The Conservative Dark-Money Groups Infiltrating Campus Politics

››› ››› PAM VOGEL

College campuses have long served as unique places for the free exchange of ideas -- but increasingly they’ve also become playgrounds for ideologically driven, right-wing billionaires and the dark-money groups they fund. Media Matters has mapped out some of the biggest actors behind astroturf conservative campus activism, creating an echo chamber of seemingly grass-roots right-wing student media and campus groups that are actually propped up by a handful of the same conservative funders and, sometimes, even prominent hate groups.

This post may be updated with further groups and financial connections in the future. 

 Table Of Contents

FUNDERS

ADVOCACY GROUPS & MEDIA OUTLETS

HATE GROUPS

Alliance Defending Freedom

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is an active anti-LGBTQ hate group that bills itself as a Christian legal organization. It has an annual budget of more than $48 million and a network of more than 3,000 “allied attorneys” involved in litigating so-called religious freedom cases and spreading dangerous lies about LGBTQ people. ADF is the primary driver of nationwide “bathroom bills” targeting protections that allow transgender students to use appropriate public facilities, and state “religious freedom” laws that seek to enshrine a legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. ADF has also long opposed anti-bullying efforts in schools, decrying any anti-bullying policy that includes sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition to pushing hate in state laws, court cases, and public schools, ADF has also represented Turning Point USA in at least one lawsuit alleging campus discrimination against a conservative student, and has partnered with chapters of Students for Life to create “draft legislation for newly elected Republican legislatures” in 2010. ADF sometimes bills its university “academic freedom” litigation as part of its Center for Academic Freedom, and lists the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as an affiliated group on its website page for “academic freedom” cases. Earlier this month, ADF launched a March Madness-like “Bracket of Shame” ranking colleges and universities based on their so-called “free speech records.” The project uses articles from “our friends at FIRE, Campus Reform, College Fix, and others” to inform the bracket. ADF has received substantial funding from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, as well as small donations from anonymous conservative donors through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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American Conservative Union And Conservative Political Action Conference

The American Conservative Union is a conservative political organization that oversees the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a massive annual conference with organizing workshops and speeches from prominent right-wing politicians and leaders. In the past, CPAC has typically featured remarks from, and panel discussions with, leading and up-and-coming conservative voices, including many presidential candidates in election years. This year, CPAC was embroiled in controversy for inviting -- and then rescinding the invitation of -- Milo Yiannopoulos, former Breitbart tech editor and serial harasser. Without Yiannopoulos, CPAC’s speakers list was still full of individuals pushing xenophobic and discriminatory agendas and figures associated with the extremist so-called “alt-right” movement. A major focus of CPAC panels and training sessions has always been on recruiting a new generation of right-wing leaders, particularly on college campuses. Some of the college-focused sessions at this year’s conference included: “Understanding Your Rights on Campus,” led by LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom’s Casey Mattox; “#LiberalPrivilege: Using Social Media to Change College Campuses,” led by Campus Reform’s Cabot Phillips; “How to Bring Conservative Speakers to Your Campus,” led by Patrick Coyle from Young America’s Foundation; “Facts, Not Feelings: Snowflakes, Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings,” featuring representatives from The Leadership Institute; and a session on winning campus elections led by conservative organizers at American Majority.

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Campus Reform And The Leadership Institute

The Leadership Institute is a decades-old nonprofit that trains young conservative activists and policy leaders to sell right-wing ideals through seminars on media, fundraising, communications, and campaigning. It also operates a campus leadership program that “identifies, organizes, and trains conservative college students to promote and defend their values on campus.” The institute’s “national field program” boasts “more than 1,878 campus groups” that advocate for “limited government, the free market, traditional values, and national defense.”

