Who Funds Campus Reform?
According to its 990 tax forms, in 2020 the Leadership Institute received $23 million in contributions and grants (up from $16 million in 2018). Because of its non-profit status, the LI is not required to declare its donors. However, evidence points to considerable funding coming from conservative and plutocratic libertarian billionaires as well as corporations (more here). In 2020 the LI listed the cost of running Campus Reform at $2,067,975. In other words, LI spent $2 million publishing a website with the explicit mission of accusing academics and universities of “liberal bias.”
Campus Reform is an online media platform that claims to be the “#1 Source for Campus News.” The site’s explicit mission, however, is to expose so-called liberal bias on college campuses. It does so by paying students $50-100 to write outrage pieces that feed the highly partisan narrative that colleges and universities are hostile to conservatives. Each story includes a fundraising request, claiming that “The radical left will stop at nothing to intimidate conservative students on college campuses. You can help expose them.” The stories that Campus Reform posts are often presented with sensationalized headlines and often without providing the full context. They routinely distort the words of professors and others in order to feed a narrative of moralized outrage. Campus Reform works closely with Fox News and other organizations in the right-wing media ecosystem. As such, seemingly minor and nonsensical pieces written by undergraduate students can quickly gain national attention. Turning Point USA draws upon Campus Reform stories to form its “Professor Watchlist.”
Campus Reform is just one of the projects overseen by the Leadership Institute (LI). The Leadership Institute was created by Morton Blackwell in 1979 to train conservative campus activists. It offers a variety of trainings, workshops and seminars, including in right-wing journalism and social media. It provides assistance to conservative college students in establishing conservative campus publications and offers financial assistance to bring conservative speakers to college campuses. According to Anne Nelson, Blackwell and the Leadership Institute are foundational in the creation of the Council for National Policy, a stealth organization that focuses on the “recruitment and training of activists” and integrating the “political technology” and “organizational framework” that created the New Right (p.26). The Leadership Institute is part of this “political technology,” along with other groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and numerous partisan political organizations and media outlets on the right. Blackwell claimed that: “Political technology can be roughly divided into communication technology and organization technology, with no neat line of separation between communication and organization” (quoted in Nelson, p. 84). Campus Reform is part of this right-wing political technology.
McCarthy, Samantha, and Isaac Kamola. “Sensationalized Surveillance: Campus Reform and the Targeted Harassment of Faculty.” New Political Science (2021): 1-21.
Kamola, Isaac. “Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money.” Journal of Academic Freedom 10 (2019).
Schmidt, Peter. “Higher Education’s Internet Outrage Machine.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 8, 2015.