Matt VanHyfte, president of the TCU College Republicans Club, went over the day’s order of business at a recent chapter meeting — an upcoming voter drive, a chance to campaign for Gov. Greg Abbott, the annual state convention at SMU — and then opened up the floor.
“Has anything pissed you off in the last two weeks?” VanHyfte asked the crowd of about 30 students in a conference room in the TCU student union.
The bi-weekly meeting became an opportunity to vent: About the campus rally protesting President Donald Trump’s decision on DACA earlier in the month. About a student’s snarky comment about a 9/11 memorial. About a professor not allowing Fox News as a credible source for a research paper.
“The bias is so obvious,” one student chimed in.
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“That’s what you’re going to get with faculty,” VanHyfte said. “It’s the indoctrination.”
A perceived liberal bias in the administration and faculty has invigorated conservative students over the last year at TCU, a traditionally conservative school — but one where campus life has been more defined by football games and Greek life than political activism.
The College Republicans Club, dormant two years ago, has about 500 members every semester now, Van Hyfte said, and the conservative students have even started their own online newspaper, the Freedom Frog.
VanHyfte, who sits on the board of directors for the statewide chapter, said TCU’s is the second-largest chapter in Texas, behind Texas Tech.
But is the conservatives’ perception — that TCU professors and administrators have a liberal bias — reality?
University provost Nowell Donovan, the vice chancellor of academic affairs, acknowledged that “academia as a whole tends to be left of center but not monolithically.”
“At TCU, we have left-leaning professors,” Donovan said. “But we also have right-leaning professors. There is a good variety here.”
Even so, “I expect a balance in the classroom” from professors, Donovan said.
“If a professor lets his or her political opinions show, that’s poor teaching,” Donovan said. “Simply put.”
TCU earns No. 13 ranking
The conservative groups Young Americans for Freedom and Turning Point America also have chapters on TCU’s campus. A college rankings survey from The Princeton Review recently ranked TCU 13th in the country for having the most conservative students.
The heightened political activism of TCU’s conservative students comes as conservatives, in general, have grown “increasingly negative about the impact of colleges and universities on the United States,” according to a Pew survey released this summer.
The survey said 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges and universities “have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” up from 34 percent in 2015.
Controversies have also sprung up on campuses over right-wing speakers.
The Young Americans for Freedom’s parent organization, Young America’s Foundation, was described by The New York Times in a May story as “the conservative force behind speeches roiling college campuses.”
Last month, police in riot gear had to provide security at the University of California at Berkeley for a heavily protested speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who spoke at TCU last year as a guest of the Young Americans for Freedom.
He blasted the TCU administration for creating a chief diversity officer position after three students — a group called the Black Students and Allies of TCU — sent a letter to Chancellor Victor Boschini demanding more campus diversity and inclusion.
The issue pushed conservative students into action. They viewed the demand letter, which also called for sensitivity training and a $100 million endowment for minority students, as “nonsense,” VanHyfte said, and the university’s response as caving to liberal pressure.
“The list of demands certainly got people’s attention,” said Annabel Scott, vice president of the Republicans club and the Freedom Frog’s editor-in-chief. “Whether it was good or bad, it got people’s attention.”
As millennials skew more liberal, the young conservatives at TCU view this as a pivotal moment for their cause.
“It’s unfair to think that this new generation is for the Democrats and liberals to bring into their fold,” VanHyfte said.
Said Hannah Saffle, a senior economics major and political director for the TCU Republicans club, “We’re here now.”
“We’ve been here,” Saffle said. “But we’re trying to promote the conservative ideas because universities are some of the most vulnerable places, where professors can get students to think a different way in the hope that they’ll think with their perspective. It’s time for us to say, ‘We’re here and this is what we actually stand for.’ ”
‘Marketplace of ideas’
In the Trump era, the conservatives aren’t the only politically active players on campus.
The College Democrats group is no longer active, but when Trump announced plans to rescind DACA last month, about 75 DACA supporters rallied on the TCU campus.
Last semester, Trump’s immigration travel ban prompted an even larger turnout of about 200 protesters, believed to be the biggest protest in school history.
“I don’t think it’s balanced, but I definitely see students on both sides [of the political spectrum],” said senior marketing major Emma Mikulecky, a Democrat. “I find it really refreshing that even though we’re in a conservative state and city, I do have friends who share the same beliefs as me.”
The TCU administration has been cautious about wading into political issues.
After Trump’s DACA decision, Boschini issued an even-handed message to students, saying “we recognize the value” of DACA students and that “much is yet to be learned about the full impact of this announcement.”
In the last year, Shapiro and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King — on opposite ends of the political spectrum — have both spoken on campus.
“It’s our stance that we don’t serve as the measure of what should or shouldn’t be on our campus,” said Kathy Cavins-Tull, the vice chancellor of student affairs who also oversees student organizations such as the College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom. “We feel like this is sort of the marketplace of ideas. Whose values should decide whether a speaker comes here? We believe in free speech, even when it’s offensive at times.”
Boschini echoed those thoughts at the fall convocation earlier this month, urging students to “please get along” with students who have different viewpoints.
“Everyone feels slighted by every frickin’ thing,” Boschini said, according to student media website TCU 360. “Help fight the anger.”
Cavins-Tull said the backlash to on-campus speakers, no matter the speakers’ political leanings, isn’t necessarily a reflection of ill will.
“There’s a very strong community here,” Cavins-Tull said. “When a speaker comes that is offensive to a group of students, it hurts people’s feelings. They come to me and say, ‘This person is a threat to my emotional existence.’ That person may be offensive to you but I don’t perceive there’s a threat there. But to them, it’s personal.”
‘Professors are obviously on the left’
The student body, says VanHyfte, is a “majority leaning to the right, I find it ridiculous that the university and professors are obviously on the left.”
A key element in the conservative pushback is the Freedom Frog website, which is essentially the College Republican club’s public relations arm, VanHyfte said.
“This is our main weapon when it comes to lobbying against the university,” he said at the recent chapter meeting, encouraging members to write for the Freedom Frog.
The website features opinion columns (“Actually, Jesus Christ Was Not a Socialist or Communist”), Q&A articles (A sit-down with Steve Forbes) and updates on both campus and national news, from Boschini’s DACA message to a gun tax in Seattle.
The website is self-funded, mostly through PayPal donations. Scott, the editor-in-chief, said students, alumni and professors have contributed money.
Scott runs the editorial side, managing a team of contributing writers and training prospective writers. VanHyfte, the publisher, runs the business side.
“We wanted to create a platform where conservative students could express their views,” said Scott, who interned at The Daily Caller, a conservative news website in Washington, D.C., last semester.
The Freedom Frog has attracted an audience. Its Facebook page has 492 followers and its articles often receive several thousand page views, Scott said.
There are plans for a podcast, too, “a mix of Steven Crowder and Barstool,” Scott said, referencing the conservative commentator and the sometimes-controversial Barstool Sports blog.
“There’s an audience there,” Scott said, “and we’ve tapped into it.”