For many college professors, the classroom is a sanctuary from the divisive politics of the day. If politics enter a discussion, the intellectual space provided by the college classroom hosts an eclectic exchange of ideas, and students are free to grow and develop informed viewpoints. At least, these are the ideals our free society purports.
Since the publication of Professor Watchlist, professors, students and the creator of the watchlist himself have expressed concern that these ideals have been obstructed. The “Professor Watchlist” is a project by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a nonprofit organization intended to promote conservative values on predominantly liberal campuses.
“The mission of Professor Watchlist is to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the “About Us” page of the watchlist’s website.
The page states that TPUSA will fight for each professor’s right to free speech, but it urges students, parents and alumni to be aware of professors that advance supposedly radical agendas in lecture halls. Citing published news articles as sources of information, the watchlist accuses professors of minor offences, such as holding socialist viewpoints, as well as more serious ones, such as affiliating with terrorist groups.
Zillah Eisenstein, Emerita professor in the department of politics at Ithaca College, has been named on the watchlist along with three professors that teach at Cornell University — Andrew Little, Kenneth McClane and Sarah Pritchard in the departments of government, English and science and technology studies, respectively.
The profile on Eisenstein contains the black and white photograph featured on her Ithaca College faculty website and a short description of the allegations against her.
“Dr. Zillah Eisenstein is the Emerita professor of political science at Ithaca College, New York,” the online profile reports. “Eisenstein gave a lecture at Cornell University titled, ‘Thinking About Hetero-Racist Misogyny in Agriculture.’ In this lecture, she contended that agriculture was a ‘capitalist, radicalized patriarchy’ and called the United States a ‘fascist democracy’.”
In her lecture, Eisenstein engaged the audience to “think disobediently” with her about the sexual divisions of labor in agriculture and how they maintain it as an oppressive, patriarchal institution.
Eisenstein said her reaction upon learning she was included in the watchlist was not personal but political.
“What a terrible time that we live in, that we’re in a time where there is an attempt to chill open conversation, especially in classrooms,” Eisenstein said.
For professors to produce scholarship and educate students, they must have freedom from attempts to stifle their work by any such “watchlist”, Eisenstein said.
“I am very committed to open dialogue, even though the watchlist would have you think that everyone on that watchlist is trying to close down and silence,” she said. “I think the purpose of the watchlist is to intimidate, and intimidation is a terrible cultural, political practice.”
Reactions from the academic community to the watchlist range from fear, anger, indifference and exuberant pride for meeting the criteria for inclusion. Many professors have requested to be named on the list, such as those who signed an open letter by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), published on Dec. 13, 2016.
The letter claims that even though the watchlist purports to fight for free speech, it serves an opposite purpose by intimidating college professors whose views dissent from the creators.
“The American Association of University Professors has supported academic freedom and opposed those who seek to curtail it for more than 100 years and will continue to do so, because the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” the letter reads. “The type of monitoring of professors in which you are engaged can only inhibit the process through which higher learning occurs and knowledge is advanced.”
By the middle of January 2017, 12,024 professors from across the United States had signed the letter, just 776 short of their goal of 12,800 signatures.
Professor Andrew Little at Cornell University said the allegation against him — that he said hiring Republican professors would lower the IQ of Cornell faculty — was not accurate.
“I certainly don’t aim to promote any particular political viewpoint in my classes, and am eager to teach students of any ideology,” Little wrote in an email. “So, I hope that conservative students don’t avoid taking my classes or trying to work with me on this basis.”
Return of “McCarthyism”?
For many who are offended by the list, the watchlist bears a resemblance to the Red Scare and “McCarthyism,” referring to the 1950’s when Senator Joseph McCarthy attempted to register and expel any communists among his fellow congressmen.
Matt Lamb, the manager of the watchlist, rejects the label of “McCarthyism” because TPUSA is a private organization with no governmental power, unlike the demagogic McCarthy, who was a congressional statesman.
“We’re not calling for anyone to get fired,” Lamb said. “We oppose any kind of harassment. We’re not any kind of administrators. We don’t have the power to do that. We’re just reporting what’s already been reported.”