The Leadership Institute also operates Campus Reform, a website where student reporters write about perceived instances of liberal bias on college campuses. Known as “Higher Education’s Internet Outrage Machine,” Campus Reform posts several poorly sourced “articles” each day alleging professorial bias against conservative students or policies. Examples of “bias” on campus from this week include: a professor who reached out to a black student about an upcoming class that would focus on slavery and white nationalism; a school supporting an “emergency fund” for immigrant students; and a school hosting a seminar on pay inequity and salary negotiation for women students. The unvetted work from Campus Reform also served as the sole evidence for Turning Point USA’s recent McCarthyist “Professor Watchlist” project, which publicly listed photos and details about specific college professors and administrators who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Top contributors to the Leadership Institute in recent years include the anonymous conservative donor funds Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust, and the Charles Koch Foundation.

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College Fix

The College Fix is a conservative blog featuring posts from college “student reporters” about “higher-education news.” Articles from The College Fix have been cited on Breitbart.com and on Fox News, fueling claims of liberal bias on college campuses with little factual evidence. The College Fix is operated by the Student Free Press Association, a nonprofit that appears to receive the bulk of its funding from anonymous right-wing donors through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. Rick DeVos (one of the children of Betsy DeVos and grandchildren of Richard and Helen DeVos) sits on the board of the Student Free Press Association -- a fact that The College Fix did not disclose in its supportive posts about DeVos until it was reported by Inside Higher Ed in February.

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David Horowitz Freedom Center

The David Horowitz Freedom Center (DHFC) is an anti-Muslim hate group founded and run by extremist David Horowitz, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.” DHFC says it “combats the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values,” and that it focuses this endeavor on “our nation’s campuses, where the Freedom Center protects students from indoctrination and intimidation and works to give conservative students a place in the marketplace of ideas from which they are otherwise excluded.” DHFC operates several projects, including an online outlet called FrontPage Magazine and DiscoverTheNetworks.com, a so-called “Guide to the Political Left” which largely claims to show connections between “anybody on the left and the terrorists.” DHFC has also launched anti-Muslim campus campaigns in recent years, including “Stop the Jihad on Campus” and “Stop the Jew Hatred on Campus,” and peppered campuses with offensive posters that sometimes cite individual students or professors by name and call them “terrorists.” The DHFC utilizes information from a dangerous doxxing website called “Canary Mission” -- which compiles information about individuals who support the BDS movement, including publishing photos of professors and students and links to social media profiles -- to inform its posters and campaigns. Top contributors to the David Horowitz Freedom Center include the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and anonymous conservative donors through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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Richard And Helen DeVos Foundation

The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation (also operating as the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative) is a private philanthropic group within the billionaire DeVos family’s network of conservative giving. Through the foundation, Amway founder Richard DeVos Sr. and his spouse, Helen, (parents-in-law of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education) give millions to right-wing think tanks, model-legislation mills, and political groups, as well as numerous philanthropic endeavors and local right-wing groups in their home state of Michigan. The foundation has also poured millions into organizations focused on promoting “conservative values” (and sometimes, hate) on college campuses. It’s given $15 million to Young America’s Foundation, more than $8 million to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as well as smaller donations to the Leadership Institute. It’s also donated nearly half a million dollars to the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom. Although the details are purposely obscured, it’s likely that the DeVoses -- like Charles and David Koch -- have additionally contributed to groups in this list through the anonymous donor funds DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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DonorsTrust & Donors Capital Fund

DonorsTrust and the affiliated Donors Capital Fund (DCF) are donor-advised funds that have been labeled “the dark-money ATM for the conservative movement.” DonorsTrust and DCF allow wealthy individuals and philanthropic organizations to donate to right-wing causes (and even hate groups) with anonymity. The groups’ funding connections amount to an almost encyclopedic list of conservative organizations, the vast majority with ties to the Koch network of organizations. DonorsTrust’s tax forms from 2012 to 2014 detail several grants made directly to universities to support scholarship on free market policies. In 2013 and 2014, DonorsTrust also granted a total of $55,000 to the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation to support the work of a higher education writer who was fired from The Chronicle of Higher Education after mocking black studies courses. Wealthy conservative donors have anonymously poured money into the majority of the groups listed in this report through DonorsTrust and DCF; combined, the two funds have granted millions to the Leadership Institute, the Mercatus Center, the Institute for Humane Studies, Project Veritas, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Students for Liberty, Young America’s Foundation, and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as hate groups Alliance Defending Freedom and the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

