Data Snapshot: Whom Does Campus Reform Target and What Are the Effects?

An influential conservative website’s strategic coverage and its impact.
By Hans-Joerg Tiede, Samantha McCarthy, Isaac Kamola, and Alyson K. Spurgas

Campus Reform is a website run by the Leadership Institute, an organization that recruits and trains conservative college activists. Claiming the mantle of “America’s leading site for college news” and calling itself “a conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” Campus Reform purportedly “exposes liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses,” with the help of college-student reporters. A fundraising plea prominently displayed on the Campus Reform website declares that “the time has come to expose leftist thugs and their attacks on freedom.”

After witnessing a number of high-profile instances in which stories Campus Reform published on its website were followed by targeted harassment of faculty members—and sometimes even dismissal from their institutions—we became interested in better understanding the subjects of Campus Reform’s stories and what effects those stories have. To answer these questions, we reviewed more than 1,570 stories published by Campus Reform in 2020. We identified those that we judged to be instances in which Campus Reform alleged that a faculty member’s speech or writing displayed “liberal bias.” These stories often focus on statements made by faculty members in social-media posts or in the classroom, public lectures, academic research, syllabi, or opinion pieces. We identified the 338 individuals who were the subjects of such stories in 2020, including some who were the subjects of more than one story. We conducted an online survey of these individuals, receiving 213 responses (a 63 percent response rate).

We provide findings below concerning who has been targeted by Campus Reform, the effect of being targeted in this way, and which faculty members subsequently received threats and harassment. We recognize that Campus Reform is not itself either carrying out or explicitly encouraging this harassment. However, because Campus Reform provides direct links to faculty contact information in stories that highlight supposed liberal bias in the academy, it is hardly surprising that harassment and even threats have frequently followed the website’s coverage.

Who Is Targeted?

The first striking observation to be made on the basis of the data we collected concerns the types of institutions with which Campus Reform’s subjects are affiliated: they are overwhelmingly from the most prestigious research universities in the country. Of the 338 individuals we identified, 178 (52.7 percent) were at institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization consisting of the leading research universities in the United States. Another 57 individuals (16.8 percent) were at institutions identified as “Doctoral Universities–Very High Research Activity,” according to the current Carnegie Classification system, which roughly corresponds to the former, better-known Research I category. With these two groups combined, nearly 70 percent of targeted individuals were serving at the most prominent research institutions. Ten percent were at doctoral-granting universities with lower research activity, another 10 percent were at master’s degree‒granting colleges and universities, and the remaining 10 percent were at all other types of institutions of higher education (including liberal arts colleges and community colleges). For comparison’s sake, there are some 3,300 two-year and four-year public and private not-for-profit accredited colleges and universities in the United States; 63 (2 percent) are members of the AAU, and 131 (4 percent) have the “Doctoral Universities–Very High Research Activity” designation.

Campus Reform’s overwhelming focus on the most prestigious universities suggests that an apparent goal of the website’s coverage is to delegitimize not just higher education generally but specifically those institutions that make the largest share of contributions to research production in the United States. This preoccupation is consistent with findings going back to Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Wagner Thielens Jr., who demonstrated in their 1958 book The Academic Mind that during the McCarthy era, faculty members at more prestigious universities were subjected to attacks over their political views at higher rates than faculty members at less prestigious institutions.

Of the 199 respondents to our survey who reported their race and ethnicity, 62.8 percent were white, 14.6 percent were African American, 7 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 5.5 percent were Hispanic, and 10.1 percent were other races or ethnicities, including some who identified as multiracial. It is noteworthy that while African Americans make up 6 percent of full-time faculty nationally, according to statistics prepared by the AAUP’s research office based on Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, they make up 14.6 percent of the predominantly full-time respondents in our study and thus are disproportionately targeted by Campus Reform.

The appointment status of respondents also shows a particularly striking mismatch with the composition of the profession at large. Of the 206 respondents reporting their appointment status, 60.2 percent were tenured, 17 percent were tenure-track, 16.5 percent were full-time non-tenure-track, and 6.3 percent were part-time non-tenure-track. Nationally, the corresponding figures are 21.9 percent full-time tenured, 8.9 percent tenure-track, 17.6 percent full-time non-tenure-track, and 51.6 percent part-time, according to statistics prepared by the AAUP’s research office. The large overrepresentation of tenured faculty members among respondents to our survey may be an attempt by Campus Reform to delegitimize tenure, or it may reflect the fact that tenured faculty members are likely to feel more secure to engage in research, teaching, or public speech about subjects that attract the attention of Campus Reform, which would confirm the importance of protections provided by tenure.

We asked respondents to identify the location or venue of the speech or writing that Campus Reform had covered—classroom speech, a research publication, or speech in a public forum (such as letters to the editor, tweets, or public presentations). Seventy-eight percent of respondents indicated that the Campus Reform story was about speech in a public forum. Classroom speech, including online teaching and student email correspondence, made up 9 percent of the cases, and research publications 8 percent. This finding—with more than three-quarters of instances unconnected to campuses—stands in sharp contrast to Campus Reform’s stated mission to “expose liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses” (emphasis added). In other words, rather than identifying evidence of rampant anticonservative bias on campus or in the classroom, Campus Reform instead regularly points to the contents of faculty members’ social-media accounts. This sleight of hand insinuates that faculty members engage their students in the classroom in the same way they discuss issues on Twitter or other social-media platforms. In addition to Campus Reform’s own coverage, there is an infrastructure of right-wing news outlets that amplify stories reported on its website. We asked respondents whether other news sources had picked up the Campus Reform stories about them, and 65.3 percent reported that they had.

