When Pete Hatemi, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University, got an email from a student he didn’t know asking him to become a faculty adviser for a conservative group on campus, he did some research on the organization, Young Americans for Freedom, and quickly decided that he wanted nothing to do with them. Among current and former leaders of YAF chapters across the country, he learned, were declared white supremacists, believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. Some were involved with neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer. And at least one had participated in the assault on the U.S. Capitol, staged by hundreds of supporters of former President Donald Trump less than a week before the student’s email.
As a matter of policy, Hatemi never gets involved in student groups no matter their affiliation, he said, but he thought it his responsibility to make sure that the student was aware of the group’s ties to far-right extremists. So he declined the request and offered some advice. “Your timing, frankly, could be seen as offensive to many,” he wrote, referring to the January 6 assault. “It might be time to reflect on what you stand for and what your organization stands for.”
Hatemi said he put quite some thought into his two-paragraph response. “The right thing to do was to say, ‘Hey, you need to take a look at what you’re doing and this group you belong to,’” he told me in an interview. “If I say nothing, what kind of educator am I?”
Within days, Hatemi’s email to the student was published on Campus Reform, a conservative website that bills itself as the “#1 Source for College News” and whose stated mission is to expose “liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.” The article accused Hatemi of having “lashed out” at the student and “responded harshly” to his request. Quotes from Hatemi’s email also appeared in right-wing publications like The Federalist, The Blaze, and the Post Millennial, and they spread on social media, where they were manipulated and stripped of context. A deluge of hate mail followed, directed at Hatemi as well as at his university’s administration. Some of it threatened violence, prompting campus police to intervene, though Hatemi declined to comment on the details. The university did not respond to a request for comment.
Kara Zupkus, a spokesperson for YAF, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the group “has regularly condemned white nationalism, mob violence, and extremism.” She also referred to a statement the organization issued shortly after the incident involving Hatemi.
“It is Penn State YAF’s constitutional right to exist on campus – whether this professor likes it or not,” the group wrote then. “To attack all conservative students and YAF by accusing them of supporting riots and violence with no evidence is disgraceful and unbecoming of a professor at an institution of higher education.”
Campus Reform is published by the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that has trained conservative activists for four decades through the generous funding of billionaire donors like the Koch family. The institute reported more than $16 million in revenue in 2018 alone. Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors like Hatemi, leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty. Professors featured in Campus Reform stories have felt isolated and confused as they came under attack, often over public statements they made but sometimes over things they said in class or even academic research they published. Campus Reform stories have regularly been picked up by a host of established conservative outlets, from Breitbart to Fox News, amplifying outrage and unleashing abuse in a manner that observers of the site note mirrors how far-right extremists attack their targets online.
“The effects of Campus Reform stories can be similar to the online harassment often deployed by white supremacists,” said Isaac Kamola, an assistant professor at Trinity College who studies the politics of higher education and closely monitors the site.
A majority were singled out over their comments on race, and Black professors were disproportionately targeted.
Kamola has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted, many of whose official profiles and contact details were linked to in stories about them. The survey, the results of which will be published by the American Association of University Professors’ Academe magazine, found that at least 40 percent of respondents received “threats of harm” following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media but also often by phone, text message, or postal mail. One professor reported receiving thousands of emails, many of them laced with violent, racist, and sexist comments, Kamola said. In the most extreme cases, he added, online trolls published the professors’ personal information online, forcing them to change their phone numbers, leave their homes, and retain security. Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities’ administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs.
The professors were targeted over a variety of liberal positions, the survey reveals, but a majority were singled out over their comments on race, and Black professors were disproportionately targeted. Those who discussed topics like antifa, Black Lives Matter, and Palestine were especially subjected to threats, the survey found. And the intimidation seemed to work, with nearly a quarter of surveyed professors saying that they dialed back their social media presence as a result of being targeted, even though others said that the experience bolstered their commitment to speak out about social justice issues.
“I basically know that Campus Reform has written something about me because I’ll just suddenly start getting vicious hate mail in my inbox,” said Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at Yale University who was twice the subject of Campus Reform stories and has described the site as an example of “domestic information warfare.”
