by David M. Perry
“Expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
This is the stated aim of the Professor Watchlist, a website that went live on Nov. 19. The project comes from Turning Point USA, a nonprofit group funded to support the work of conservative wunderkind Charlie Kirk, subject of a loving profile in the National Journal. Kirk, 22, was recently on Fox talking about Trump’s “mandate” and young voters and allegedly has raised over $1 million to support his conservative youth movement. Now he’s spending that money to put professors on a literal watchlist.
In a writeup on the project, Kirk stated that he often hears stories about professors who “use their position of power to advance liberal agendas in their classroom” and that “Turning Point USA is saying enough is enough. It’s time we expose these professors.”
The project offers a chilling example of what the academic world can expect in Trump’s America, while reigniting the ever-fraught safe spaces debate.
In recent years, the cultural battle over trigger warnings has intensified, with strange bedfellows working to characterize student requests for safe spaces as threats to academic freedom. Sure, you’d expect to see people at Breitbart write endless essays mocking “safe spaces,” and they have, but they’ve been accompanied by a host of high-status writers who are mostly, but not exclusively, white men.
An NYU professor and the CEO of the mostly libertarian Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) landed an Atlantic cover story on the matter. The New York Times has repeatedly published pieces decrying safe spaces. Hundreds of thousands of people shared a Vox piece about a liberal professor terrified by his politically correct students. Jonathan Chait, at New York Magazine, has made the dangers of political correctness one of his beats, accusing “language police of perverting liberalism,” then, after an incident in Mizzou, demanding to know “Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now?” This fall, a dean at the University of Chicago won widespread publicity for his criticism of “safe spaces,” followed by faculty saying that he was the one actually squelching free speech by telling students not to even inquire about trigger warnings.
There is a simple principle behind essays and letters like these, not to mention the infinite support they generate on social media: Marginalized students requesting or demanding more respectful language, fewer microaggressions, or even specially designated spaces in which to process trauma pose a significant threat to free speech and academic freedom.
This is not true. It’s never been true.
Demands or requests from marginalized students do not carry institutional power with them. Sometimes they get appropriated by people with institutional power, but I’ve long argued that attempts to label certain kinds of speech requests “politically correct” stem from a fear of losing hierarchical position. In other words, the demand to stop microaggressions, to consider trauma when developing pedagogy, to change language use—these all destabilize current power relationships, so naturally the folk with the power find them uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the American right wing is currently organizing, and has long been organizing, to actually repress speech on campus. This watchlist is just the most recent example of this. As the American Association of University Professors pointed out in a comment on the watchlist: “The AAUP has spoken out against organizations that conduct these kinds of activities going back to the 1920s, when it was the American Legion, through the 1980s, when it was an organization that called itself Accuracy in Academia.” AAUP is concerned that “External monitoring of in-class statements not only presents the prospect that the words uttered will be distorted or taken out of context; it is also likely to have a chilling effect and result in self-censorship.”
When I was in graduate school just starting to teach, people were worried about David Horowitz, a conservative who urged students to monitor their professors and eventually published The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Since then, other attempts to use the internet to name, shame, and even punish liberal professors have proliferated. The cell-phone video camera has taught me to assume I’m always being recorded while teaching. Examples of professors—especially women of color—having their Twitter feed turned against them have proliferated. As Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote, academic institutions are unprepared for hate to spill off social media and into their phone and email systems, let alone with public protests, and will all too easily cave to pressure.
And this was all before the rise of Trump. Now David Horowitz is on television, supporting Breitbart, where he writes his screeds. His boss has Trump’s ear. Ben Carson, who keeps being mentioned for the cabinet despite taking himself out of the running, famously wanted to use the Department of Education to strip funding from colleges he deemed to be engaging in promoting liberal values. Trump hasn’t weighed in on professors, but his comments about media freedom and critiques of Hamilton don’t give me much confidence. In such a world, Kirk, a wunderkind conservative with connections to the new administration, seems a legitimate threat.
The problem isn’t really about the professors whose names are on the list, though many I know on the list are worried or at least irritated. The issue is that such a list is intended to intimidate. People who are in precarious positions, people who lack support within their institutions, or just generally people from vulnerable groups (LGBTQ professors, professors of color, disabled professors, etc.) will pre-emptively silence themselves. I suspect, in fact, that this is the goal—not to punish individual professors, but to chill us into silence.
Welcome to speech in the age of Trump. It’s never been more important for experts to engage in public discourse, and such discourse has rarely been so threatened from the state and its allies. I have no solutions other than to say be vigilant, be organized, and support each other.
And if you’re one of those people who has spent the last few years yelling at lefty students over PC running amok, repent, then get to work over here. We’re going to need the allies.