March 25, 2020

JOHNS | Hail and Farewell to Cornell’s Conservatives

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“Always be prepared to fight and prevail,” my father once told me, in his characteristic wisdom. “It’s a good lesson for a dad to share with his son: Always think before you act. Act assertively, but always think first.”

It was great advice. I thought hard before beginning this column in 2018, and I wrote as assertively as I could from start to finish. Athwart History was offered to the campus without any apologies or excuses for its existence, written with an unflinching determination to stand on its own merits as the bulwark of dedicated conservative opinion in The Sun.

Of course, as anyone today or fifty years from now will certainly know, these writings unfortunately but unsurprisingly failed to change the political culture of the University entirely. But in its time, this column was quite unique in its mission and impactful in ways I never could have predicted — in no small part because of its assertiveness. I am proud to have walked such a difficult path at this university; writing for The Sun was one of the most meaningful parts of my time at Cornell, and I hope that reading this column — regardless of your ideology — has been enriching to your own Cornell experience.

But I never stood alone. I was joined by the very best conservative friends and colleagues from every walk of life, every political and religious tradition and every field of study. The people who sacrificed years on our conservative vision were some of the finest this university had to offer, and together, we built a political community that punched far above its weight in terms of its influence and built an impressive track record of success on core conservative objectives at Cornell. As our conservative organizations enter prematurely into their election processes due to the coronavirus pandemic, now is a good time to reflect on everything we’ve achieved.

After all, we were playing from behind — conservatives didn’t arrive on campus in control of Cornell’s institutions or the University’s political culture. No, we arrived at an almost unanimously liberal university, staffed by professors, researchers and lecturers that gave near-exclusively to left-wing candidates ranked fourth most liberal in the country by Crowdpac last year – and supervised by an administration with similar political preferences. And we certainly did not have the power to blacklist students from secret societies or to manipulate elections in student organizations to disempower ideological opponents, as our friends on the Left unfortunately did.

Thankfully, we have enjoyed several years of exceptional leadership. This class of conservative students arrived on campus not to make petty political points or stir up drama, but instead to break the inertia and help reshape some of these institutions in a more ideologically inclusive mold. Rather than embrace marginality, the Right at Cornell these past few years marched unapologetically into the Temple of Zeus, planted itself firmly beside its copies of God and Man at Yale and began the debate in earnest.

It was difficult at times. Some students were unfairly hostile to our message, and — ironically, given their stated commitment to inclusivity — they tried desperately to silence it by any means necessary. A culture of egregious political harassment gripped the student body for most of our time here. Violent threats were posted online, event tickets were stolen and burned, signs and posters were vandalized, slanderous gossip was circulated and guest speakers were disrupted repeatedly by radical hecklers on the Left in violation of Cornell’s speech codes (and without disciplinary ramifications).

Despite it all, we cheerfully persisted. Not only did we stand firmly by our time-proven beliefs (itself an accomplishment at any university), but we have also established the most active College Republicans chapter in the Ivy League; we have contributed substantially to the expansion and balance of the Cornell Political Union; and yes, we wrote very often in The Sun. As a result of years of advocacy, the University finally put an effective end to its discriminatory security fee policy, which put an unfair price tag on conservative speech, and clarified its enforcement practices against leftist hecklers. Nor were the victories limited to administrative policies. In our time, the Student Assembly defeated Cornell’s hopelessly misguided anti-Israel BDS movement and took steps to end some wasteful spending in its biennial budgetary review. It is difficult to think of an activist movement at Cornell with as much tangible success as this one, as incomplete as our mission remains.

Then, of course, were the now-iconic speaking events. Absent the Cornell Republicans, it is possible that not one conservative, representing the most popular political philosophy in the United States, would have spoken at Cornell University in the last four years. We invited and fully organized visits for some of the most prominent dignitaries to speak at Cornell, including Vice President Dick Cheney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, to name but a few. It is one of Cornell’s most consistently successful student organizations at hosting professional, compelling and well-attended public events.

These achievements are impressive, but they still don’t tell the whole story. Conservatives, by engaging within otherwise one-sided institutions — or, when appropriate, building entirely new ones — have gradually pushed the political culture back toward constructive discourse and virtuous conduct in countless drifting Cornell fora. There is still substantial work to do for students who follow in our footsteps, but the campus has more robust and productive spaces for critical inquiry and expression than it did even just a few years ago because a truly motivated and active group of students on the Right established meaningful partnerships and volunteered their valuable time to build or participate in these student-led institutions. Given the visibility of our positions and the delicate nature of this work, our successful record is that much more impressive. I am proud of our cohort, and of the work we have done on this campus.

To our successors: Take solace in the fact that your message is a sincere and successful one, that it has basis in concrete ideas — not vague intentions — and continue to believe that when the debate is fair, when speech is free, when students engage sincerely, you can win on the merits of our arguments. Make no mistake, we did stand firm against the mob. But we would have failed if we had adopted their tactics.

Instead, like nearly every generation of the Right at Cornell, we embraced a common mantra — that we, as this column’s inspiration William F. Buckley once proclaimed, are “without reservations, on the side of excellence (rather than “newness”) and of honest intellectual combat (rather than conformity).” As it was then, it is this credo, ladies and gentlemen, that leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.

We call upon you now to stand on the side of excellence. We have all made a commitment to our peers, our mentors, our alumni and our university that we will remain faithful to our principles — which have been central to building the most successful nation in the history of the world — for generations to come. To paraphrase Robert Frost, we have promises to keep — and especially at Cornell, there are miles to go before we sleep.

But for now, let’s celebrate. Pour us a glass of wine. We’ll have it red.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.