It started with some Instagram posts and a few cupcakes. It then led to student debate over the presence of certain national organizations on campus amidst the efforts to change college culture following racial incidents, and amidst the college’s own divestment process. What is it? An attempt to bring Turning Point USA (TPUSA) to campus.
A group of conservative seeking representation on campus became aligned with a national organization that concerned many student leaders. These student leaders worked with others to resolve the conflict and form a Canisius chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), rather than TPUSA.
“They made it very easy”
For Justin Begley, a junior economics and finance major, his views on the free market were not only a passion but something he felt he wanted to relay to the campus. Begley stated in an interview with The Griffin that free market principles appeared to be a “staple of Turning Point USA.”
“That’s what drew me in, and that’s what I wanted to relay to the student body,” Begley said. “Especially in a time where a lot of things are fundamentally changing, at least on an economic level, where there’s a push for socialism or democratic socialism.”
Begley first found himself interested in TPUSA after first hearing about Charlie Kirk during the 2016 presidential race. Kirk, the now 25-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, began the organization when he was 18. Begley connected to Kirk on his interests in the conservative perspectives on free market economy and individual liberty.
After seeing an Instagram a post where TPUSA asked students if they wanted to start a chapter, Begley followed the link attached and got in contact with a regional director, who helped start the process to attempt to bring TPUSA to Canisius.
“They made it very easy, which is why we, at least at first, went to Turning Point USA,” Begley said.
Table sparks debate
On Wed., Feb. 27, Begley and other students interested in forming TPUSA tabled in the library, attempting to get students signatures on a petition for it to become a club on campus, distributing information about TPUSA, and handing out cupcakes. At this point, Begley had assembled his team – Victoria Fish as vice president, Sean Rooney as secretary, and Seth Atisha as treasurer. Fish and Rooney currently sit on the undergraduate Senate. Begley has gotten Canisius listed as having a chapter of Turning Point USA on their website, with their “Chapter President” listed as himself. The listing still stands at the time of this article’s publishing.
Begley added that TPUSA sent them a kit with posters and promotional materials to use, and they decided to use posters that said phrases such as, “America is the best country on earth.” Begley opted out of using posters sent by TPUSA that were ‘a little provocative in a sense,’ that said things such as “socialism sucks.”
For some, the TPUSA table was alarming.
Regarding whether they had heard of TPUSA prior to the tabling in the library, Jakai Harrison ‘19 and Olivia Owens ‘19 said that as students and as people of color, they have to know about organizations like it.
“We have to know these things; people who are not of color can get by without knowing about these groups because it doesn’t affect them.” Harrison said. “But we have to know about these groups who actively hate us, and like gay people have to know about these groups who actively hate them, and women and Muslims have to know about these groups because these groups affect their lives.”
Harrison was one of the students to advocate against the affiliation of a conservative student club to the national organization. Harrison serves as vice president for marketing and public relations of the Senate and Owens serves as the executive vice president. Additionally, Toby Patrick, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. chair of Senate, helped lead the student opposition, creating a slideshow and presenting to Senate their argument against a TPUSA affiliation.
“So, we knew what that group was, and that’s why, when I saw that table, I was taken aback,” Harrison said. “I didn’t sign their petition and I voiced my concern in the Senate meeting.”
Students cited several reasons regarding their concerns over the affiliation with TPUSA. Students advocating against it, such as Patrick, made it clear that they were not against the presence of a conservative student group on campus. Rather, they were concerned with the affiliation to the national organization due to several events in TPUSA’s history that did not align with the Jesuit mission and values, as well as current initiatives by both students and administration on diversity, divestment, and campus culture.
“If you were at the Senate meeting you would have heard that everyone that spoke out about TPUSA, spoke out about TPUSA and not conservative values,” Patrick said. “Everyone said that they would love to see a conservative value organization, just not TPUSA. So I think there is support from liberals to have a conservative-value organization on campus, it’s just with the missions of them, and with the way they’re ran.”
TPUSA is known for controversy linked to a myriad of events, such as racist comments and potentially illegal activity tied to their 501(c)3 charity status. They are also known for their professor watchlist, where students can submit names of professors they feel discriminate against conservative viewpoints.
“I spoke about how I personally felt about the club and how I didn’t think that Canisius who not long ago had issues with race on campus,” Harrison said. “It happens every year, and how as a campus who’s trying to move forward with our diversity, we just hired a dean of diversity and inclusion, we are trying to move past our issues that we have on campus, that this sets us back.”
Harrison also described how both he and Owens are on the racial diversity task force and have worked to focus on ways to prevent racial incidents on campus, such as hosting the racial incident workshop and analyzing the racial climate survey data. He expressed that he felt, as a person of color and as a student, bringing TPUSA to campus would set back their efforts.
TPUSA is also known for its pro-fossil fuel stance, which was also expressed by students to be a concern due to the college’s current divestment efforts. Begley stated that TPUSA’s view “is probably contradictory to [a campus trying to divest], absolutely.”
In his interview with The Griffin, Begley stated how he was sad to see some of his first friends at Canisius, who sat in opposition at the meeting, hurt by the attempt to bring TPUSA to campus.
“I don’t want any violence or any negativity in our group, I don’t want any hate or bigotry,” Begley said about his intentions with creating a conservative club.
Begley emphasized to both the Senate and The Griffin that the intention was never to hurt anyone or to affiliate with an organization that had such a history. After the Senate meeting, and further research, Begley and his team decided not to affiliate with TPUSA.
“While the reaction wasn’t what we expected, I think the best part of it was the way that us students could work out our problems in a respectful manner,” Fish said in an email interview with The Griffin. “Many students voiced their concerns with TP USA and if they hadn’t, then we wouldn’t have realized that there was such a problem. It is important to speak out and defend the values that you believe in and voice when you know something could negatively affect other students. Through listening and compromise we were able to reevaluate our situation and bring a better organization to campus. Too many people argue and yell at each other to try to fix things, but we sat and talked to each other in a civil way, and that made all the difference.”
“Institutionally, I still do not think that they are a racist institution or a bigoted institution,” Begley added regarding the instances of racist comments. “But they poorly dealt with people who exhibited such sides of it, of bigotry.”
Working with Senate, Begley moved forward to find a new organization, and after much research, it was settled that the conservative students would seek to associate with Young Americans for Freedom. The club was approved by Senate on April 2 and will move forward as an active organization next year. Begley said that YAF hopes to host speakers, “change my mind” tables, and open debates. Most of all, Begley said he hopes YAF can be a voice for students.
“YAF is going to be an organization that is a voice for all students, whether or not you’re conservative,” Begley said. “YAF is inherently conservative but we want to include all people, so they can be exposed to ideas that they would not otherwise. Then we can have conversations together in a very civil manner and not in a way that offends anyone or that makes anyone feel uncomfortable, but that makes people feel empowered, because they get sharper in their beliefs and in their argument, and they understand the other side more.”