Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How to bring more prominent liberals to UNC

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on September 9th, 2006:

If you have a strong stomach and some free time on Tuesday night you can head over to Memorial Hall at 6:30 p.m. to hear John Ashcroft speak. Of course, you might have a previously planned date to wash your hair.

Ashcroft is just the latest in a succession of right-wing extremists to speak on the UNC campus. Other recent appearances have come from well-known conservatives like Ann Coulter, Alan Keyes and Patrick McHenry. There have also been the lesser-known folks like Rush Limbaugh's brother and a speaker billing himself as the "conservative Jesse Jackson."

There is a consortium of conservative groups on the UNC campus that sponsors these events. The College Republicans are often involved, and this week's event is being sponsored by the UNC chapter of the Federalist Society and the Committee for a Better Carolina.

The Federalist Society is a national group for conservative law students. The CBC seeks to increase the conservative voice on campus and came to prominence originally with its protests of the 2002 and 2003 UNC summer reading books -- "Approaching the Quran" and "Nickel and Dimed," respectively.

Bringing all of these speakers to campus is not cheap. The honorarium alone for the Ashcroft speech is $25,000 and the groups bringing him must also pay all of his travel expenses and the fee to rent Memorial Hall.

A lot of the money comes from student fee money. Ten thousand dollars of the cost for this particular speech is covered by student activity fees. The rest of the money has to be raised independently. Hold that thought.

During the past four years, there has been no comparable roster of speakers from the left side of the spectrum. You haven't seen Michael Moore or George Lakoff or any prominent out-of-state Democratic elected officials speaking on campus. There have been a few good liberals -- Paul Begala and Paul Krugman come to mind -- but nothing to match the onslaught of high honorarium Republicans.

There are far more Democratic activists on campus than there are Republicans, so why this dichotomy? It is certainly not because of a lack of interest. Individual progressive organizations as well as various coalitions of them have attempted to bring scores of different famous speakers to campus, usually without success.

As is often the case in life, it's all about the money.

Liberal groups can get student fee money just as the conservative ones do. But raising that extra $10,000 to $25,000 to cover the rest of the costs of bringing a speaker usually has proven to be too high of a hill to climb.

Conservative organizations really value their youth. It is funding from groups like Young America's Foundation, the Pope Center and the Federalist Society that make it possible for all of these right-wing speakers to have their voices heard. There are no comparable organizations on the left, or at least none that have shown much interest in helping to bring expensive liberal speakers to the UNC campus.

Some in the community deserve a hand.

The Orange County Democratic Party, particularly Barry Katz and Nancy Park, has built a tremendous relationship with the UNC Young Democrats that continues to this day. They have been financially supportive and morally supportive as well. But of course they don't have the resources these state and national Republican groups do.

While there have not been a lot of liberal speakers of national prominence on campus, there have still been plenty of events pushing a progressive perspective. U.S. Rep. David Price, state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and state Rep. Verla Insko in particular make a tremendous number of appearances on the UNC campus and should be acknowledged for their contributions.

Former senator and now Chapel Hillian John Edwards has also been generous with his time in meeting with students, as was Erskine Bowles during his two campaigns for the Senate.

But it would still be nice if the headliners came to town more often. In the absence of large, liberal organizations, it's going to take the generosity of individual donors to bring them to UNC.

I do lots of research for political campaigns, and many of the ZIP codes in Orange and Chatham counties are donor central for progressive causes. So if there's a major personality you would like to see in town, get in touch with an appropriate student organization and work with them to raise the private funds needed in conjunction with student fees to make it happen.

When famous speakers come to campus it should be a great asset not just for students but for the broader community as well.

It frustrates me that year after year the folks whose appearances create the most buzz are the John Ashcrofts and Ann Coulters of the world. If local residents and student leaders collaborate more, there may be a solution to the inequities liberal groups currently face in raising private funds.

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