Editorial: New “Professor Watchlist” is a danger to academic freedom and privacy

In recent years, criticism of liberal academia as being too insular has ramped up considerably. Conservatives and liberals alike have chastised colleges for rejecting bipartisan discussion inclusive of conservatives. In 2014, Condoleezza Rice famously backed out of delivering a commencement address to Rutgers University in response to student and faculty protests of the upcoming event.  Even Obama called liberal college students too coddled in a speech at a Des Moines high school last year.

But for all the flak liberal students get for their lack of balance, certain right-wing groups are attempting to out-do the same behavior they deem unacceptable. Professorwatchlist.org, a website that seeks to single out professors promoting “leftist propaganda in the classroom,” doesn’t just coddle conservative students; it is also a threat to academic freedom in our universities, setting a dangerous precedent of retribution for faculty making unpopular claims in their classrooms.

The lofty goals of Professor Watchlist sound quite noble; they claim to strongly support free speech and the right of “professors to say whatever they wish.” The purported purpose of the site is to identify professors who discriminate against conservative students and conservative ideology. Taken at face-value, this seems to be a commendable goal — students should not feel unsafe in the classroom for having differing ideologies and beliefs from their teachers. And considering that academia is overwhelmingly liberal, with fewer than a fifth of American professors identifying as Republican, issues of discrimination against conservative ideology is potentially problematic. But digging deeper into the site’s owner — Turning Point USA — it becomes clear that the site’s true goals aren’t purely limited to extending ideological acceptance. Turning Point USA aims to push students towards “true free market values.” The organization has had a presence on hundreds of college campuses, handing out posters and collecting email addresses in an effort to educate and mobilize young conservatives. In essence, the group’s new site, which claims to fight discrimination, was in fact created to push a conservative ideology and shame professors who don’t share those beliefs.

But the problem isn’t just the hypocrisy of the movement. The precedent set, if this website catches on and expands to faculty of all ideologies, sends a clear message to professors: Don’t make claims in your class that your students won’t like, and don’t make waves on campus, or risk being publicly shamed and defamed — oftentimes inaccurately. One professor from the University of Texas at Austin is featured on the site because she supported a petition to ban students with concealed weapons from her classroom. The site claims that the cause was in violation of Texas law, even though that law wasn’t in place until well after the petition was filed. This type of intimidation towards educators — especially that which is based on false claims — cannot be tolerated.

Yet beyond its dangerous ramifications for liberal professors, Professor Watchlist also has clear impacts for the conservative students the site purports to be protecting. First, by creating a way for conservative students to avoid “leftist” professors, they are delegitimizing the argument that it is only liberals demanding academic homogeneity. Second, it truly does insulate these students — allowing these students to actively avoid those with dissenting opinions. Finally, if this site is successful, conservatives only shoot themselves in the foot in academia. If academia becomes more partisan, and any displays outside the mainstream political spectrum lead to the shunning of faculty, the top colleges in the nation — all of which are overwhelmingly liberal — will only become more liberal. The site is in effect worsening discrimination against conservatives in academia by encouraging the vilification of those on the other side of the aisle.

None of this is to say liberals as a group are blameless in the polarization of academia. According to a study conducted by the Association for Psychological Science, liberal researchers in academia openly admit that they would discriminate against conservatives in deciding whose research to publish or who to hire. Greater ideological diversity at universities is important for all students to feel welcome and because more diverse groups tend to perform better than less diverse ones.  Certainly, universities — including our own — must continue striving toward the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity they already push for, but also ensure that diversity of ideological thought is also present.

Tufts has not yet made the watchlist, but as an incredibly liberal university — and one that has been increasingly criticized by conservative media outlets — it’s not unlikely that one our own professors will be singled out. We have already seen our university targeted by other similar movements that publicly single-out individuals for their political associations. Earlier this year, a poster campaign led by David Horowitz (a conservative, Islamophobic activist who runs the site Discover the Networks, which aims to expose “leftist agendas”) falsely named Tufts student members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as terrorists connected to Hamas.

At Tufts, and at universities across the country, these acts of targeted false claims based on political groups or ideologies cannot be tolerated. While we must certainly strive for welcoming free speech and viewpoints from all sides of the political spectrum, we cannot condone inaccurate characterizations and threats to professors’ privacy and freedom. Academia needs less polarization, not more — and that starts by accepting professors of all different ideologies, no matter if they are spewing “leftist propaganda” or “free market values.”

2 Responses

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  1. WnRedworth
    Dec 03, 2016 - 12:37 PM

    Don’t you think it might be about time to strike fair balance in academia with equal numbers of conservative faculty? Our youth are failing. Safe spaces, repressed viewpoints – it is time for a change. I suspect there will be a movement to recruit a Christian conservative element to staff. That will mean some more liberal professors may have to find employment in the private sector. Overall, this might not be bad thing.

  2. WnRedworth
    Dec 08, 2016 - 04:28 PM

    I understand that academia will not be the only target of the new guard. I am lead to believe that a watch list will be circulated noting senators and congressmen who obstruct the agenda. In other words, a list of who to vote out of office. I see 8 years definitely.

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