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Professor Watchlist creators say criticisms lodged against it overblown, misguided

In April 2011, a University of Iowa professor flipped out in response to a campuswide email sent by the College Republicans, replying all: “F*CK YOU, REPUBLICANS.” The incident was covered in the Daily Iowan campus newspaper.

A sociology professor at the University of Oregon openly states on an online bio that he “advocates a ‘red-green’ alliance to abolish capitalism” and “considers the collapse of the Soviet empire a setback for human progress.”

In May 2015, an incoming race and ethnicity professor at Boston University went on a twitter rant that suggested slavery was a “white people thing” and “white college males the problem population.” The online outlet that broke the news used screenshots of her tweets to report on the scholar’s comments.

Two scholars at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs co-taught a class during the fall 2016 semester that promoted the idea the Founding Fathers were terrorists. The report on the matter used audio recordings from class lectures, quoting the professors word-for-word.

These five professors are just a handful of examples pulled from about 160 names on Turning Point USA’s newly created Professor Watchlist.

The campus activism group describes it as an aggregated list of articles published by a variety of news organizations. The compilation aims to alert students, parents and alumni about “specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls,” its website states.

The list cites as sources: campus newspapers; online daily news outlets that report on higher education, such as The College Fix, Campus Reform, Inside Higher Ed and others; professors’ op-eds in local and national newspapers; scholars’ social media engagements; professors’ personal websites and blogs; daily newspapers; and much more.

What the sources for each entry have in common is that they are not generated by the creators of the Professor Watchlist, simply culled into one cohesive list from existing sources already available on the world wide web.

That’s why Matt Lamb, Turning Point USA’s director of Constitutional Enforcement and Transparency, said some concerns about the list don’t take into account that “we’re compiling publicly available information.”

“We’re not trying to dig up secrets about people,” Lamb, a former student reporter for The College Fix, said in an email interview. “If you tweet or post something on Facebook, or go on a rant in class, you have a reason to believe someone is going to write a story about it and that not everyone will take it well.”

Lamb also defended entries that cite social media comments, op-eds and other non-classroom materials.

“The life of an academic isn’t contained to the classroom—it includes speeches, tweets, articles, etc.,” he said. “I doubt that a professor like the one that said white people should commit mass suicide can fairly conduct a class on race in America, for example.”

The list has drawn the ire of liberals, with some calling it modern day McCarthyism. In an article for Salon, Sophia McClennan said the list “creates crisis where there is none,” and that it’s an example of “a sign of the amazing stupidity of the post-truth era.”

But Lamb points out the watchlist was partly inspired by other organizations that index which universities are best for minority groups, like the LGBTQ community, for example, he said.

“Basically, we just heard from a lot of students and supporters, ‘Hey, we keep hearing all these stories [about leftist professors], wouldn’t it be great if there was a central location for all of it?’” Lamb said.

Lamb scoffed at those that try to dismiss the list as “fake news.”

“The sources reference original tweets, columns or videos. Of course many times the only sources reporting this news, i.e. Campus Reform and College Fix, do lean right, but that should raise the question of why other ‘mainstream’ publications don’t report on this,” Lamb said. “Did. Mirielle Young assault pro-life students? Yes. Did a professor say the NRA has blood on its hands? Yes. Are Britney Cooper’s tweets and columns publicly available? Yes.”

Since its launch Nov. 21, the watchlist has received around half a million unique visitors, and parents and students have praised it, Lamb said.

“Students and parents love the website based on all the submissions we’ve been getting as well as general praise through the website and social media,” he said.

Asked whether the list should be used as a tool to avoid certain professors, Lamb said that’s not its goal.

“We don’t encourage [students] to avoid professors, and in fact one of the first booklets we produced was called ‘How to debate your professor.’ However, in the case of Dr. Young, I would probably advise pro-life students not to take her,” he said.

The watchlist has stayed at around 150 to 175 professors, according to Lamb, who said Turning Point USA has removed and added some professors after initial review.

Lamb says the biggest additions to the list so far have been “Dr. Arthur Butz, a Holocaust denier, as well as Nancy Hughes, who blamed the San Bernardino massacre and the Orlando nightclub massacre on ‘orthodox conservatives.’”

The website will continue to add professors to the list, with Lamb saying Turning Point USA hopes to cite more professors on a weekly basis as the group vets submissions.

Meanwhile, some free speech and academic freedom organizations have condemned the list.

The Heterodox Academy Executive Committee came out against it, referring to it as “pernicious and misguided” in a statement. The committee went on to say the watchlist would only create an atmosphere of fear in the classroom and that “we call on everyone who is concerned about the state of higher education to stop devising ways that members of an academic community can report or punish each other for classroom speech.”

PEN America issued a statement on the watchlist in which Suzanne Noseel, the executive director, said that “while claiming to stand up against bias, this list is a noxious purveyor of precisely what it claims to deride: the intimidation and osctracization of those who express controversial views on campus.”

The campus free speech organization FIRE has not taken a formal stance on the issue, but FIRE president Greg Lukianoff stated he believes the effect of the list depends on how it is executed and received. He did say the list “sets off a lot of alarms,” and urged any professors who find themselves being punished to get in touch immediately, saying “FIRE stands ready to help.”

Lamb said fears about the watchlist are overwrought.

“The list is TPUSA using our free speech rights to publicize publicly available information,” he said. “Perhaps if we were calling for professors to get fired or harassed there would be reason to be concerned, but since we’re simply reporting what someone else has always reported I would say the fears are overblown.”

MORE: Anthropology class goes off the rails as scholar rants against ‘Professor Watchlist’

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About the Author
Alec Dent -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill