denunciation of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and pleas to let the administration do its job.
Back then, almost anyone who wasn’t an activist was content to be a quiet moderate. Consequently, the conservative student groups weren’t big—and bigger groups that might have been conservative, well, weren’t. Columbia chapters of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Love and Fidelity Network were founded, but they fizzled out quickly. Meanwhile, the longer-lasting College Republicans club was almost uniformly libertarian, and evangelical student ministries avoided any activity that could be construed as “political.” There simply weren’t many self-proclaimed conservative students two or three years ago.
All of that changed about halfway through my time at Columbia. All of a sudden, and for many reasons I am still figuring out, it became possible to talk about “Columbia conservatism,” rather than just the two or three individuals behind ISI and LFN. One obvious cause of the change was the rapidly expanding demands of intersectionality. At a certain point, the sheer volume and variety of causes buzzing around at Columbia, from sexual assault to Black Lives Matter to divestment campaigns to transgender bathrooms to Palestine, became overwhelming. You had to support (or, in our case, tolerate) all of them or else none of them.
It also became increasingly difficult to see the administration as impartial. The biggest red flag was its response to sexual assault protests, namely the numerous mandatory workshops designed to teach us about consent. At one such workshop, we were shown a series of pictures of celebrity couples and asked to classify the relationships as healthy or abusive. A pattern quickly emerged: The same-sex couples were consistently presented as the more “healthy” ones—Elton John and his “husband” on the one hand, Chris Brown and Rihanna on the other. It became clear that the workshop, apart from its official goal of teaching consent, had a secondary, though perhaps not entirely conscious, goal of normalizing same-sex relationships. Incidentally, the workshop instructors also showed us charts showing the rates of abuse among different kinds of couples—revealing that LGBT relationships are significantly more likely to be abusive. The instructor made no mention of the disparity. Moments like these were the first, though far from the last, indications that the university was more aligned with student radicals than we cared to think.
Once we noticed that the university had bought into identity politics, examples seemed everywhere. Goethe was removed from the official syllabus for Literature Humanities (a required freshman course which, when I took it, introduced students to the canon of Western literature, from Homer to Virginia Woolf) to make room for Toni Morrison. Containers of free feminine hygiene products were installed in men’s restrooms. Then, of course, there was the outbreak of election hysteria in November. Columbia declared itself a sanctuary campus and filed amicus briefs to the District Court of Eastern New York, denouncing executive orders that restrict immigration. At my commencement just two weeks ago, President Bollinger awarded honorary degrees to Eric Holder and Martin Duberman, and proceeded to tell my class that the university “must be careful not to take political sides.” Examples like this, of the administration presenting itself as neutral and open while overtly pushing a certain ideology, abound. I could go on, and on, and on.
All at once, quite a few students noticed the pattern and looked to rightwing politics for an alternative worldview. New conservative and rightwing subcultures sprang up, and our little political landscape got bigger. For the most part, these subcultures exist informally within the confines of larger student organizations, which could not have anticipated them when I was an underclassman. These new Columbia conservatisms are a mixed bag, drawing inspiration from across the political spectrum and the internet.
We have, for instance, our own alt-right. I’d heard the term once or twice from fellow students before the 2016 primaries, but since then it’s gained a small but devoted following in the student body. These students read Breitbart, follow Milo Yiannopoulos, support Trump, and gleefully “trigger” the “snowflakes” around them. The odd thing is, all the alt-right students I’ve met were freshmen or sophomores this past year. They weren’t around to see the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, or the divestment campaigns, or the infamous mattress protest. They didn’t suffer the same disillusionment I did. They came to Columbia with no confidence in what an elite university could provide, and no intention of playing along with its social justice program.
For these students, the alt-right offers something Columbia doesn’t—or rather, it offers exactly what Columbia claims to offer but fails to deliver: factual knowledge that can uphold a satisfying worldview. Anyone who’s seen video of a Milo Yiannopoulos speech knows just how positivistic his approach to politics is. He doesn’t weave arguments; he rattles off statistics about race and crime and feminists and immigrants and whatever else is in the news. The numbers are, at least in part, supposed to show that Milo knows how the world really works, unlike his liberal counterparts. Another current favorite at Columbia is talk radio personality Alex Jones and his (to put it generously) news organization, InfoWars. Jones deals in conspiracy theories. Recent InfoWars headlines include, “Will Donald Trump reveal who killed JFK?” and “Truth tellers unite to fight globalist liberal culture of pedophilia.” His view of the world as warfare between a vast conspiracy and a handful of truth-tellers was, at first glance, unheard of at our elite and enlightened institution just a few years ago. So what could people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones possibly have to offer Ivy League students today? A steady account of what’s really going on. Of what they aren’t telling you.
Unlike most consumers of alt-right media, college students encounter an identifiable they in the form of administrators who do indeed exert vast, almost conspiratorial control over nearly every aspect of student life, including the boundaries of acceptable speech and opinion. Columbia gives us its own set of facts and accounts of how things really are, but in service of a worldview that isn’t satisfying. Milo’s statistics and Jones’s conspiracies have attained their sudden popularity because of their status as alternatives. Of course, this popularity also reveals an important similarity between the alt-right and the university administration: the idea that having access to the right set of facts is all it takes to understand the world rightly. The mark of the political elect, in their view and in Columbia’s, is having knowledge that the other side either doesn’t have or doesn’t want you to have.
As little confidence as they have in its factual teaching, newly conservative students, alt-right or otherwise, have even less confidence in the university’s moral teaching. The powers that be at our university spend a lot of time telling us how most of the norms we once held dear are based in prejudice. It spends even more time pushing the few norms it retains—norms about how to dress on Halloween and how to refer to people who are in rebellion against their gender. Alt-right students happily resist the university’s directives about how to speak and what to believe. But sometimes, resistance to Columbia’s norms in particular spills over into resistance to norms in general. Last December, the student press went a little crazy over a book supposedly found in Columbia’s main library, in which were hidden flyers advertising a new “Dark Enlightenment” club. The flyer featured the German imperial eagle, so as to “rustle maximum jimmies,” as the club’s leader later explained to me. He said that the club sets itself in opposition to “the Cathedral,” a catch-all term for “puritanical” social forces, such as identity politics. The religious reference is intentional—though I don’t know whether it is meant to call identity politics a religion, or to indict religious authority as the root of everything the Dark Enlightenment club sees as dictatorial. I don’t think the students in the club know, either. They have little respect for any form of authority, be it religion, the university, or the demands of prudence and civility respecting imagery their peers associate with Nazism. They take the same posture towards just about everything.
It’s getting harder to find reasons to follow university guidelines about racism, sexism, and speech, when other guidelines about gender and sex have been discarded. Alt-righters resolve the tension by discarding it all. In terms of policy preferences, they closely resemble your run-of-the-mill libertarians: They ridicule the police, favor legalization of recreational drugs, and don’t gripe much about gay marriage or abortion, though transgenderism is just too bizarre and too in-vogue among liberal authorities for them to support. Contrary to popular belief, they have no serious intent to denigrate students of color, or women, or immigrants, or what-have-you—largely because they have no serious intent to do much of anything. Their real intent is provocation. They troll and they mock, because there’s nothing left to take seriously.
Because existing political and religious groups spent so much time and energy trying not to rock the boat, they are not in a position to offer alt-right students anything to take seriously. A number of alt-right students have stepped into the vacuum and attained some institutional influence. The College Republicans club, in particular, has taken on many characteristics of the alt-right, most notably its preference for provocation. This past year, they invited several speakers from Breitbart, including Milo himself, to campus. So far, students sympathetic to the alt-right haven’t brought about any major changes, but they’re still young, even for undergrads, and have plenty of time to establish a presence at Columbia.
But the alt-right is only part of the story of Columbia’s new conservatives. Others have looked to Columbia’s Core Curriculum and to Christianity for alternatives to the administration’s politics. And while they aren’t finding much of a home among the Republicans or campus ministries, the social conservatives among the student body have been growing in number and confidence. In the past two years, Columbia Right to Life has become a safe haven for such students, expanding from two members to about a dozen, despite receiving little support from other student groups—including, unfortunately, Christian organizations. Campus ministries are scrambling, now more than ever, to present themselves as non-judgmental and open to any political views; conservatives have been a thorn in their side all along. This topic is especially personal for me, and I can’t resist a brief interjection: Large Christian organizations that try to conduct their apologetics on college campuses seem to think that young people still listen to the so-called “New Atheists,” when in fact my secular peers object to Christianity more on ethical and political grounds than on scientific ones. A lot of the ministries and churches I interacted with as a student spent so much time talking about the wrong things, that they lost ground on important ethical issues. Fortunately, there are some students who see where the real need is. Conservative Christian undergrads with the gumption to defend the controversial stuff on their own terms might be the best chance for both conservatism and Christianity at Columbia, even without any outside help.
All of this raises questions about the future. It’s worth noting that there is a degree of overlap between alt-righters and conservative Christians in the student body. Can the latter propose a positive vision for student life that the former will find compelling, or will the alt-right’s resistance to moral guidelines prevail? Is the alt-right position sustainable enough to be held for four years at a time? What’s the future of campus ministries? Is there a future for them at all, if they don’t push back against ethical objections to the faith? How well can social conservatives do with limited institutional support? How will they do if, or when, Columbia starts to police beliefs, as other universities have, by implementing “non-discrimination” rules to target Christian groups that don’t affirm LGBT rights? In spite of all the questions, I’m optimistic. The network of conservative Columbia students and alumni is small and informal, but it’s there, for the first time in at least four years. Top-down efforts to limit the scope of political discussion have been met with bottom-up efforts to challenge the direction Columbia has taken, and perhaps to revisit the true purpose of a university education.
Philip Jeffery studied history at Columbia University and writes from Portland, Oregon.