LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge
Student Republicans at Bowling Green State University celebrated their conservative week on campus recently with unusual fanfare: They memorialized President Ronald Reagan and passed out beef jerky as a spoof to a national animal-rights group.
Were their tactics a waste of time on a college campus, a place traditionally thought of as a haven for left-of-center thought? Hardly.
National studies show that liberal students still outnumber their conservative peers on campuses, but only by a small margin. And while conservative students continue to gain ground, the number of those who describe themselves as liberal has decreased over past decades.
"I would agree with that. I'm not saying the liberal element isn't prevalent on campus, because it's there," said Julie Corvo, 20, a University of Dayton student who was just elected president of the Ohio College Republican Federation. "But saying, 'I'm young and conservative' is an acceptable thing. It's happening."
A key national study, known as "The American Freshman," last fall reported that 26.1 percent of new students surveyed described themselves as liberal, compared to 21.9 percent of students calling themselves conservative. But in 1970, liberals made up 35.7 percent of the students on campus, while conservatives represented a much smaller 17.3 percent.
Experts and political leaders also say that college students, the majority of whom mirror society by describing themselves as "middle of the road" politically, are now pursing their political activism in much different ways - noticeably different than the vocal sits-ins and protests that were commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s.
"I think what's maybe happening is the old style of politics that was practiced say 30 years ago by the student demographic was one that you made a lot of noise and you hoped that somehow you could send a message. Whereas nowadays, the students I see are more interested in going out and doing something they think is going to have a direct, positive impact," said Professor Ryan Barilleaux, chairman of the political science department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Precise findings about students and their political allegiances are often scarce on campuses, but the annual "The American Freshman" study touches and on it and a host of other issues, including family background, time management, and future goals. It is disseminated annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles and categorizes students' political choices by asking them to identify themselves as either far left, liberal, middle-of-the-road, conservative, or far right.
Each year, about 700 two-year and four-year colleges and universities administer the survey to more than 400,000 new students during orientation or registration.
For the first time, the University of Toledo participated in that study this academic year. A follow-up is being sent out in campus residence halls this month, with the same study and offshoots of it also planned for upcoming years, said John Nutter, director of institutional research at UT.
Mr. Nutter said the study's findings - the initial group included just under 500 freshmen - will be useful to UT officials who can ultimately review the material and decide how to better teach the class.
He said UT freshmen who took the questionnaire differ somewhat from the average freshman at public universities in that they work more hours for pay and tend to be politically populist - favoring a moderate to strong governmental role in the economy but moderately traditional on social issues. This means UT students are more traditional than their peers nationwide.
Specifically at UT, 51.6 percent of students said they were middle of the road politically. But unlike the national statistics, conservative students outnumbered their liberal peers at the University of Toledo - 21.5 percent to 19.9 percent.
Religion also was a key finding in the report, showing all but an average of 17 percent of the UT students identified with some sort of religion. Twenty-seven percent said they were born-again Christians, a finding that's substantially higher than the national average.
"Our students are far more religious than I think any of us would have thought, and are far more spiritual," Mr. Nutter said.
Another surprising finding was the "fatalistic" attitude among some male students at UT: Forty-five percent said they believe one individual realistically can do little to bring about change in society.
Political observers said they're not surprised by the political changes over the years among students on campuses.
Michael Beazley, a former Lucas County Democratic Party chairman, said the UCLA study's findings nationally are consistent with what be believes is happening at colleges.
"Students tend to be more liberal as a population on the whole, but like the rest of the population, they've moved more toward the center," he said.
Mr. Beazley, who led the UT College Democrats when he was a student there, added that the UCLA study started researching campus politics in the 1970s - about the same time the anti-war movement swept the nation, bringing draft issues for young people to the forefront.
He noted, though, that the number of students showing interest in politics hit a low in the 1980s but has made a resurgence in recent years.
Al Baldwin, who heads the Wood County Democratic Party in Bowling Green, agreed that he's seeing "more sustained political interest" since the presidential election than he can recall in 40 years.
He added that the highest Democratic voting precincts in the county last November were the student precincts - something that hasn't always been the case.
"Students have been pretty strong supporters of Democrats. They certainly were in the last election," he said, pointing to about a 65 percent turnout for presidential candidate John Kerry.
He said the party tries to attract students largely by helping to fund the College Democrats and support their efforts. Helping to register students to vote - this is challenged by the fact that they're so transient - also is a key focus, Mr. Baldwin said.
Miss Corvo said her group, the Ohio College Republican Federation, which is an auxiliary the Ohio Republican Party, is in the midst of a new campaign this year involving students.
"We're focusing on issue activism right now," she said.
One main focus will be on the issue of Social Security reform - something she said is bound to affect people in her age group.
In addition to activism, Monika Winkler, 22, president of the College Republicans at BGSU, said her group aims in general to put the spotlight on conservative issues in order to stimulate discussion. Students with more conservative views, she said, often charge that their voices aren't heard in the classrooms.
That was a goal of their annual conservative week recently, in which the late President Ronald Reagan and even liberal filmmaker Michael Moore were served up as highlights.
The students also set up a table and called it "P.E.T.A.," which they said stood for "People for Eating Tasty Animals."
She said the group experienced mixed reactions to the events. The highlight of the week, though, an appearance by conservative activist and columnist, David Horowitz, was not well received - something she said was unfortunate. He was heckled while on stage.
"We stirred up a lot of good controversy, But some parts were negative and made people frustrated and upset," she said. "We just want to sit down and discuss the issues."
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