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Foundation For Individual Rights In Education

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a legal and advocacy organization that claims to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” FIRE primarily handles “case” submissions from students who believe their free speech rights were violated, connecting some to attorneys, including through its national program designed to file targeted, high-profile cases against public universities. FIRE has partnered with anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom for some of these cases. It has also frequently weighed in on sexual misconduct cases, arguing that the definition of sexual harassment should not include “large amounts of constitutionally protected expression, such as any unwanted ‘sexual comments, gestures, jokes, or looks,’” and defended campus organizations that use hateful rhetoric or seek to exclude potential group members based on sexual orientation. Recently, FIRE took up the cause of defending student groups that did not want to pay extra security costs for hosting serial harasser Milo Yiannopoulos on his campus speaking tour, during which he engaged in targeted public harassment of individual students. FIRE receives substantial funding from a handful of conservative private donors, including $3.5 million from anonymous conservative donors through Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust, $1.3 million each from the right-wing Bradley Foundation and Sarah Scaife Foundation, and about $1 million between the Charles Koch Foundation and F.M. Kirby Foundation.

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Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is “one of the oldest student-oriented educational organizations in the nation,” aimed at supporting conservative students with resources to publish right-leaning campus publications, host conservative lectures and events, and generally “counter the progressive ideology taking over American colleges.” The Intercollegiate Studies Institute receives millions in funding from a handful of private right-wing donors, including more than $8 million in funding from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, more than $11 million from the right-wing group of Scaife Foundations, $3.5 million from the conservative Bradley Foundation, and more than $2 million from the F.M. Kirby Foundation.

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F.M. Kirby Foundation

The F.M. Kirby Foundation is a private philanthropic foundation operated by the wealthy Kirby family. In addition to funding medical research and more standard philanthropic endeavors, the F.M. Kirby Foundation also gives substantially to several billionaire-funded groups designed to seed campus chapters of conservative organizations. The F.M. Kirby Foundation has granted at least $2.3 million to Young America’s Foundation, $2.2 million to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, about half a million dollars to the Leadership Institute, and at least $375,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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Charles Koch Foundation & Charles Koch Institute

The Charles Koch Foundation is the private philanthropic organization of oil billionaire Charles Koch. Reports indicate that the Charles Koch Foundation is one of several Koch funding groups donating to universities and think tanks to “forward their political goals and to build a ‘talent pipeline’ of libertarian-minded students.” The foundation supports free-market teachings at the university level, including by funding individual faculty positions. Its tax forms list single grants ranging from $301 to more than $11 million awarded to a wide range of institutions of higher education as well as major conservative-leaning think tanks and news outlets. In 2014, the foundation gave a total of more than $24 million for use in “educational programs,” “educational grants,” and “general operating support” at these schools and organizations, including more than $11.8 million in 2014 to George Mason University, which hosts the conservative Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies. Last year, George Mason University renamed its law school as The Antonin Scalia Law School, following a $10 million contribution from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Institute, later formed as a separate organization from the foundation, bills itself as an “organization specifically dedicated to educating the next generation of professional leaders” with libertarian-minded internships and professional development courses. It also grants funding for “education” in small amounts, primarily to libertarian think tanks. Although the details are purposely obscured, it’s likely that Charles Koch and his family have additionally contributed to groups in this list through the anonymous donor funds DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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Mercatus Center & Institute For Humane Studies At George Mason University

The Mercatus Center is a conservative research center based at George Mason University that focuses on “how markets solve problems.” The center is also an associate member of the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks. It was founded and is funded by the Koch brothers; it is one of several centers and departments at George Mason that together received just under $80 million from Koch foundations from 2005 to 2014. George Mason has been called “the center of the Koch college universe” and is by far the largest beneficiary of the Kochs’ recent philanthropic focus on higher education. An investigation into these efforts by the Center for Public Integrity noted that the center’s research on tax policies, deregulation, social programs, and health care is widely cited by Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity and increasingly used in congressional reports. The Mercatus Center has received more than $9 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, and a combined $9.3 million from “dark-money ATM” DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund in recent years. Charles Koch is also a board member at the center.

