Conservatives and Libertarians Face Challenges at the University of Michigan

Adam Pascarella

Adam Pascarella is a 2010 graduate of the University of Michigan and editor-in-chief of The Michigan Review, the bi-weekly journal of campus affairs that serves as a voice of conservative, libertarian, and contrarian students; [email protected]


The University of Michigan once provided the backdrop for a chapter in rock music history. The one and only John Lennon braved the chilly weather to visit Ann Arbor in December 1971, playing at his first concert since the Beatles disbanded. Greeting ecstatic students and Ann Arbor locals, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono took the stage at Michigan’s Crisler Arena to make a political point.

And all because of a simple drug deal gone wrong.

John Sinclair, leader of the Ann Arbor-based “White Panthers” movement that advocated for African American civil rights, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1971 after selling two joints to an undercover officer. Outraged students protested for Sinclair’s exoneration and their efforts culminated in Lennon’s performance at Michigan. Ultimately, Sinclair was released one day after the concert, revealing how thoroughly Lennon and the sixties counterculture prevailed over the establishment.

Lennon’s appearance was one of many instances in the 1960s and 1970s that caused left-liberalism to become fully internalized within the University of Michigan. As the university enters the twenty-first century, ideological continuities with the counterculture persist. For example, a Michigan Review study found that Michigan professors’ donations to Democratic candidates and causes outnumbered donations to Republican candidates and causes by sixty-to-one since September 2008.1 Only two of eight members on the current Michigan board of regents are Republicans. The university sets the ideological agenda and defines the starting point of conversation, making conservative and libertarian students feel that they comprise the opposition, as seen in Michigan’s historical support of affirmative action practices.

The university’s pursuit of diversity within its student body reignited the national affirmative action debate, culminating in two Supreme Court cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the first of which allowed Michigan to use narrowly tailored racial preferences in its admissions process. However, the precedents developed from that case were dealt a harsh blow with the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), a 2006 referendum banning affirmative action practices in public institutions.2 Responding to the shocking outcome, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman implied that the entire campus community would unite to fight the affirmative action ban: “I will not stand by while the very heart and soul of this great university is threatened. We are Michigan and we are diversity,” she said one day after the election.3

University admissions officers have doubled their efforts to maintain campus diversity after the MCRI’s passage by specifically appealing to applicants from financially disadvantaged cities in Michigan. Ultimately, the one question never clarified in Michigan’s affirmative action debate has been the specific definition of diversity. The university clearly thinks race and economic class are the main components of a diverse environment, and while administrators may feel that diversity at Michigan results in the vibrant interaction of students of different races, there are some instances of student self-segregation, which can be seen in public places like university libraries and the university union. What is seemingly ignored is the importance of intellectual diversity in organized coursework. For example, courses like “The Practice of Community Organizing” and “Social Inequality” are common, while courses analyzing the philosophies of conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke are rare.

Liberalism is fully institutionalized within the university, and most students are aware of that when applying to Michigan. The latest developments on campus are not encouraging: most notably, the administration plans to enact a smoking ban on all campus property to promote a “culture of health.” Classroom discussions in the Michigan political science and history departments tend to find consensus on subjects such as the need for cap-and-trade programs to counter global warming and government programs needed to protect blue-collar workers from economic globalization. And the university also plans to create gender-neutral housing in the near future to cater to transgender students, which could potentially allow male and female students to share dormitory rooms.

Even with all of the obstacles that face ideological minorities, they do make their presence felt on campus. Student groups convinced Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul to visit campus in 2008, and conservatives were especially active during the 2006 MCRI debate. A conservative and libertarian bloc exists, but a sense of apathy has seemingly permeated, possibly resulting from the enthusiasm surrounding the 2008 election. The campus clearly supported Senator Barack Obama; liberal-left students executed a massive voter registration drive and invited speakers like actor Kal Penn to campaign for Democratic candidates. After Obama was elected to the presidency and Democrats received majorities in Congress, Republican students felt deflated, while Democratic students felt less need to campaign actively for a national progressive agenda. As a result, student activism subsided in 2009, allowing university administrators to be virtually unaccountable in advancing issues like the smoking ban.

What Michigan needs is a reinvigorated effort by traditionalists to keep the administration honest. The University of Michigan will continue to champion progressive causes, but traditionalists have built a niche on campus with the emergence of such organizations as the Student Objectivists, the College Republicans, and the Young Americans for Freedom. While some cleavages between libertarians and conservatives may exist over specific issues (like the smoking ban), these differences do not necessarily impede future activism; on the contrary, policy differences among traditionalist university groups could strengthen their collective voice on campus. The Michigan Review has been attempting to reinvigorate the dialogue by offering contrarian viewpoints on its editorial page; other means of challenging the status quo in Ann Arbor include inviting traditionalist speakers to campus. For example, in September 2008, the Heritage Foundation, a right-of-center think tank, held a symposium on campus that brought together state and national thinkers to discuss American principles and their relevance in the twenty-first century.

Using all of these means of voicing their political beliefs, conservative and libertarian students have a great opportunity to promulgate their views on campus. Only time will tell if their collective efforts will put pressure on the university’s agenda.


1See Graham Kozak, “Democrats Receive Vast Majority of Professor Contributions,” Michigan Review, April 3, 2010, http://www.michiganreview.com/democrats-receive-vast-majority-of-professor-contributions-1.1293685.

2For a detailed history of the MCRI see Carl Cohen, “Bad Arguments Defending Racial Preference,” Academic Questions 21, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 288–95.

3University of Michigan (http://www.umich.edu/), Office of the President, Selected Speeches and Commentary, May Sue Coleman, “Diversity Matters at Michigan,” November 8, 2006, http://www.umich.edu/pres/speech/speeches/061103div.php.

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