November 30, 2016

PEN America declaims new professor “watchlist”



Members of Turning Point USA, the group behind the Professor Watchlist, with Donald Trump in 2014. Via Illinois Review.

PEN America moved quickly to declaim a new website listing college professors across the country who purportedly “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Launched on November 21 by the conservative advocacy nonprofit Turning Point USA, the website, Professor Watchlist, identifies professors anonymously accused of “advanc[ing] a radical agenda in lecture halls” —an endeavor one of the site’s organizers, Matt Lamb, described as “a beautiful example of freedom of speech,” according to the New York Times’s Christopher Mele.

In a statement protesting the Watchlist, PEN America’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said that “While claiming to stand up against bias, this list is a noxious purveyor of precisely what it claims to deride: the intimidation and osctracization of those who express controversial views on campus.”

While Lamb told the Times that Professor Watchlist aggregates only “professors whose actions have been the subject of news reports,” and the site claims they only include incidents that “have already been reported by a credible source,” even a cursory perusal of the list indicates otherwise. For example, Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet is included in the list for allegedly penning a blog post in May 2016 in which he “ask[ed] liberals to begin treating Christians and conservatives like Nazis.” The source: an article in the Washington Times, the newspaper founded by the self-professed messiah Sun Myung Moon, and currently owned by a subsidiary of Moon’s Unification Church.

What the Watchlist doesn’t link to is Tushnet’s actual blog post, which focused on how the federal judiciary at the time of writing consisted of more Democratic appointees than Republican ones. Tushnet argued that liberal policy-makers shouldn’t try to placate conservatives (what he describes as “defensive-crouch liberalism”), but should maintain a hard line against conservative doctrine while they had the upper hand. As he reasons, “Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)” No credible news source, not to mention any thinking human being, would interpret this rhetorical maneuver as advocating for “treating Christians and conservatives like Nazis.”

This case aside, a quick perusal reveals that a majority of entries on the Watchlist link to a single source, the staunchly conservative Leadership Institute’s college news site CampusReform, which raises a whole new set of questions about how the list was curated. When the New York Times criticizes it for having “thin information in its entries and a less-than-smooth search function,” they understate the more inherent problems with its methodology.

Anyway, it’s hard not to regard the creation of such a Watchlist as anything more than a counterproductive, even sinister, scare tactic. The list is searchable by school, and students are encouraged to check to see if any of their own professors are included. The inevitable implication is, ironically, that young people need to be protected from views that don’t match their own, an issue that has evoked fiery debate across the political spectrum, and which PEN America explored in depth in their report “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities.”



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.