When Alexia Isais’s phone registered a Blue Alert earlier this fall, informing her that there had been an attack on a local police officer, she quickly tweeted her reaction. “They can all go fall into the abyss and society would be better without them,” she wrote.
Isais, a political science student at Arizona State University, is known for being outspoken. “As a Mexican American woman, I have a right to object to conditions and institutions that have ruined people’s lives,” she told Truthout. Among her most frequent subjects: Police abuse, racism and white supremacy.
Reaction to her tweet was swift. Isais was immediately fired from her job as a columnist at The State Press, Arizona State University’s student newspaper, and she received dozens of menacing emails, phone calls, tweets, texts and Facebook messages such as “Go to hell, you Communist whore” and “I will make sure your family regrets having had you.”
But as unsettling as this has been, Isais reports that the attacks are nothing new. In fact, the campaign to silence her has been ongoing since last winter when she was elected to Arizona State University’s Student Senate as a representative of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
The highly coordinated attacks, she says, have been orchestrated by an 11-year-old group called Campus Reform that trains conservative students to monitor, surveil and report on the speech and actions of left-leaning professors, students and campus activist groups for the organization’s daily blog.
The Campus Reform website justifies these acts with hyperbole, alleging that “conservative students on college campuses are marginalized, threatened and silenced” by a cadre of leftist professors and administrators who are working to steer U.S. youth away from capitalism, the free market, and the social structures that support homophobia, racism, sexism and transphobia. Most of Campus Reform’s vitriol has been directed at faculty and staff, but students — in particular supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Black student groups — have also frequently found themselves in Campus Reform’s crosshairs.
It can get pretty nasty. Those targeted by the group typically experience an outpouring of online vitriol. For Isais, Campus Reform’s attacks included labeling her “a staunch and open communist” in four separate posts published on its website, one of which was picked up by The Arizona Republic newspaper.
A Connected Network
So, what is Campus Reform?
The group is a project of the Leadership Institute, a 41-year-old organization that was founded by New Right heavyweight Morton C. Blackwell. Blackwell is an ally of the late Paul Weyrich (co-founder of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Free Congress Foundation); conservative political direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie; and Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation from 1972 to 2013 and from 2017 to 2018. In founding the Leadership Institute, Blackwell zeroed in on what he saw as the need to connect libertarian and conservative youth to one another, a need he first identified in the 1970s.
Blackwell’s vision is expansive and he has worked to foster organizational networking to link right-wing student organizations — and young minds — to the broader and more well-established conservative movement: The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, The Club for Growth, The Reason Foundation and the State Policy Network. But Blackwell has also gone further, noting that these connections would not matter unless money was ponied up to back the students’ work.
The Leadership Institute, which itself had a budget of nearly $17 million in 2018, has become a financial matchmaker of sorts. Thanks to the institute’s connections, Leadership Institute staff have introduced conservative funders to Campus Reform and other right-wing student networks: Turning Point USA, The College Fix, The Clarion Project and the Middle East Forum Campus Watch.
The scheme has been effective. Foundations including The Kirby, Uihlein and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations, as well as Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, dark money outlets controlled by the Koch family, have been happy to give, and give big.
This has enabled Campus Reform to entice would-be journalists into its ranks.
“You will receive real-world experience and pay as a reporter,” its website boasts. It further promises that employees will see their work published and may “even have a chance to discuss your articles on national TV.” Top-notch training and mentorship are also pledged.
Training Young Conservatives
This is where the Leadership Institute comes in, offering online and in-person trainings to educate young conservatives. The goal is to get them to toe a conservative-libertarian line on politics that includes opposition to defunding the police, while simultaneously training them to be youth leaders. Participants are also given hands-on classes where they learn how to conduct strategic media interviews and create podcasts. More than 300 year-round trainings are conducted annually, all of them free to vetted participants.
It’s paid off, handsomely.
While Campus Reform’s reporters cannot be called journalists, its contributors make connections with conservative press outlets including Breitbart, The Daily Caller, The Washington Free Beacon, The Drudge Report and National Review. This means that student “reporting” for Campus Reform — which typically involves blasting a professor for critiquing U.S. governance, teaching about the history of inequality or supporting social justice movements — often spills beyond campus borders and receives national notice.
In addition, upon graduation, many students working as Campus Reform “reporters” are fast-tracked to jobs with conservative lawmakers, think tanks or media outlets. At least six Campus Reform alumni now work for Fox News; other alums have landed positions at the Wall Street Journal, The Daily Caller, The Washington Examiner, CNN, The Georgia Law Review and National Review.
Isaac Kamola, an associate professor of political science at Trinity College, has been studying Campus Reform since 2017 when the group went after his colleague, sociologist Johnny Eric Williams, for tweets condemning racist Republicans and white supremacists. As his outrage simmered, Kamola knew he had to act. By the start of 2020, he and his research assistant had organized “Campus Reform Early Responders” to monitor Campus Reform’s daily postings and notify faculty when they are targeted and offer practical advice about what to do.
