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Conservative student group with national ties grows its presence at the University of Wyoming

A sandstone building rises four stories above.
Bob Beck
/
Wyoming Public Media
Old Main, the University of Wyoming's oldest building and the seat of its administration.

In their election last month, University of Wyoming (UW) students chose new leadership to represent them. Members of student government both past and present saw this election as a microcosm of the partisan debates and influences now descending on campus.

The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming (ASUW) is UW’s student government. It does a lot more than most people, even most students, realize.

ASUW commands an annual budget of more than $1.1 million, maintains several full-time staff positions and doles out more than $100,000 each year in scholarships.

When Hunter Swilling served as president three years ago, the student government increased scholarships, started paying its senators and tackled some very student-centric issues like food insecurity and rental regulations.

“Ultimately, for me, it just comes back to the idea that ASUW should serve as many students as possible,” Swilling said.

During his tenure, Swilling said he noticed a shift from talking about nonpartisan student issues to having debates on more national topics. He said those debates increasingly fell along political party lines.

“I think it's been a relatively long change over a long period of time, insofar as we've seen increasing polarization both nationally and within the state of Wyoming,” he said.

Campus issues like student housing are still central to ASUW. But Swilling said in the last two years, a conservative student group has started to change the conversation on campus.

“They were a relatively small student organization [three years ago],” he said. “And they had no elected representation in ASUW.”

That student organization is known as Turning Point USA, and Turning Point’s UW chapter has been increasing its visibility on campus, winning ASUW Senate seats and even making moves for the ASUW presidency, including endorsing and campaigning for last year’s winning presidential candidate.

“I think that they have increasingly and consistently been a more organized force on campus,” Swilling said.

Turning Point is a conservative national organization with local affiliates at high schools and universities across the U.S. Its stated goal is “winning back” campuses from the liberals who it says control them, sometimes via student elections. Turning Point also runs a website accusing left-wing professors of indoctrinating students, including one UW professor.

Political science major Gabe Saint serves as Turning Point’s chapter president at UW but he said he doesn’t identify as conservative.

“Just an American, just a Christian,” he said. “I really don't like ideology. I think people need to be practical and understand human beings are eternal and nuanced and have dignity and value.”

Saint said he wants to promote “grace, unity and charity,” and he said his goal is not division.

“It’s been a little more partisan this year, especially when we started out,” Saint said. “People didn’t really know how to approach [us]. I'm the Turning Point guy. So I'm a big, scary conservative. But I was like, ‘Guys, I'm here to preach and talk about unity and grace, because that's how we should be approaching politics.’”

But according to current UW student and former ASUW senator, Tanner Ewalt, the causes that Turning Point pushes are not just talk.

“They go to the media and they say we just want to have a conversation,” Ewalt said. “And then they're supporting people who say stuff, like Michale Knowles, ‘Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.’ That's genocide. That's genocidal rhetoric. That's not a conversation.”

Ewalt points to an event hosted by Turning Point last fall featuring former NCAA Division I swimmer Riley Gaines. Gaines advocates against transgender inclusion in women’s sports and in broader society.

Ewalt called that type of rhetoric “divisive” and said it can lead to violence.

“They [Turning Point] want a safe space on campus where they can say what they want, they can provoke outrage in other people,” he said. “And then they can hide their hand and say, ‘Well, they're throwing stones at us. I don't know why.’ And they know what they're doing.”

Saint doesn’t think Turning Point should be viewed as divisive.

“People in ASUW were just saying, ‘Oh, we can't have Turning Point here. All they do is spew hate and they're not good for discourse,’” he said. “And I was like, that's ridiculous … We're just here trying to talk and we don't attack anybody like that.”

This year, Saint ran for ASUW president. The Freedom Caucus, a voting bloc in the Wyoming Legislature made up of the state’s most conservative House representatives, got involved by endorsing Saint for president. It’s the first time a state legislative group has endorsed an ASUW candidate. In a close final round of voting, Saint lost to Kameron Murfitt.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) said he and his fellow lawmakers wanted to encourage students who were bold enough to bring conservative ideas to campus. The endorsement came after a meeting with Turning Point students.

“We heard story after story about how conservative students are having their voices stifled on campus, and how it's a pretty hostile environment for them,” Bear said.

Endorsements are common for ASUW races. But those endorsements almost always come from student groups and organizations, said former Senator Ewalt.

“I think what the Freedom Caucus is doing, and has made very obvious, is wanting to not have ASUW be that,” he said. “They want it to be a new battleground for the culture war.”

But Rep. Bear said college is not what it used to be, and that conservative voices are being suppressed, while liberal voices are elevated.

“Over the last several decades, universities have been hotbeds for training political activists for the left,” he said.

During the last legislative session, the Freedom Caucus helped defund the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Its allies also tried to eliminate courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies program.

In both cases, right-wing lawmakers claimed that UW was indoctrinating students, coercing them to take on left-wing beliefs. That’s why Bear said it’s important to support groups like Turning Point.

“That wasn't necessary before because the university itself provided an open forum, if you will, for ideas from both sides of the political spectrum,” he said. “And I think that that's being stifled now.”

But in a student survey from last year, 69 percent of the respondents reported that UW classrooms are places of “free and open intellectual inquiry.” Outside the classroom, according to that same survey, 55 percent of students said they feel free to engage in discussion, and even debate, about controversial topics. UW also very recently reiterated its commitment to political neutrality in a statement backed by students, faculty and staff.

This contention between a conservative party and a university is playing out in many other states as well.

That’s why former UW student Ty McNamee was not surprised to learn that the Freedom Caucus had endorsed a candidate in a student government election. Nor was he surprised by the attacks on DEI and gender studies at his alma mater.

“College campuses are sort of this breeding ground of ideas that need to be talked about,” McNamee said. “But conservative political leaders think they need to combat the discussion of those ideas and anything that they don’t agree with.”

McNamee grew up in Shoshoni, knowing he was gay but afraid to admit it. He was just a child when Matthew Shepard, a gay UW student, was tortured and killed in Laramie.

“Matthew Shepard's murder exacerbated and solidified a lot of things that you were already very scared about … because you could be the next person who undergoes such a horrific murder,” McNamee said.

McNamee hid who he was and lived in fear that his secret would be discovered. That is until he started at UW in 2008.

“I was definitely still scared to come out in Laramie, and I was definitely scared to showcase any sort of queerness in Laramie,” he said. “But it was, oddly, a liberal place compared to my hometown. And so in a way, I was able to finally come out to a lot of people, and by the end of my time at University of Wyoming, come out to most everybody.”

As a student, McNamee got involved with ASUW, first as a senator, then as vice president in 2011. Looking back, McNamee said ASUW was political, but not partisan. He said it was impossible to keep politics out completely, but that’s okay.

For McNamee, UW was a place to explore those ideas and the first place he could fully be himself while exploring those ideas. Those explorations never stopped. Today, McNamee studies higher education access for rural students as an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

“We've seen how political leaders use higher education as a tool to say that we're indoctrinating students with certain ideas,” McNamee said. “It's been like this for decades, where they say you go to college and you become liberal, or you become woke or whatever it is. And in recent years, that has continued to rear its head.”

McNamee said what’s new is that those claims of indoctrination are now having real effects on university programming. And those who once found freedom on campus are worried what might be lost in freedom’s name.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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