The center’s “sister organization,” the Institute for Humane Studies, serves as “a libertarian recruitment firm, identifying, developing, and supporting ‘talented students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share an interest in liberty and in advancing the principles and practice of freedom.’” The institute has received nearly $24 million in support from the Charles Koch Foundation, more than $4 million from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund combined, and $2 million from David Koch’s foundation in recent years.

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Project Veritas

Project Veritas is the nonprofit group associated with “citizen journalist” vigilante James O’Keefe. O’Keefe is a right-wing conservative video artist who specializes in recording undercover videos of progressive activists and campaign staffers and releasing edited and confusing versions of the footage to allege misconduct. O’Keefe’s overhyped videos often fall flat and rarely match their billings. He has had to issue public apologies, has been arrested for trespassing, and has foiled his own plots, yet his videos have been promoted by President Donald Trump. O’Keefe also regularly incites his loyal internet followers to practice their own brand of “investigative journalism.” He takes pleasure in targeting college campuses that he perceives as suppressing “free speech.” In 2015, Project Veritas released a video purporting to show administrators at several colleges and universities “literally shredding” a copy of the Constitution in response to an undercover actor posing as a student upset by the document. The video also featured footage of O’Keefe, dressed up as the Constitution, attempting to engage with students walking through the campuses and asking female students for their phone numbers. In response, officials from several of the schools criticized O’Keefe’s attempts at “shoddy journalism,” and noted that the administrators featured in the videos were attempting to do their jobs by assisting a student who appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis. The video “didn’t make much of a splash.”

In recent years, O’Keefe has strongly aligned himself with the so-called “alt-right,” offering exclusives of his videos to Breitbart.com and befriending dangerous online trolls like Lucian Wintrich, Gavin McInnes, and Milo Yiannopoulos. He also has ties to the Trump administration, as Project Veritas has received funding from the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Its largest donors appear to be anonymous right-wing billionaires contributing through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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Students For Liberty

Students for Liberty is a “network of pro-liberty students from all over the world” that claims to organize “almost 3,000 local student groups and 1,400+ leaders around the world” in training students to become a new generation of libertarian leaders. In the U.S., its operations include a virtual academy and virtual reading groups; conferences; speaker and movie screenings series; and sponsorship of campus groups’ activism and leadership development. Students for Liberty is largely funded by a network of anonymous conservative donors through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, along with several Koch-affiliated groups.

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Students For Life

Students for Life of America (also known as Students for Life or SFLA) is an anti-choice group primarily focused on supporting a young generation of what it calls “abortion abolitionists” on campuses. It offers guidance and resources to students for starting and supporting campus chapters, including an “abolish abortion” app, recruitment strategies and materials, and “activism kits.” SFLA’s resources for students push numerous myths about women’s reproductive health care in an effort to demonize choice. The group fearmongers about contraception methods and abortion, a common medical procedure, and equates the work of Planned Parenthood in communities of color with racist eugenics. Chapters of SFLA have partnered with the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom on creating “draft legislation for newly elected Republican legislatures” in 2010. Its leader, Kristan Hawkins, has also praised Tony Perkins of Family Research Council, another anti-LGBTQ hate group. Students for Life’s funding is largely obscured, but it appears to have received at least some funding from DonorsTrust, a donor fund that allows wealthy individuals and groups to anonymously support right-wing causes.