“Typically, once a professor has been reported for saying something about America being built on a foundation of white supremacy, or about gender inequality or trans rights, it feeds into [Campus Reform’s] wheelhouse and there is a super concentrated attack for a short time, with a barrage of hate mail, the calling in of threats to the individual or institution, and calls to administrators demanding that the professor be fired or sanctioned,” Kamola says. “This often leaves a lot of collateral damage in its wake. If the administration reacts badly and does not support the professor’s academic freedom and free speech rights, it can spin out of control and leave both the institution and the individual who was attached to clean up the wreckage.”
It also leaves those who’ve been called out to confront Campus Reform’s deceptive tactics and narrative of victimization.
“This is not journalism. It’s pure, manufactured outrage,” Kamola says. “They come out and accuse people critical of racism of being ‘un-American,’ get donors to fund beachhead institutes on campus, and take comments out of context to generate ‘Can you believe they said that?’ fury, with no attempt to understand context or the arguments being voiced.”
Even more insidious, Kamola says, is the claim that campus conservatives are a beleaguered and oppressed constituency.
According to Inside Higher Education, although there are 11.5 registered Democrats for every Republican professor, a 2016 report found no basis for the claim that conservative faculty members are dissatisfied with their career choice or are in any way persecuted.
But that has not stopped Campus Reform and other conservative student groups from spinning tales. Thanks to a close relationship between Campus Reform and Turning Point USA, attacks on progressive faculty have been constant.
Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, son of Robert W. Kirk, the project architect manager at Trump Tower in New York City. The group’s “Professor Watchlist” names hundreds of progressives who are said to be indoctrinating students with anti-capitalist messaging that threatens the survival of Western civilization. According to Alex Kotch, writing in PR Watch, nearly half of Turning Point USA’s funding, $11.1 million, came from the Koch-controlled Donor’s Network between 2014 and 2018.
Truthout reached out to Campus Reform, Turning Point USA and the Leadership Institute by both email and telephone to offer them the chance to respond to the claims made in this article, but none of the groups responded.
Attacks Against Critical Race Theorists
Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, was lambasted by Campus Reform after he slammed Oxford Emeritus Professor Richard Swinburne’s conclusion that “homosexual orientation is a disability” on a friend’s Facebook page in 2016. Stanley has since been a frequent subject of Campus Reform’s acrimony.
“Groups like Campus Reform and Turning Point USA work with more intellectually respectable publications like The American Conservative and National Review to create momentum,” Stanley told Truthout. Initially, he says, they targeted tenured professors, and while they succeeded in pushing several people to leave their jobs, “in the last few years, they’ve moved on to less-protected lecturers and adjuncts to get them fired.”
Campus Reform and Turning Point USA, he continues, go after people who unmask them. “Right now, this means they’re going after people who are doing critical race theory,” research and writing that centers the oppression and strength of people of color in American society. “I take it as vindication of my work that I’ve been in their crosshairs,” Stanley continues. He also notes how his privilege as a white man at Yale has protected him from the scale of attacks organized against people of color, like Jasbir Puar and Brittney Cooper at Rutgers, and untenured folks at other colleges and universities.
Still, Stanley credits Yale for standing with faculty and says that he is grateful that “from the president on down, administrators have signaled that they support our free speech rights.”
Indeed, when Stanley’s Yale colleague, Asha Rangappa, an untenured professor at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a political and legal analyst at CNN, found herself on the receiving end of Campus Reform’s wrath this summer, the college was quick to defend her.
The campaign against her came in response to two tweets. The first was a reaction to former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement that there is no racism in the U.S. “I asked her why, if this is true, she calls herself Nikki instead of Nimarata, her birth name,” Rangappa told Truthout. “The second time I tweeted that there is a biological terrorist in the White House.”
The tweets, first reported on by Campus Reform, were later decried by Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Fox News and the Washington Free Beacon.
“Campus Reform was not on my radar before this. I did not realize that there was a whole planned-out operation that works to promote disciplinary action or the firing of those they go after,” Rangappa says. “As a CNN analyst, I’m used to hate mail, but these emails, some of which included satellite photos of my house, were unsettling. It was intimidation and it was unnerving, but learning that hundreds of other professors have been targeted was helpful. In both instances, the outrage died down in about a week. They were looking for a response to fuel the story, and when they didn’t get one, they moved on.”
The strategy of non-engagement, Stanley says, is key. At the same time, he says that being open, up-front and public about political views with students — whether it’s support for Palestinian sovereignty or support for Black Lives Matter — is essential.
Kamola agrees. “Society is changing, and those who benefit from the existing power structure want to hold onto what they have. This is not just happening on campuses. There is more activity in general by the right and it is reinforced by social media,” he says. “In the end, it’s always easier to attack something as ‘outrageous’ than to face the atrocity.”