Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Remember Richard Nixon’s enemies list? How paranoid and absurd that sounded? Remember CoIntelPro? How not absurd and dangerous that was? That craziness is starting again in the wake of the Trump election, not just with the threat of registering Muslims, but also aimed specifically at professors. Not long after the election, fliers were distributed at Texas State University that read, “Now that our man Trump is elected and Republicans own both the Senate and the House—time to organize tar & feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.” At least two Jewish professors have received hate messages.
Helping to spur this hatred on, and making its targets easy pickings, is the new Professor Watchlist, developed by 22-year-old conservative Charlie Kirk, who defines its mission as “expos[ing] and document[ing] college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Kirk is the new wunderkind of the conservative witch-hunters. Funded by his organization Turning Point USA, the watchlist is an echo of an earlier site, NoIndoctrination.org, itself a now-defunct offshoot of Campus Watch, whose mission was “monitoring Middle East studies on campus.”
The complaints listed are mostly of the “you made us learn something we didn’t want to, or do something we didn’t want to, or expressed an opinion we didn’t like” type that one often hears from students when we challenge them to look outside their current beliefs. Many explanations of “ideology” and “indoctrination” are taken out of context. Many complaints are about professors’ personal lives, most about women and people of color — what organizations they gave money to, their activities outside of class, their Twitter accounts. The complaints are all personally submitted by students and substantiated by what the site calls “a variety of news organizations.” In reality, these are largely anything but mainstream, credible news organizations: CampusReform.org, DiscovertheNetworks.org, theCollegeFix.com, Project Veritas, PJMedia, and so on.
While it’s true that some of our colleagues have done and said some ethically questionable things, there is an enormous difference between, say, Holocaust denial, Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, and sexual harassment and both free speech and pedagogy. That difference is what this website fails to distinguish. What may look questionable or weird when reported by a disgruntled student, may, in fact make sense in the context of the class or lesson plan—whether the student reporting it is able to see it or not. That’s part of the learning process. Karen Roothaan parodies the problem perfectly: “Watch that Professor M.T. Pockets! He is always telling his students about his miniature little paycheck and his lack of health benefits. He even gets them feeling sorry for him and they bring him old clothes and other useful items. He is basically a proto-communist.”
The new site may seem like nothing more than an annoying version of Rate My Professor without the chili peppers, but it’s far more dangerous. It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that the site’s “featured professors” are often women and people of color. There are previous parallels in the 1930s targeting the founders of AAUP itself, which grappled with similar issues of “Americanism” in public thought. As Rebecca Schuman points out, even though Kirk insists there is no call to action here,
I also have to wonder whether the intentions of his watch list make a difference—and whether this is a bell that can be unrung. It doesn’t matter if the site wasn’t meant as a No-Goodnik Intellectual Kill List one day after Richard Spencer and his Jungen screeched Heil Trump. Intentionally or not, the Professor Watchlist, simply by being a self-styled watch list, has aligned itself with the ugly, frightening new political status quo.
The very existence of a list of “targets” is all too tempting for the unstable in a nation that has campus carry laws.
What also makes a site like this dangerous is the chilling effect it has on teaching and academic freedom, especially on adjuncts. Learning is a messy, awkward, sometimes painful process that students often resist with every fiber of their being, either because they think they already know what they need to know, or because of the emotional consequences of being challenged to provide evidence for their arguments or to acknowledge the validity of others’ arguments, or to realize that their arguments have real world consequences. Our primary job as teachers is, we all know, not simply to fill students’ heads with facts, but to help them learn to think, and to grow emotionally and academically, to see the world with an analytical eye, and to sort out their own convictions. That often means challenging those (quite often) received ideas they carry around when we first meet them. Not uncommonly, that leads to some interesting “discussions” in class that may offend or upset students. But booting students out of their comfort zones is part of our job. If we are not supported in doing that, we risk giving our students less of an educational experience than they deserve, and failing them, and the country.
