College Professors And Conservative Watchlists

Last week an organization called Turning Point USA published a website called Professor Watchlist that claims its mission is "to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." The website actually is simply an aggregated list generated from pre-existing websites, although they also allow people to submit "tips" to perceived acts against conservatives or conservative ideals perpetrated by professors in the classroom.

A quick look at the website shows that it doesn't actually do what it claims. For example, my entry on the list indicates that I support gun control, which I do, and that I encourage confiscation of guns, which I don't. Their claims are based on a single op ed piece I wrote over a year ago and which I have actually rethought since that time based upon comments I received on the article. That's what critical thinking is about--being open to alternative viewpoints and willing to listen and change when it makes sense.

No one from Turning Point USA contacted me to find out what my current views on the topic might be and I am unaware of anyone from their organization having ever stepped foot in one of my classrooms. Clearly they have not read other articles I've written in which I strongly voice my position supporting the need to ensure all viewpoints can be expressed openly in universities. This includes a HuffPost blog objecting to the attempt of my own academic society to boycott Israeli universities for political reasons. If my entry is an example, the list is likely filled with factual errors and misleading representations.

Turning Point USA states on the site that it, "will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls." I entirely agree with this statement and would also point out that those people have a right to know about anything that professors discuss in the classroom, including the statements of professors who advance radical conservative agendas.

Radical politics is not exclusively a "leftist" domain.

Interestingly, their website completely fails to accomplish its stated goal, because many of the entries lack facts about anything said in the classroom and the website creators seem to have no awareness that what a professor writes does not necessarily reflect how she runs class discussion or lectures.

When it comes to the classroom, there is little question that learning happens best when the right of persons from all political perspectives to voice their opinions peacefully and openly is encouraged and protected. But with freedom of speech also comes responsibility for what one says. Those who make claims that professors, or anyone else, discriminate against particular groups must be held accountable to provide factual evidence that these claims are true.  

Despite its factual appearance, much of what I've read in lacks evidence supporting their claims that the professors listed have in the classroom engaged in the types of activities presented on the website as being Turning Point USA's goal to make public. The simple fact that a professor writes an opinion piece taking a position does not mean he also espouses that viewpoint in the classroom or that he discriminates against conservatives.

From my perspective working with college students on a daily basis, what disturbs me most is that lists like Professor Watchlist devalue the intelligence and abilities of young people to assess and understand what they learn from their professors and to thoughtfully respond to the ideas that professors present.

My students are smart. Very smart. They are fully capable of deciding which things I say in class make sense and which ones don't; and I encourage them to challenge me on those that don't, as do most of my colleagues. When I was in college, my professors challenged students to think critically and I learned a great deal debating my peers and my professors, who clearly had their own political ideas and taught classes built around those ideas. I am deeply thankful for the abilities of those scholars to create contexts in which all viewpoints were heard, logical flaws in reasoning were pointed out, and everyone was valued equally as a person. This is what makes good teaching and a good learning environment and allows people to grow intellectually in whatever direction they deem right.

In a free society, watch lists only serve to devalue the intelligence of all people, conservative or liberal, and divert us from discussing and debating complex ideas in a civil and open manner without resorting to ad hominem arguments against those who hold views different from our own.