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Campus Conservatives Demand Real Diversity By: Jane Stancill
NewsObserver.com | Monday, August 18, 2003

Conservative students who unleashed the protest against UNC-Chapel Hill's reading program will sit down today with Chancellor James Moeser, but they won't be debating "Nickel and Dimed."

The students, who earlier this year formed a group called the Committee for a Better Carolina, have a broader agenda. They say conservative students are uncomfortable and intimidated on a campus that is overwhelmingly liberal, and they want the university to commit to big changes.

First, they will ask Moeser to include political affiliation and ideology in the university's official nondiscrimination policy. They also want the university to devote more money to bring in speakers from a wider variety of ideological perspectives. And they want the university to conduct an investigation into the campus climate for conservatives -- similar to the study conducted last year on the atmosphere for gay students.

Finally, the students want the university to apply its standards of diversity to recruiting more conservative professors. The group will present statistics -- department by department -- that show that only a tiny minority of UNC-CH professors are registered Republicans.

"It's like the conservative point of view isn't legitimate. It's not even considered," said Michael McKnight, a senior journalism and mass communications and public policy major from Roanoke Rapids, who is president of the committee.

Moeser has said he welcomes the new conservative activism on campus and invited the students to meet with him to discuss their concerns.

The committee formed in response to anti war protests in the spring. The students set up tables in "the Pit," UNC-CH's lunchtime gathering spot, and collected 1,200 signatures in support of U.S. troops and the "liberation of Iraq." The group took out an ad in the student newspaper supporting the war.

This summer, the group got more ambitious. It took on the university's freshman reading assignment of "Nickel and Dimed," a book by Barbara Ehrenreich that chronicles the struggles of low-wage workers. With thousands of dollars donated by the conservative John William Pope Foundation, the students bought a full-page ad blasting the book in The News & Observer. The committee also held a news conference at the General Assembly attended by more than a dozen legislators.

The crusade prompted critics to say the students were manipulated by a small number of right-wing conservatives looking to attack the university. But the students say this is their issue and that it goes to the heart of their education.

McKnight is also state chairman of the N.C. Federation of College Republicans, which includes 2,000 members on 22 campuses across the state. He rattles off examples of what he says is a liberal bias that permeates the UNC-CH campus.

As a conservative columnist for the campus paper, McKnight was flooded with angry e-mail messages when he wrote that the university should give an honorary degree to former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. In the past decade, he said, none of the university's commencement speakers has been Republican or conservative. Last year, five professors at UNC-CH's law school boycotted an appearance by conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

"That's the ultimate example of faculty intolerance," McKnight said, sipping an orangeade in a Franklin Street drug store, his cell phone chirping every few minutes.

Recruiting under way

It's unclear how much influence the group will have among UNC-CH students. When pressed about membership in the new committee, McKnight said he doesn't have firm numbers but he knows of 50 to 60 interested students. The group will continue recruiting efforts this fall.

Others say the group doesn't have a wide reach.

"This is a fringe group even among the conservatives on campus," said Dan Harrison, president of the UNC-CH Young Democrats. "It was very clear their tantrum over the reading program did not find broad support among the students."

The group does have powerful political connections. McKnight was an intern with Helms last summer, and he has volunteered for the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and other prominent Republicans. He is in close contact with Joey Stansbury, a UNC-CH alumnus who works for Variety Wholesalers, a business run by the Pope family, and is chairman of the statewide Young Republicans group.

McKnight, a clean-cut, red-haired 21-year-old, is pictured with campaign workers on a newsletter of state Sen. Virginia Foxx, a Banner Elk Republican and frequent critic of UNC-CH.

Foxx described McKnight and his fellow conservative activists as bright kids who have raised a legitimate issue with the university.

"They've been respectful," she said. "They know what they're talking about, and they do their homework."

'Politically astute'

UNC-CH has long had conservative groups. A decade ago, conservative activists fought the university's planned black cultural center. They also were known for high-profile pranks -- a water balloon "scud" attack on Persian Gulf War protesters, for example.

The current crop of conservative activists seems to have been taken more seriously.

"These students eat, drink and sleep politics," said Norman Hurley, assistant professor of political science and faculty adviser for the group. "They are very highly politically astute."

Hurley, a Republican, said there may not be a new wave of conservatism on campus, but he has heard plenty of complaints from students about the lack of political balance in the classroom.

"Most people who go into political science are of a liberal persuasion," he said. "Most of them deliberately or inadvertently wind up equipping students with their world view."

Tripp Costas, president of UNC-CH's College Republicans, said a graduate student teaching assistant in the English department sent an e-mail message to him and his classmates during the spring, encouraging them to walk out of class as part of an anti war protest.

"There are a lot of professors who do a great job," said Costas, who also is a member of the Committee for a Better Carolina. "But some professors are pushing a social agenda in the classroom rather than presenting a subject objectively with equal time for both sides."

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