Professor Watchlist thwarted by ‘radical’ volunteers

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A new watch list of “dangerous” academics has surfaced, emanating from a right-wing organization that targets progressive, liberal thinkers with a “radical agenda.” Instead of intimidating professors into hiding, however, it is inspiring them into action: Hundreds of academics are flooding the list with their own names and starting parallel lists of historically “radical” icons like Albert Einstein, W.E.B. DuBois and Socrates.

“The list is clearly an effort to intimidate professors from speaking truth to power,” wrote professor Charles Strozier in a letter to the New York Times. “Instead, the list itself should be mocked. All of my friends are congratulating me for being on it and asking if I can put in a good word for them.” Strozier, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, is a member of the AFT’s Professional Staff Congress and has written about his experience for Voices on Campus.

The Professor Watchlist is maintained by Turning Point USA, an organization dedicated to supporting students who, according to the website, believe in “fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government,” a widely understood description of right-wing, pro-corporate culture. It is meant “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The site includes nearly 200 names and profiles with descriptions of objectionable actions—though the numbers seem to be in flux since academics began adding their own names. Listings are now limited to incidents that have been reported elsewhere, a possible reaction to the flood of names added by proud leftist activists.

The AFT is circulating a letter that academics can sign, noting the importance of academic freedom and requesting their names be added to the Professor Watchlist. The American Association of University Professors has a similar list.  At Notre Dame, 200 professors requested that their names be added to the list, in solidarity with two colleagues who made the first cut. The Professor Watchlist Redux is a national list of history-making radicals—Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson and even Jesus of Nazareth—as well as living academics “doing real research and teaching despite the forces of flimflam, fear-mongering and truthiness.”

All humor aside, concerned academics are comparing the original list to McCarthyism, and connecting Donald Trump’s political ascent with a rise of intolerance. “If we are not careful, a watchlist like this can have the impact of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—a theoretical prison designed to create a form of self-censorship among those imprisoned,” wrote George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University who is on the list. “The list is not simply designed to get others to spy on us, to out us, but to install forms of psychological self-policing to eliminate thoughts, pedagogical approaches and theoretical orientations that it defines as subversive.”

A number of AFT members are on the original list, including Joseph Schwartz, a Temple Association of University Professionals faculty member tagged for insulting a visiting speaker during a 2013 College Republican event. “A lot of faculty are being charged without having any recourse to rebut the charges,” he says, explaining that while he did call out in frustration at the event, the speaker refused to answer questions in what was meant to be an open forum. Schwartz says that while he does not hide the fact that he is politically liberal, he is careful to present different points of view to his students, and encourages vigorous, informed debate in class. He’s never had a bias complaint in his classroom, he adds.

Strozier, of John Jay College, landed on the list for his 2014 article linking global warming to the war in Syria. He called the list “deeply offensive and McCarthy-ite,” and noted that as a senior professor he is eager to fight, but academics in less secure positions are legitimately fearful. “If you’re teaching history in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and you’re an assistant professor, you’d watch your back.”

[Virginia Myers]