“Within 24 hours, it will have been cited or replicated in an entire ecosystem of right-wing media,” she added, noting that professors who lacked the social media status to push back were particularly vulnerable. “It’s just never clear why it’s newsworthy; it’s portrayed as something crazy and outrageous, and it is never contextualized. But it very predictably turns into a barrage of targeted harassment.”
Campus Reform’s managing editor and the site’s chief spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist and the founder and director of the Leadership Institute, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the institute “was founded to train and develop principled conservative leaders for our country: men and women who share our country’s founding principles of liberty, individual rights, and equal justice for all under the rule of law.”
Campus Reform is emblematic of the raging battle in American public discourse over so-called cancel culture, which the site’s writers have regularly lamented even as they set out to cancel the reputations and jobs of the people they attack. Campus Reform is also the product of a decades-old conservative and libertarian effort to shape the values of U.S. higher education through a series of organizations that give the appearance of a diverse and organic conservative campus movement but are in fact part of the same coordinated network.
First published in 2009 as a resource hub for conservative students at U.S. colleges, Campus Reform was created to give them what it called “weapons in their fight for the hearts and minds of the next generation of citizens, politicians, and members of the media,” according to research by Sam McCarthy, a student at Trinity College who works with Kamola and has been studying the site as part of her sociology thesis. About eight years ago, Campus Reform began to rebrand as a “news” site, McCarthy said, aiming to expose bias, waste, and abuse on college campuses and obscuring its political agenda behind a pledge of objectivity and “rigorous journalism standards.” Around that time, the site began to recruit and groom a cadre of student correspondents tasked with discovering instances of liberal misconduct; the site paid $50 per story, or $100 if they included video or photos, McCarthy found.
Soon Campus Reform established a tiered system of rewards for its contributing writers: After publishing four articles, a correspondent would rise from bronze to silver and make $75 a piece. After 15 articles, they would rise to gold and receive $100 per story. Other perks include a verified email account, a blue check on Twitter, business cards, and a press pass, as well as résumé writing help, recommendation letters, mentorship opportunities, and a pipeline to a career in conservative media. Campus Reform offers a way for student writers to build up a portfolio, a chance for their stories to go viral, and access to a steady stream of media gigs, with the most high-profile being appearances on “Fox and Friends” or “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Even nonwriters can benefit, making $50 for tipping the site off to supposed liberal abuse.
McCarthy calculated that the site’s most prolific writer has published 253 articles since last May, which could have earned them more than $26,000. And while student correspondents she interviewed shared the site’s politics and mission, they told her that the financial incentives were a main draw.
“There’s a lot of money in it,” she told me in an interview. “But there’s some real harm that comes out of this apparatus.”
After Campus Reform published a story about Alyssa Johnson, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, over a tweet she had posted in response to an incoming student’s racist slur, she faced such an onslaught of abuse and threats that she was forced to leave her home.
“Nobody directly said, ‘I’m going to come kill you,’ but it was so close to that.”
The story was picked up by scores of right-wing outlets, including Fox News, and went viral on social media and on a website for LSU sports fans, where insults and attacks against Johnson filled chat rooms for dozens of pages. “I read them all because I just wanted to make sure that nobody had found my address,” said Johnson, who is Asian American. She noted that a majority of the online comments as well as hundreds of emails she received were filled with sexist insults and “racial slurs about Asian people that I had never even known existed,” she said.
Johnson erased her social media profiles, unplugged her office phone, and filed a police report, but the intimidation got so bad that she ended up temporarily relocating with her husband and two small children to wait out the storm. “Nobody directly said, ‘I’m going to come kill you,’ but it was so close to that,” said Johnson, who declined to press charges even though police told her that some of the messages she received amounted to crimes. “I didn’t want to be worried about somebody showing up at my door, threatening my family.”
It took more than two months for the attention to die down. As Johnson learned more about Campus Reform, she connected with other people who had gone through similar experiences, and they built a network offering support to the site’s latest targets. Johnson has since taken a step back from Twitter. “I post much less; I don’t ever post opinions anymore or really any thoughts,” she told me, noting that she was consumed by guilt for putting her family in harm’s way. “I hate to give in because it’s exactly what they wanted: They wanted to silence me. But it was a feeling that I never want to feel again.”
