The release of the professor watchlist, purporting to expose professors who discriminate against conservative students, is anything but that. I should know: I’m on it.
As one of a handful of religion professors in the US who study, write and teach about conservative Christianity and politics, I am all too aware of the real meaning of the list, and of its purpose. Promoted by Turning Point USA, the list is not simply designed to expose professors who discriminate; it is designed to silence and smear. And it helps feed information and screeds to similar sites like the College Fix and Campus Reform, which states that they are “a watchdog to the nation’s higher education system” to “expose bias and abuse on the nations college campuses”.
T‘For professors on the tenure track, or lecturers who are trying to keep a contract job, being named on the Professor Watchlist could mean diminished opportunities.’
Charles Kirk, a young leader in conservative politics, who is the publisher of the list and co founder of Turning Point USA, stated that he hopes that the professor watchlist will change campus culture by highlighting previously reported incidences and statements. It very well might. Turning Point USA has chapters on over 300 college campuses across the United States, and even more on high school campuses.
For a group claiming to be a watchdog to higher education, the organization is training students from high school in how to not engage their education critically, but to combat anything or anyone that does not promote or teach with a conservative viewpoint. It is an all-out bid to control not only academic freedom in the university setting, but to create a hostile climate for free speech and academic freedom.
Rightwing organizations like Turning Point USA or Leadership Institute spend considerable amounts of money and time to train students with conservative values how to “fight back”. Their efforts on campuses not only promote conservative values but also feed the large right-wing media complex – sites like Town Hall and Breitbart. Many of the articles that are published by College Reform end up being reported by other outlets within hours, and in some cases, picked up by Fox News. Professors targeted remain blissfully unaware until their inbox fills with hate mail, and the administration has to field calls from media outlets and disgruntled conservatives.
Many professors and university officials do not know that these organizations, populated by their own students, exist. They are left flatfooted when lists like the Professor Watchlist appear, because these organizations are not only about promoting the idea that university education is hostile to conservatism, but also to get the maximum amount of exposure for their beliefs.
For tenured professors like myself, the Professor Watchlist is an annoyance that takes away from research, teaching and time with students. For professors on the tenure track, or lecturers who are trying to keep a contract job, being named on the professor watchlist could mean diminished opportunities for their careers if colleges and universities do not understand the purpose and nature of these groups.
These types of attempts to influence campus culture and teaching are disturbing. It creates an environment where the very idea and understanding of academic freedom and first amendment rights are called into question – not only by students, but also by well-funded outsiders with agendas.
It also creates an environment of distrust. Students are being trained not only to report on professors, but on student events as well. At the University of Pennsylvania, a campus event the day after the presidential election in a dorm to provide a “breathing space” was reported on by a student who mocked the presence of coloring books, cats and dogs.
This type of “reporting” is Orwellian. Yet there are students in our midst on campuses who feel that that they need to report on, rather than engage with, other perspectives.
The irony of all of this is that while I am on the Professor Watchlist, I am probably one of the few professors in America who encourages the students who take my Religious Right in America course to attend conferences like CPAC and Values Voters Summit. No one censors my class when I ask students to watch clips of Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schalfly or William F Buckley. I can teach a course like Religious Right in America at the University of Pennsylvania because of the institution’s commitment to academic freedom and discourse.
So when groups like Turning Point USA say that I should be watched because I am advancing a radical agenda in the lecture hall, maybe I should. I’m teaching about their organizations, and how conservatives think. Radical indeed.