The notion that these self-appointed apostles of political purity confer the title of anti-American on views they disagree with makes visible how ignorance and repression feed each other. What they don’t realize is that they are an updated version of the darkest replicas of the secret police and censors that were indispensable to authoritarian regimes reaching from Pinochet to the interrogation chambers of the former East German Stasi. The only thing being exposed here is a climate that has been ushered in with the election of Donald Trump that trades on a culture of fear, hatred, censorship, and bigotry. Shared fears hold it together along with a culture infused with the toxic registers of political fundamentalism and ideological rigidity. This type of trolling constitutes a fundamental condition of the alt-right, which is the creation of a white public sphere based on the destruction of all those others nominated to be impure, worthy of suppression, deemed pathological, and eventually subject to exclusion, imprisonment, or worse.
Though it may seem like a small, juvenile website, it marks the next step in a dangerous trend that began before Trump was elected and has only been emboldened by that election now. The interpretation of ideas students don’t like as “un-American” or “too radical” is the real problem here. Who gets to decide what an “American” idea is? Or define what’s radical and what’s not, and from what point of view? The benchmarks for such evaluations are hardly fixed or easily defined. It’s highly ironic that this watchlist, focused as it is on one particular ideology, completely overlooks the fact that contingency is a far bigger threat to academic freedom across the political spectrum than a handful of professors in classrooms. After all, conservatives are less likely to have representation and academic freedom on campus because of contingent employment than because of the presence of liberals or leftists on campus; students are just as likely to find themselves offended by conservatives as by liberals, and coming under the same scrutiny by fiscally conservative administrations. Conservatives aren’t any cheaper to employ than progressives and that’s all that actually seems to matter right now.
Since I first began writing this, the watchlist has grown to include at least two dozen contingent faculty, including graduate teaching assistants. For adjunct faculty, this watchlist creates a deeply chilling climate in corporatized universities that already rely more on student evaluations than peer review to hire and fire their instructors. Because of the precarity of their appointments, contingent faculty are already much more cautious about experimenting pedagogically in the classroom, introducing new material, or even grading appropriately for fear of student complaints. Once contingent faculty appear on this list, a university more interested in “protecting its brand” than in free and open academic inquiry can easily hedge their bets and bypass a potential professor who dares ask hard and uncomfortable questions of both their students and society at large. This, in turn, further chills free speech, open inquiry, and innovation.
So what are the remedies? In the spirit of “the remedy for bad speech is more speech,” the Professor Watchlist Redux (“a website dedicated to satirizing sites that try to squelch academic freedom through intimidation, innuendo, and other sophomoric methods”) is a good start. If you’ve been a reader here, you know how we feel about satire. At the very least, however, we must also demand that all academic administrations uphold and protect the rights of academic free speech. The right to publish such a site may be covered by the First Amendment (where it doesn’t descend into slander or libel or promote violence), but the right to denounce its purpose and content does too. That right needs to be exercised, vigorously, especially in defense of the most vulnerable among us.
We must also call upon college administrations to make thorough and impartial responses to student complaints about instructors, considering the pedagogical context and foundations of each situation. Rutgers University has already failed in this capacity by putting adjunct professor Kevin Allred on leave for complaints about his Twitter account postings. On the strength of a student complaint alone, and the over-reaction of campus police, Allred was subjected by NYPD to an unnecessary and humiliating psychiatric evaluation then placed on leave for tweets no more incendiary (and with actual pedagogical purpose) than anything Donald Trump has said on that medium. Without the assurance of academic freedom from our own institutions, the process of education will be severely curtailed, and molded to reflect the ideology of those in power. Free inquiry and free speech in academe must be protected to help protect it everywhere else.
As colleagues, we must stand up for each other against attempts to silence any of us, no matter where or whom they come from — students, administrators, department heads, fellow academics, outside sources. Now is not the time for silencing or being silent.