They shook their heads over the antiwar signs on the college president's lawn. They rolled their eyes at a professor's long e-mail message to students lambasting President Bush. But the final straw for some conservative students at St. Olaf College came when organizers for this weekend's Nobel Peace Prize Forum rejected a speaker who wanted to talk about peace through strength.
There's a lack of diversity at the Northfield, Minn., college, they say. Intellectual diversity.
So the conservative students are staging a shadow forum today to protest what they call the overwhelmingly pacifistic, left-wing tilt of the annual Peace Prize conference. They also want to draw attention to a virus they say infects St. Olaf and other campuses: liberal proselytizing by professors and administrators.
They're not alone. Across the nation, conservative students are taking their schools to task for what they consider knee-jerk political correctness that stifles the free exchange of ideas.
Students who disagree or object to something said by a liberal professor "feel like they're in a hostile environment," said Britt Haugland, a St. Olaf senior from La Crosse, Wis., majoring in social work and a campus leader for conservatives. Some even fear their grades might be lowered if
they speak up.
St. Olaf officials said they're sympathetic to the students' concerns, but disputed their contentions.
Officials noted that the college already has an academic bill of rights that protects students against reprisals for holding unpopular views. And they vigorously rejected the notion that the campus fosters a climate of liberal indoctrination.
"I don't believe that happens at St. Olaf," said President Christopher Thomforde, a tall, genial Lutheran minister in his fourth year at the college.
St. Olaf has a healthy tradition as an incubator of Republican leaders in the state, said Dean of Students Greg Kneser. Former Gov. Al Quie is an alumnus, as are current House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Majority Leader Erik Paulsen. Recent speakers on campus include noted conservatives Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and P. J. O'Rourke. About 400 students belong to the College Republicans, making it one of the largest chapters in the state.
"I don't think there's much question that the faculty's political views tend to lean left," Kneser said. "Whether that translates into bias in the classroom is making a pretty big leap."
For conservative Minnesota collegians who feel isolated, help is on the way in the form of e-Pluribus, a program that will offer a Web site this fall with information, articles and ideas for students seeking ideological ammunition to use on campus. It's an offshoot of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative Minneapolis think tank.
"We're using the Internet to leapfrog over the intellectual gatekeepers," said Katherine Kersten, a senior fellow with the Center who is organizing e-Pluribus. "This is not a partisan organization. This is essentially an intellectual exercise, about bringing conservative and free-market ideas to campuses where in most cases they're grossly underrepresented."
According to several observers, the conservative movement on college campuses has been gaining ground for years. College students have always had a taste for rebellion, and when authorities on campus lean to the left it's natural for students to pull in the other direction.
But polls and surveys also show that conservative views among students are rising on issues such as taxes, guns and abortion. And the movement got an unexpected jolt of energy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"It shocked people into political advocacy because they realized this can never happen again, and naturally they started to align themselves with the policy of a strong military against those who would threaten us," said Nick Norman, a sophomore from Woodbury majoring in economics and political science.
The theme of this year's Peace Prize Forum, which rotates among five Upper Midwest Lutheran colleges, is grass-roots peacemaking. Former President Jimmy Carter, who was awarded the Peace Prize in 2002, will deliver the keynote address today. The two-day conference features workshops on "peace skills" and 55 seminars on a wide range of topics from meditation to
Among the seminar titles: "Peace and Change through Public Art," "Islam and Democracy" and "CEOs and Moral Intelligence: An Oxymoron?"
Last fall, Counterpoint, a group of 50 conservative St. Olaf students, proposed a couple of seminars for the Nobel forum. One, by University of Minnesota Prof. Ian Maitland, on sweatshops as a positive force for economic development, was accepted. But another, by Minneapolis attorney and writer Scott W. Johnson, on how the failure to confront Nazi Germany in the 1930s led to World War II, was not.
"My proposal is peace through meditation -- on Winston Churchill," Johnson said.
Counterpoint members decided to act. They formed the St. Olaf Committee for Intellectual Diversity and sent letters to forum organizers, President Thomforde and the college's board of regents to express their concern about Johnson's rejection and the barrage of antiwar messages sent by college officials.
Among those sending such messages was Thomforde, who before the war displayed a protest sign in his yard and joined an antiwar demonstration in the commons. He said that as college president his main job is to make sure faculty members and students feel free to think about issues and act
Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb, a sociology professor and cochairman of the forum program committee, wouldn't discuss why the committee rejected Johnson's entry but suggested its historical theme didn't reflect the forum's contemporary bent. Yet some scheduled seminars have a historical focus, and two of them center on figures whose life spans intersected with Churchill's: Mark Twain and Thomas Merton.
In the end, Johnson will deliver his "teach-in on appeasement" on campus today -- but in a dormitory lounge just down the road from the auditorium where a short time later Carter will be addressing a packed house. Johnson said that he was "a long-hair hippie antiwar protester" while a student in the 1970s at Dartmouth College, where conservatism flourished. But he said he never felt marginalized.
"It wouldn't have even occurred to me that a professor would hold my views against me, the way these kids do," he said. "I had no idea what my professors' views were. It was kept out of class."