Streetcar Line

Campus Reform Done Right

Leadership Institute's latest master-stroke.

By 9.18.09

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To be "venerable" doesn't mean to be behind the times.

When in the June issue of the parent magazine I wrote about how conservative groups are planning to catch up to the left organizationally in this new linked-up world, I mentioned that "the venerable Leadership Institute... remains one of conservatism's greatest resources." Little did I know. I vastly understated the case.

This past Tuesday, LI launched what is almost certainly its single most ambitious project http://www.campusreform.org/ in its three decades of effective conservative activism -- and LI founder Morton Blackwell is absolutely right to be excited about it.

What it is, is an attempt to go "virally" toe to toe with the left. Without top-down, command-and-control organization, LI wants to generate conservative activism on college campuses far surpassing even its own impressive record. It does so by creating a website, CampusReform.org, seemingly based on the maxim that "if you build it, they will come."

And an incredibly well-organized, informative, and user-friendly website it is indeed.

CampusReform.org contains sub-sites for every single one of the 2,446 four-year college campuses in America. Each sub-site contains a blog, an event list, a chat room, a list of leftist faculty, a list of and links to local and campus-based conservative groups that already exist, a list of conservative jobs, and a place to review textbooks for accuracy and leftist bias.

The main site, meanwhile, contains an even greater wealth of resources and information, including extensive "how-to" primers on campus activism, solicitation of speakers for campus events, and a veritable cornucopia of other helpful features. Even for techno-tards like yours truly, the main sites and its thousands of sub-sites are incredibly easy to navigate. Even better -- and, it turns out, quite importantly -- it welcomes and encourages alumni to participate as well, in supportive roles, so the students can draw on the resources of conservatives with fond memories of their alma maters.

"I signed up as a 'friend' at LSU," Blackwell told me. "The addition of non-students who are interested in the campuses is going to be important. When we have studied campus organizations through the years, we have found that the ones that grow and have longevity are those that have alumni involvement. Similarly, you know that fraternities and sororities survive better than other student organizations because you have alumni who are interested in their old chapter."

Even with 1,220 active campus conservative groups nationwide right now, Blackwell said, far too few are automatically self-sustaining.

"For a dozen years I have sent out field staff to find conservatives and we have been very successful at it. But the number of groups has proved directly proportional to the number of resources I can raise to send campus representatives out. There's just not enough money to cover every campus. I wanted to figure out how to get more activism on campuses more cost-effectively."

That's why CampusReform.org is designed to work and expand through "viral marketing," or "social networking." The proposal Blackwell wrote for the project, finished in April before work actually started in building the site, put it this way: "To a much greater extent than in a line organization, activities which grow through social networking are thought up, organized, and implemented at the grassroots, without centralized direction and sometimes even without the knowledge of those who set up the process…. For this process to work, grassroots people have to be sufficiently motivated to use their own online social networks, persuasive skills, and Web technologies to recruit their own personal contacts, who in turn recruit their respective personal contacts, and so on."

For younger, tech-savvy conservatives, this might sound like a revelation that is just so 2007. They understand this already. But that's the point: This is a site designed primarily for younger conservatives. And while the concept is one with which they already may be familiar, the platform may be the best they've ever seen. Again, go and navigate it for yourself: It's so well constructed, not to mention visually attractive, as to be a perfect vehicle, or even a pluperfect vehicle, for the networking tendencies that come naturally to today's college students.

Leadership Institute's existing supporters certainly seem excited about it. Back in March, when the concept was still being fleshed out, Blackwell mailed a fund-raising appeal specifically for CampusReform.org to 11,000 of LI's "largest and most recent donors," and received more than 2,000 donations -- a 19 percent response, which is phenomenally good for direct mail -- at an average donation of $692.

"I have had a long-term awareness of how the campuses have become left-wing indoctrination centers," Blackwell said, "and many, many students can go their entire college educations and never see any representations of conservative principles on their campuses -- but they see innumerable amounts of propaganda both in campus curriculum and with speakers and in campus newspapers. It has always bugged me that conservatives have not done likewise."

This is the newest, biggest attempt by Blackwell and LI to do just that. And as tens of thousands of LI graduates will surely tell you, when it comes to engaging young conservatives in civic and political work, Morton Blackwell's attempts almost always succeed -- to the benefit of the conservative cause and the country it serves.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.