What is it like to be a Republican student at Willamette?
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Correction: This article refers to College Republicans as potentially being disbanded, but it has since been clarified that the club is still in existence despite its disaffiliation. While they cannot reserve on-campus spaces through the EMS system, they can still meet on campus. Additionally, while various ASWU senators have said that new club leadership would be a condition for re-affiliation, it is not an actual requirement.
Editor’s Note: The interviews for this piece, as well as the pitching of the topic itself all took place before the club’s disaffiliation, and thus may not be fully reflective of them now.
Willamette College Republicans (CR) was a student organization that has recently become the center of controversy, occupying the thoughts and concerns of the student body. But before Ray Hacke was ever invited to speak at a CR meeting, before students flooded the ASWU Senate meeting with public comments, before the organization’s disaffiliation and before the university’s investigation of said meeting was launched--who were the College Republicans? This piece is an attempt to answer this question, contextualizing recent events by taking a look at conversations with three students in leadership roles within the club, and examining their own representations of what it means, or rather, meant, to be a CR member.
It is no secret that Willamette, like many institutions of higher education, has a tendency to lean towards the political left of the spectrum when it comes to class content, student culture and general opinions among the student body. This fact makes WU College Republicans as an organization quite elusive to the majority of the students. Prior to the group’s disaffiliation, College Republicans served primarily as a space for conversation amongst 8 regularly attending members. Meetings were held bi-weekly and typically formatted as informal discussions; the topics on the table spanned from news in the political sphere, relevant events on campus, to general dialogue about the members’ experiences both academically and socially as “political minorities” on campus. College Republicans’ secretary, Kasey Englert, (‘23) described CR’s objective as a space to, “just let people vent the kinds of stuff that they feel that they’re not able to actually express on the rest of campus.” He described the polarization he witnesses both at Willamette and the surrounding country, concluding that, “It’s that kind of non-understanding and vilification that makes having CR actually necessary. Otherwise, we could be a regular political club. But we’ve turned into a kind of [chuckle] almost a safe space for lack of a better word, just because there’s no other opportunities to be that way on campus.”
The club’s president, Alexander Knorr (‘22), described the club as representing a range of right-leaning beliefs. College Republicans does officially support the platform of the GOP and advancing the interests of Republican politics, but its members all have unique relationships with their ideology. Some of the members do not self-identify as Republicans at all. Knorr stated that CR members’ “personal and group relationship with what it means to be Republican isn’t necessarily what it means for other people...for instance, I don’t think anybody at this institution is a die-hard Trump supporter. We’re all individuals, and ultimately we’re not caricatures of what people might think of as Republicans.”
When identifying the core values of the club, Knorr named open discourse and inclusivity, adding that he is, “very cognizant of making sure that everybody that inhabits that space with us can feel welcome.” Additionally, Knorr mentioned the values of initiative and achievement, pointing out the clubs’ efforts to get members on paths toward internships with local politicians. Beyond political internships, the club aimed to get students involved in every level of politics. In the past, they held a voter registration drive in collaboration with College Democrats (CD).
Fostering collaboration between College Republicans and College Democrats was important to Knorr, who is also in regular attendance of CD meetings in line with his interest in creating open discourse. He stressed that one thing the whole club would agree on is a general wish for more ideological tolerance. Englert said the same thing, referencing the club fair and the disgusted faces he saw passing the College Republicans table. “It’s disheartening to see how just having a political opinion that’s not the campus mainstream makes it so that you’re not a regular person,” said Englert.
This sentiment of conservative censorship was consistently echoed by CR leaders who framed the club as, essentially, an escape from the pervasive left-leaning thought on campus. Knorr spoke on this, noting his observation that those on the political right often feel too intimidated to voice their opinions in class discussions: “College Republicans is good because it gives people an outlet to have those conversations and not feel impeded in their ability to speak up and share their raw perspective.” One practice in CR that reflects this attempt to create a Republican “safe space” is their omission of asking members to share pronouns in introductions at the beginning of meetings. CR’s president, Knorr, wanted to clarify that this is not an official club policy or an intentional custom but CR’s secretary Englert said that, “The reason we don’t ask people to give their own personal pronouns in CR is that we recognize that to do so would be dragging one of the many aspects of the left-leaning orthodoxy on campus into our meetings...which people go to specifically to escape from for a moment.”
The CR leaders spoke further about their struggles that come with navigating classes while holding views that do not align with the majority of one’s peers, or even the narrative of the class itself. Englert said that in classes he often finds himself asking, “do I want to say the opinion that I actually think here and own it? Is it worth doing that? What are the social consequences going to be for me speaking my mind?” He went on to say when he does share unpopular opinions in classes, he’s adopted a tendency to present them in a way so that he’s not saying the exact argument he wants to but one that gets him to the same place. “And so it’s hard to feel like what you’re doing is being honest because you’re not saying what you actually mean, you’re saying what you think is socially acceptable and closest to what you believe.” The group’s treasurer, Hannah Purdy (‘24), recounted a similar internal conflict saying that “it’s also more stressful speaking up in class because any time I speak in class I’ll rehearse it a little bit in my head and be like, ‘okay, will this get me in trouble or is it either centrist enough, mainstream enough?’”
While being a Republican at Willamette reportedly entails difficulties, it has an interesting benefit that one may not consider at first. In the words of Knorr, “we might get, in some ways, an even better education than others in that we’re constantly being forced to challenge our ideas, brought up against new ways of thinking that we don’t internalize already…that keeps us outside of the kind of political groupthink that one might get if you only are exposed to the ideas that are the same as your own.” Purdy agreed. She was raised in a traditional, conservative household and went to private schools where conservatism was the dominant ideology. She said coming to Willamette exposed her to an entirely new set of views and humanized the left in her eyes. On initially hearing more left-leaning views she remarked, “seeing it from peers holding this position versus hearing about it from news sources, like ‘here’s this wacky person who believes this’...seeing actual people who believe it...I understand it a bit more. And I want to try to merge that information with what I already think to see if I can come up with a more nuanced position and a more informed position on issues.”
One of the last thoughts Knorr expressed in his interview was on the value he finds in every perspective. “That’s why spaces like this that are specifically focused on one end of the political spectrum are so helpful because they allow us to think critically about our own side, as well [as find] ways that we can…work towards specifically the betterment of conservatism, and how we can make what conservatism brings to campus and to this country better too.” These words ring differently now; the conservatism that Willamette College Republicans brought to campus included a guest speaker affiliated with a group classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. The outraged response from the Willamette community ultimately manifested in CR’s disaffiliation from ASWU, a decision that falls in line with the College Republicans’ perception of Republican censorship. They currently are not allowed any official recognition, access to funding or other university resources. They are not allowed to use spaces on campus to host meetings. In the ASWU meeting that disaffiliated CR, the potential for reaffiliation was mentioned. This would require the organization to get all new leadership, an unlikely prospect for an already small club. In their demands for accountability, the student body has made a statement: there is no support here for anyone even remotely complicit in platforming the alleged expression of anti-semitic or transphobic rhetoric made by Ray Hacke at the Oct.19 meeting. This leaves an undefined future for not only College Republicans, but Republican voices at Willamette in general.