Alumni groups challenging liberal trends on campus

July 23, 1995|By Alice Dembner | Alice Dembner,Boston Globe

Larisa Vanov graduated from Wellesley College in 1982 and eventually settled in Houston, but she kept in touch with her alma mater -- and as the years passed she didn't much like what she heard.

The women's studies department was teaching "Queer Theory." orientation meeting encouraged new students to reflect on "white privilege." Multicultural programs had grown in number and importance until an office was created to oversee them.

These and similar "excesses" prompted Ms. Vanov to found Women for Freedom, a two-year-old alumnae group that uses its newsletter and a student chapter to challenge what it sees as feminist and multicultural indoctrination of Wellesley students.

In March, under the name Ivy Leaguers for Freedom, the group formed a chapter at Cornell University, the second link in a projected network of alumni-funded student groups advocating the "depoliticization" of education.

Women for Freedom's organization is part of a national upsurge in activism among college alumni demanding a renewed emphasis on the study of Western civilization and an end to what they claim is a climate of political correctness stifling mainstream views.

"It's the latest manifestation of culture wars," said David Merkowitz, spokesman for the American Council on Education, the nation's largest organization of colleges and universities. "They are targeting institutions formerly seen as bastions of privilege that have democratized greatly in recent decades."

Lynne V. Cheney, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, announced the formation this spring of another group, the National Alumni Forum, which claims to have signed up graduates of more than 200 colleges. The organization plans to marshal donations, publicity and alumni participation in campus governance to fight against "political intolerance" and a perceived decline in academic rigor.

"We're making a national statement about what good citizenship is for an alumnus," said Jerry L. Martin, the forum's president. "Traditionally it's been just giving money."

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded three decades ago William F. Buckley Jr. to promote traditional agendas on campus, also recently has begun actively organizing alumni, establishing large pressure groups at Stanford and Yale, among other schools.

The efforts build on long-standing splinter associations of alumni at individual colleges, such as Dartmouth, who are troubled by liberal trends on campus. Drawing on funding from conservative foundations, all three campaigns are establishing links with like-minded groups, including the faculty-based National Association of Scholars; the student-organized First Amendment Coalition; and a broad network of conservative student newspapers, many already supported by alumni donations.

"Conservative groups working to shape academia have enormous amounts of money but relatively few members," said Rich Cowan, coordinator of the University Conversion Project in Cambridge, Mass., which studies right-wing activities. "Because they have had so much difficulty bringing their message to college campuses, they are turning to alumni."

While many college officials publicly welcome the interest of alumni, they are chafing under the intensifying pressure.

"The overtly political nature of the groups is disturbing," Mr. Merkowitz said. "It's one thing to say that you're trying to expand points of view and provide funds for a newspaper or field of study. But to try to exert direct influence over curriculum, staffing, faculty appointments and the administration . . . that's something else entirely."

Alumnae backed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute were instrumental in forcing out the president of Converse College, a small women's school in South Carolina, after she hired black administrators and allowed men to visit dormitories. But at other campuses, the impact of alumni organizing is unclear.

At Wellesley, administrators and faculty acknowledge that Women for Freedom has brought new voices to campus by inviting speakers such as Dinesh D'Souza, author of "Illiberal Education," and Christina Hoff Sommers, who asserts that extremists have hijacked feminism. Student members also say they now feel freer to dissent from prevailing liberal views.

However, when Ms. Vanov claims that her group was responsible for the campus' decision last semester to rethink its requirement in multicultural studies, even faculty supporters challenge her account. Women for Freedom, they say, merely contributed to growing discontent about the breadth of the requirement, which is being reshaped.

Ms. Vanov, an accountant who now lives in Texas, founded Women for Freedom in early 1993 after discussions with fellow Houston-area alumnae who, she says, felt alienated from a campus that was "too whacked-out to the left."

"It's creating radical feminists," Ms. Vanov said. "In the classroom, in publications, there is this heavy political message. We want to see a good basic curriculum."

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