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Turning Point USA

Turning Point USA is a nonprofit whose stated mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” The group’s tagline is “big government sucks,” and a recent video advertising the group’s presence at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) included several millennials repeating the tagline into the camera as club music played in the background. Turning Point USA is the project of Charlie Kirk, a 23-year-old conservative “boy wonder” who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, describing work to push “free markets and free people” on college campuses, “the most treacherous terrain imaginable.” He reportedly visited Trump Tower in November to give “advice on young people and millennials and outreach” to undisclosed members of the presidential transition team. In February, he made an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity with Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. to discuss how college campuses are “islands of totalitarianism & intolerance” for students with “conservative or freedom beliefs.” Kirk has publicly aligned himself with Milo Yiannopoulos in the past, and college chapters of Turning Point USA sponsored several stops on Yiannopoulos’ ill-fated campus harassment tour earlier this year. Turning Point USA is also closely affiliated with the dangerous “citizen journalist” vigilante work of James O’Keefe and Project Veritas, and the group recently delved into its own warped citizen journalism project with the launch of a McCarthyist “Professor Watchlist” project in late 2016. The public list of supposedly “biased” professors -- which included individuals’ photos and asked for public submissions of “video/photo evidence” of alleged bias -- mostly cited right-wing student reporter website Campus Reform, as well as conservative student blog The College Fix, hate group David Horowitz Freedom Center, The Blaze, FoxNews.com, and unfounded videos from Project Veritas.

Kirk’s group claims to have a “presence” on 1,000 college and high school campuses nationally. This presence includes operating a “national field program” to educate and unite students around “free market values” and supporting 350 campus chapters and 750 “like-minded student groups.” Another project of Turning Point USA, Hypeline News, is a “young-adult driven social news site” that employs college-age writers and says it’s “taking back the media.” According to leaked messages from two Turning Point staffers obtained by the Ohio State University student newspaper The Lantern, the group may also be funding individual student government races. It has also been involved in at least two lawsuits alleging campus discrimination against conservatives -- one supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and another in which the group was represented by the anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom. Turning Point USA lists the Leadership Institute, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, National School Choice Week, Heritage Action, the Heartland Institute, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center among its “partners.”

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Young America’s Foundation

Young America’s Foundation is a nonprofit that bills itself as “the principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement” by “providing essential conferences, seminars, educational materials, internships, and speakers to young people across the country.” Its primary projects include preserving Ronald Reagan’s California ranch, operating the National Journalism Center to train “aspiring journalists in the values of balanced” reporting (Ann Coulter and Greg Gutfeld are alumni), and running its Center for Entrepreneurship & Free Enterprise. The foundation supports high school and college campus chapters under the umbrella of Young Americans for Freedom, which was originally established by William F. Buckley in the 1960s and now purports to help students “diligently advance conservatism” by “speaking out against the liberal agenda.” Since 2012, Young America’s Foundation has received more than $15 million from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and a combined almost $1.5 million from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.

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Young Americans For Liberty

Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) is a small nonprofit organization geared toward student libertarians. It formed after the 2008 presidential campaign of former libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (TX) as a continuation of “Students For Ron Paul.” YAL claims to support a network of “more than 900 chapters nationwide” on college and high school campuses, providing materials and resources to help students organize events to communicate “the problems with income redistribution through satire,” “educate your fellow students about the zombies in government who need to feed on the living to survive” (a Halloween-themed activity), and encourage the “right to self defense” and access to weapons on campuses to “prevent a violent crime from ever happening.” The list of “strategic partners” on YAL’s website is a lengthy encyclopedia of Koch-backed think tanks and advocacy groups, and it also includes the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Students for Liberty, and Young America’s Foundation. YAL also hosts an annual conference; the 2016 conference featured speakers including former Rep. Paul, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), and Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano. YAL’s foundation arm appears to receive the bulk of its funding from the Charles Koch Foundation and DonorsTrust

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Graphics created by Sarah Wasko.

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