Threats and Topics

Forty percent of respondents reported receiving threats of harm, including physical violence or death, following Campus Reform stories about them. Of these, 89 percent reported having received threats by email; 57 percent reported having received threats through direct messages on social media; 45 percent reported having received threats by phone; 13 percent reported having received threats in other ways, including by text message; and 11 percent reported having receiving threats through letters in the mail. An additional 10.7 percent of respondents reported that, even though they had not received threats of harm, they had received other types of unwanted, hateful, or harassing emails, direct messages, or mail. One respondent replied, “I received two pieces of ‘hate mail,’ but neither threatened me with harm. It was very unsettling.” Another wrote, “Most of the negative responses I received were non-threatening, however the sheer number of them felt overwhelming. Even minor attacks at scale feel like abuse.” In short, more than half of the respondents reported receiving unwanted and harassing contact following the publication of the Campus Reform stories about them. One respondent wrote, “It was very traumatic. I received endless threats on Twitter, my phone, email, and my mail. I had to change my cell phone number because of the constant threats and negative phone calls. I also had to add security to my house.” Another called the experience “one of the most awful moments of my professional career.”

There was little quantitative difference in terms of what percentage of respondents received threats of harm based on gender or race and ethnicity, but there was a large difference based on reported sexual orientation. While 35.8 percent of respondents who identified as straight reported receiving threats of harm, 64.1 percent of those identifying as gay, lesbian, queer (or “other” sexual orientation) reported receiving threats. It is also worth noting that four of the five respondents who identified as transgender experienced threats with content that was particularly abusive. For example, trans participants reported being “deadnamed” (referred to by a prior name that does not correspond with their current gender identity), referred to as mentally ill, and violently threatened.

We asked respondents to identify a single primary topic addressed in their writing or speech that attracted Campus Reform coverage. By far the most frequently identified topic was race (42.5 percent), followed by the 2020 election or political topics (23.7 percent), COVID-19 or other public-health issues (7.7 percent), gender (4.8 percent), and the Arab-Israeli conflict (2.9 percent). The remainder included miscellaneous other topics (18.4 percent).

While two respondents stated that they appreciated the work that Campus Reform does, most respondents viewed the experience of being covered by Campus Reform negatively.

What Are the Effects?

We asked respondents whether and, if so, to what extent they reduced their social-media presence or made changes to their teaching or research following the coverage by Campus Reform. We found that a sizable number of faculty members changed their communication on social media following a Campus Reform story, while fewer respondents reported having changed their teaching and research. However, in all three areas, faculty who experienced harassment were more likely to make changes.

Overall, 24.1 percent of respondents reported curtailing their social-media presence, but those who had received threats of harm reported this at a higher rate (38.6 percent) than those who had not (14.2 percent). Only 5.9 percent of respondents reported making any changes to their teaching, but this varied between those who had received threats of harm (12.1 percent) and those who had not (1.7 percent). Likewise, 3.0 percent reported making changes to their research following the coverage by Campus Reform, with 6.0 percent of those who received threats of harm making such a change contrasted with only 0.8 percent of those who did not.

Of the respondents who reported having received threats, 34.9 percent reported the threat to campus security, and 16.9 percent reported the threat to campus security and to law enforcement, but 48.2 percent did not report the incident to either. Of those who reported the threat to campus security, 61.4 percent reported that campus security assisted them, and 50 percent of those who reported the threat to law enforcement reported that the law enforcement agency assisted them. One respondent who did not report the incident to campus security or law enforcement stated, “I do not, nor can [I], trust law enforcement to keep me safe, nor could I trust my university to do the same, especially given their collusion with law enforcement.”

Institutional support was also varied. Only 45.3 percent of respondents reported having received support from the administration, while 12.4 percent of respondents reported having experienced some form of punitive action by the administration related to the coverage by Campus Reform. Three faculty members reported having been dismissed from their positions as a result of stories written by Campus Reform. Some respondents noted that even if their administrations supported them behind the scenes, they needed a more public display of support. For example, one participant stated, “When I say the administration did not provide support, I mean they did not provide anything material beyond saying they would support me. They did not defend my academic freedom or free speech in a public forum, but remained silent. The silence has its own politics to it—it says to those attacking me that the university doesn't consider my safety or even my value as an employee worth defending, and this empowers and emboldens outside attacks. I’ve expressed this to [the] administration, and they remain silent.” One respondent said simply that “universities don’t protect adjuncts” and others suggested that their own tenure status ultimately protected them and believed that the effects would have been worse for an untenured faculty member in the same situation.     

While some faculty members reported having made changes to their activity in response to the Campus Reform coverage out of concern for their safety (for example, posting less frequently on social media), other faculty members stated that the experience of being targeted by the website actually bolstered their commitment to doing social justice work. As one respondent wrote, “I do think what they are doing is disgraceful, but I will not let them deter or intimidate me.” Another wrote, “While I believe Campus Reform does have an overall chilling effect, I refuse to be cowed.”

Hans-Joerg Tiede is director of the AAUP’s Department of Research. Samantha McCarthy is an undergraduate research assistant at Trinity College. Isaac Kamola is assistant professor of political science at Trinity College. Alyson K. Spurgas is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College.