College campuses have long been cites for political activism considered to be the left side of politics. Consequently, students that identify with “right” ideologies, such conservatism or libertarianism, have reported a sense of alienation and voiceless-ness among their college peers for speaking up in the classroom.
Data from the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Institute indicates a swing toward liberal politics in higher education. During the 2007-08 academic year, 55 percent of respondent faculty members across the country identified as either “liberal” or “far left,” and only 16 percent identified as “conservative.” By 2010-11, the political left gained roughly seven percentage points, and the political right lost about four percentage points.
Amid the internet age, the Professor Watchlist follows suit with many publications by college reporters who voice their frustrations from attending college they perceive as hostile to their opinions. Campus Reform, Red Alert Politics and The College Fix all consciously dissent from “social justice warriors” on college campuses while highlighting aggression suffered by fellow student-conservatives. Articles and videos on these sites include “UCSC done crying over Trump, hosts ‘People’s Inauguration’ Protest”; “Pro-life group sues CSU for denying funds based on content”; “This is the worst anti-Trump feminist video ever created”; and “Cornell students hold ‘cry-in’ over Trump victory.”
Lamb equated “Professor Watchlist” to online communities for students within a marginalized group. If you’re Muslim or Jewish, Lamb said, you’re going to want some support on a Catholic campus.
Eisenstein said any student in need of support should indeed have access to it, but there are many more productive ways to accomplish this. The watchlist, she said, is guilty of the same offenses against intellectual freedom of which it accuses her.
Despite the common usage of “liberal” and “conservative,” Eisenstein took issue with the watchlist’s uses of the terms “leftist” and “liberal,” as she said they are inaccurate and intended to homogenize a group of people each with a unique viewpoint. Rather than “liberal”, she described her political philosophy as “anti-racist” and “feminist”.
“I’m no liberal; I’ve never been a liberal,” Eisenstein said. “If you’re going to call some of us out, call us out for the politics we do embrace.”
However, these terms are politically convenient for those behind the watchlist to group together the individuals they are trying to silence, Eisenstein said. She doubts that many students think their professors are too liberal and doubts that they take issue if they do. She said higher education will inevitably have a number of biases, but it is key to discuss them in the public arena.
Cornell University senior Casey Breznick, who wrote the article on Eisenstein referenced by the watchlist, said liberally-minded students feel comfortable during their college education because their liberal viewpoints remain unchallenged. He asserted, however, that this comfort is a disservice to students because they never learn how to respond to anyone who challenges their core beliefs from a conservative standpoint.
“I’m not saying they should be converted to conservatism,” Breznick said. “I’m saying it would be nice, for their own benefit, if it was a little more even-handed.”
Breznick proposed a solution, saying colleges should offer classes that introduce students to conservative values like economic self-reliance and fiscal responsibility. He said if a class offers readings on Karl Marx or Jean-Paul Sartre, professors should also offer readings by Edmund Burke or Adam Smith.
“Maybe they did, but the professor chided it or glossed over it or made some remark, or they laughed at it and then moved on,” Breznick said. “You go to college to gain exposure to new ideas, so it is sort of a disservice to the liberal students.”
As a conservative student, Breznick said he does not have a shortage of experience in defending the core of his beliefs, as opposed to many of his liberal classmates whose core liberal beliefs remain unchallenged throughout college. Breznick said with Republicans dominating both congressional houses, the majority of governorships and the White House, it would serve liberal students to gain some understanding of conservative ideals.
“You’re going to come out of four years of school not really understanding a conservative philosophy beyond, ‘they’re racist, they’re sexist, they’re bigots,’” Breznick said.
Eisenstein agreed, saying one of her main concerns about the watchlist is that it will discourage the intellectual connections that make the classroom so special. Throughout her teaching career, she has observed many students who grow as thinkers while taking her classes, even if they sharply dissented from her personal views. She recalled a devout Jewish student who was on his way to fight in the Israel Defense Forces after graduation. If it had not been for the book they read, Palestine, which humanized the soldiers he would soon confront on the battlefield, he might never have had the transformative experience that lead him to keep in contact with Eisenstein for the next 30 years.