“Most Universities Have No Clue”
Institutional responses to Campus Reform have varied significantly. A senior communication executive at a top-ranked private university, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing Campus Reform’s attention, said that his university has a policy against responding to any requests by Campus Reform or the College Fix, another right-wing outlet with “an agenda to undermine respect and credibility for higher education.” When student journalists reach out to faculty members seeking comment on something they wrote or said, professors often want to answer in good faith, the executive added, providing thoughtful and lengthy responses that are invariably distorted to give the story an extra boost.
“We just hit delete,” he said. “Nothing good comes from engaging with them.”
Often both university administrators and instructors have little understanding of the amount of money and coordination by outside interests that goes into these attacks, said Kamola, who regularly reaches out to people targeted by Campus Reform with information about the site and its funders. Hatemi, the Pennsylvania State University professor, was surprised to learn from Kamola that Campus Reform was “actually a whole program” designed to put faculty through the barrage of harassment he had just experienced. “Most universities have no clue,” he said.
After he became the target of what felt like an organized intimidation effort, Hatemi dug into YAF as well as Campus Reform and the Leadership Institute and published a long essay detailing their ties to far-right extremists. In the essay, Hatemi listed more than half a dozen YAF affiliates with white supremacist views or connections and referenced YAF-sponsored campus activities like a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” contest and a “Koran Desecration” competition. While not all YAF members might have shared such views or participated in such activities, the fact that he could find so many examples “within minutes of researching YAF,” Hatemi wrote, spoke to the group’s deep connections to far-right extremism.
Hatemi said he hoped that his essay might help others in similar situations, but he also wanted to ensure that his own employer understood the Campus Reform story as “an outside, concerted effort to manipulate the system.” While no university official formally contacted him about it, he says he initially feared that he might face discipline, hearing “chatter” about it from colleagues, which disappeared as soon as he published his research.
Several professors argued that as learning institutions have increasingly come to view students as paying customers, they have become more preoccupied with reputational damage and public relations than with the tenets of intellectual freedom and education that are essential to academic life. “University administrators often don’t take the side of their faculty member because they don’t necessarily understand how the story originated, what the funding sources are, what the political intentions are of the platform,” said McCarthy. “And so we see the faculty member facing adverse consequences that they really should not have, under their academic freedom.”
In its own words, the Leadership Institute, Campus Reform’s publisher, aims to train “freedom fighters” to “effectively defeat the radical Left.” Funded by a host of well-known, ultrawealthy donors, including multiple foundations connected to the Koch family network, the institute claims to have trained more than 200,000 conservative activists since its founding in 1979 and offers a rich program with a heavy focus on media and communications.
Andrew Isenhour, a spokesperson for two major Koch institutions, wrote in an email to The Intercept that “no support or resources from the Charles Koch Foundation or Charles Koch Institute benefit Campus Reform.”
“We find any form of racism, white supremacy, or intolerance abhorrent and morally repugnant,” he said, adding that the institute has denounced intimidation and spoken in support of “campus free speech.”
Isenhour did not respond to follow-up questions about the Koch family’s support for the Leadership Institute, which employs Campus Reform staff. According to DeSmog, an environmentalist publication that closely monitors the Koch network, the Leadership Institute received at least $278,958 from Koch-related foundations between 2003 and 2017. The Leadership Institute is also part of the State Policy Network, a group of think tanks and political groups funded through the Koch network. Top institute funders also include Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, anonymous conservative donor funds that have been called “the Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.”
The Leadership Institute has long been a major player in mainstream conservative politics, and its early alumni include Republican elected officials like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence as well as James O’Keefe, the right-wing provocateur behind Project Veritas, famous for his doctored videos targeting the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and Planned Parenthood. There is a revolving door between the Leadership Institute, YAF, and other conservative youth groups like Young Americans for Liberty and Turning Point USA.
“The Leadership Institute has helped manufacture the right’s construction of anti-antifa hysteria, all while having a long history of platforming actual fascists.”
