Recently, Olga Perez-Stable Cox, Professor of Psychology Orange Coast Community College (OCC) was recorded by a student without her consent. Professor Cox has taught at OCC for forty-one years. The illegal recording took place during Professor Cox’s human sexuality course. According to Professor Cox supporters, she was speaking about minority groups feeling terror in a post-Trump presidential world. Student members of the OCC Young Republican Club, however, contend that Professor Cox’s statements functioned as indoctrination and intimidation, by claiming that Olga’s words defined people who voted for Trump as terrorists.
The footage was released in two separate video files. Of course, the video clips did not include any context, and were snippets of a 3-hour class that meets once a week. Nonetheless, Cox’s few statements went viral. Since the leaked audio recordings, Cox has received death threats and has had to go into hiding. She was unable to conclude the semester with her students due to safety concerns. Some of the abhorrent messages that Olga has received include: “We’re sending you back to Cuba; you’ll be shot in the face,” and “we’re cleaning out the rats, staring with shooting you like the rat you are.” If I listed all of the harassment and death threats, they would exceed the space for this essay.
Turning Point USA is a non-profit organization that claims to expose professors who espouse “leftist propaganda,” and “advance radical agendas in lecture halls.” Currently, the professor watch list has over 200 names. The website posts names, locations and photographs. The website also asks students to submit “tips,” “turning in” their liberal professors. Although President-elect Trump has not made a formal statement about the site, there have been tweets from his Trumpeters endorsing the watch list. For example, the Make America Great Again crowd has used hashtags such as #draintheuniversities and #makecollegesgreatagain.
It is no coincidence that the watch list appeared, precisely at this time (Nov. 21). Although, there have been books such as David Horowitz’s “The Professors: 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” in the past, the Trump moment is far more frightening. We live in a moment when the KKK’s grand wizard David Duke publicly praised and thanked Donald Trump for a resurgence in their popularity, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s documentation of more than 700 hate crimes since the election. Trump’s election functions to emboldened the website constructors, along with their tipsters. Indeed, at the OCC rally, there were members of the white supremacist (I refuse to use the term Alt-right) media and supporters alongside the Young Republican Club.
What happened to Olga is not anomalous, but part of a well-funded and calculated movement to intimidate, silence and banish professors who stand up to rhetorics of hate, discrimination and oppression. At OCC, for example, Joshua Martinez, the member of the young Republican Club who has been on the current media smear campaign against Olga, lists on his public LinkedIn site that he is the “Orange County Field Director” for Turning Point U.S.A. Turning Point boasts that their “staff and students travel to campuses in all fifty states to identify young conservatives, connect them with local chapters and recourses.”
Unfortunately, dominant media have fueled the fire. Even outlets that are perceived as mainstream or left of center (e.g., CNN; NBC) describe Olga’s classroom rhetoric as “a tirade,” and “angry rant.” We must remember that academic freedom, which exists today, was given recognition by the Supreme Court precisely due to the McCarthy-era black-listings. Academic freedom was fought for, legally (e.g., Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, 1967), in a series of court cases to be recognized; we must, like all struggles, fight for its continued existence and protections. Thus, as in the McCarthy era, currently, we are witnessing the same discursive strategy by Turning Point: their claim to be fighting free speech is a smokescreen for their true agenda—the disciplining and purgation of the left—even if professors do not identify as such.
My relationship to this issue is too close to home. I, too, am a professor. I teach about diversity, marginalized groups, social justice and oppression. I teach queer, feminist and Marxist theories. I am precisely the type of professor that could be targeted as part of “Turning Point USA’s” watch list. One of my former co-author’s is on the watch list. I am also an alumna of OCC. I took the class that Olga teaches as an undergrad, with a different instructor. Olga’s class, which speaks to issues of sexuality, has afforded students a safe space to respond to rhetorics and tactics of oppression; ironically, now, Olga is in hiding for speaking about the very thing she was trying to protect her students against. As Faculty Advisor to OCC Pride’s club, she plays a critical role in student advocacy and support. Also, paradoxically, while Trump supporters have called for an end to political correctness—having to “watch what you say,” this group has effectively decided what statements are “okay,” and which statements “go too far.”
To counter the young Republicans and Turning Point U.S.A., I have joined a coalition of students, faculty and staff to support Olga. I hosted a sign-making event with students for a rally, we have circulated petitions, spoken before the board of trustees, written letters and will participate in a town hall on Friday. We are fighting alongside her union. And although OCC’s President Harkin put out a statement of support for academic freedom, the student who illegally recorded Professor Cox has not been suspended or expelled, although he violated OCC’s code of conduct, as well as levels of the California Educational Code. In Harkin not putting out a definitive statement, and not engaging in a swift action of code enforcement, it sends a chilling effect across the campus. Let us remember that students were also recorded. Classrooms must remain safe environments for open discussion.
Turning Point’s watch list is akin to McCarthyism black lists. Current “tips” are an assault on academic freedom—the soul of higher education. Professors must be able to speak on controversial topics without fear of repercussion. So, while supporters of Olga at OCC have organized locally, at the national level professors are also fighting back. The hashtag #addmyname reflects a movement started by a group of professors at Notre Dame to add their names to the watch list, because they feel that they would be “in good company.” I, too, have signed my name in an act of solidarity. Currently, the google doc. list has over 1,000 professor signatories. In a climate where entire groups are threatened with deportation, and others are being told they will be banned from entering the U.S., the watch list, in my opinion, indeed invokes terror. It has a terrifying chilling effect—especially on non-tenured faculty members. The list has also given rise to an increase in anonymous emails received by professors, such as the following: my son told me what YOU have been saying about Donald Trump. I went and read . . . your syllabus . . . I checked the professor watch list, and you are not on it, but you should be. You are dangerous and you are being watched.” Even tenured faculty members who may not fear losing their jobs, fear ending up like Olga—living in hiding and in fear, with death threats and the inability to engage with her students.
I proudly stand with Olga, and the other professors on the watch list. We must fight back against tactics of fear and smear campaigns. As Turning Point’s founder Charlie Cook stated: “It’s very visible; it’s very aggressive; it’s very grassroots; it’s face to face.” In the face of this chilling movement, university administrators must re-pledge their commitment to academic freedom, and not kowtow to political pressure. Efforts such as #addmyname should be supplemented by faculty senate resolutions, stricter enforcement of unauthorized video recording in class, and continued strategies of resistance to the current witch hunt. I stand with Olga. I stand with academic freedom. #addmyname.
The author wishes to thank Dr. Dana L. Cloud for feedback on this piece.