The group, however, also has a less-known history of ties to far-right movements and racist extremists. “There is actually a long history of close connections between the Leadership Institute and white nationalist organizations,” said Kamola, the Trinity professor. “The Leadership Institute has helped manufacture the right’s construction of anti-antifa hysteria, all while having a long history of platforming actual fascists.”
Matthew Heimbach, a neo-Nazi activist, former YAF chapter leader, and once-Leadership Institute trainee, told HuffPost in 2016 that the institute “trained this entire next generation of white nationalists.” The institute also employed Kevin DeAnna, another former YAF leader who started the campus-based white supremacist group Youth for Western Civilization. In his essay, Hatemi included photos of both Heimbach and DeAnna posing with neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer as well as a photo of Spencer and Kyle Bristow, a former YAF chapter leader who called Latino students and faculty “savages” and went on to become an attorney for right-wing figures, representing both Spencer and KKK leader David Duke.
Hannah Gais, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said that the Leadership Institute “definitely has had, historically, ties to the far right and extremism.”
But Gais, who exposed writings DeAnna had posted under different pseudonyms on several prominent white nationalist publications, also noted that the institute is so large that “to a certain extent, some of these kinds of pseudo-anonymous white nationalists coming up through their ranks is sort of inevitable,” she said.
The far-right movement that resurfaced during the Trump years, she added, deliberately relied on the resources of established conservative institutions to gain political power. “If you’re a far-right extremist and you can kind of hide your views and make them seemingly more professional,” she added, “it’s a lot easier to lurk in these spaces.”
“Campus Reform’s content tends to be shared in fringe social media spaces where we have seen consistent thematic overlaps with other content we know plays well with right-wing audiences.”
More recently, former Leadership Institute intern Martin Christopher Rojas was exposed as an active contributor to a series of white supremacist publications, where he published more than 500 pieces under his own name and a series of pseudonyms. The Guardian and the nonprofit Right Wing Watch also recently reported that Michael J. Thompson, a regular in conservative circles who worked with the Leadership Institute and Campus Reform, was also a frequent contributor to online white supremacist publications, where, under the name “Paul Kersey,” he started the racist blog “Stuff Black People Don’t Like” and wrote lies about the demographic replacement of white Americans and the genetic inferiority of people of color. Thompson’s stories have since been scrubbed from Campus Reform.
In his email to The Intercept, Blackwell, the Leadership Institute’s founder, distanced himself from former institute affiliates.
“My Institute has employed hundreds of principled conservatives over the last 40 years,” he wrote. “A few former staffers managed to hide their beliefs from me and my staff. These individuals wrote racist articles under fake names to hide their identities. They went to great lengths to keep their true beliefs hidden. Such beliefs are entirely incompatible with employment at the Leadership Institute.”
Since rebranding as a news enterprise, Campus Reform has effectively been able to straddle between the mainstream conservative politics of its funders and a more radical audience active in fringe spaces and eager for content to feed its online wars.
According to an analysis by Media Matters for America, which monitors media and the web for conservative misinformation, Campus Reform stories have spread on Reddit as well as on social media platforms favored by the far right. Such platforms include Parler, the QAnon forum GreatAwakening.win, and Patriots.win, formerly thedonald.win, a forum for Trump supporters that moved to its own site after being banned by Reddit. “Our research has found that Campus Reform’s content tends to be shared in fringe social media spaces where we have seen consistent thematic overlaps with other content we know plays well with right-wing audiences,” said Stefanie Le, Media Matters’ deputy research director. “Similar to when an article from a conservative outlet goes viral on fringe platforms, users in these spaces attempt to focus on or invent conspiratorial implications of the stories and then use it to support other far-right narratives and stoke conversation.”
That feedback loop is indicative of how far-right discourse has benefited from the support of pillars of the conservative establishment and of the way that the latter have been willing to overlook the harm they enabled — a dynamic that Campus Reform lays bare.
“It really feeds into the conservative outrage machine that will take targets, tied especially to issues of culture war, and basically completely go off on them,” said Gais, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But they’re doing so with big money from the Koch Foundation.”