Two weeks after Election Day and Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, a new website appeared Nov. 21 that could pose a threat to academic freedom and educational liberty at the nation’s universities and colleges. Called “Professor Watchlist,” the website targets professors “known for advancing a radical agenda and/or mistreating conservatives in the classroom,” according to the site’s sponsor, Turning Point USA (TPUSA), an ultra-conservative nonprofit group.
The Professor Watchlist currently lists about 160 professors and encourages those checking it to submit tips for more names. The website uses right wing media outlets to substantiate their political claims. TPUSA is self-described as countering an army of leftists that “works 24/7 to promote a big government agenda” by “fighting for freedom, limited government, and capitalism on college campuses across the country.”
The young face of TPUSA is a high school graduate, Charlie Kirk, who got start-up funding from the ultra-conservative multi-millionaire Foster Friess to pursue his dream of building a “grass-roots organization to rival liberal groups such as MoveOn.org.” Friess is a long-standing donor to Republican right-wing causes and candidates, Kirk’s mentor is a politically-seasoned tea party activist, William Montgomery, who he hooked up with in 2012 when Montgomery was a state legislative candidate in Illinois. Instead of going to college, Kirk took Montgomery’s advice, according to a report in the Daily Herald, to postpone his education and start TPUSA. Montgomery works in the TPUSA office in Lemont, Ill.,
With Montgomery’s and Friess’ aid, Kirk has become a Fox News regular and rubs elbows with the Trump family and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner called the 23-year-old Kirk “one of the greatest patriots and one of the greatest advocates for limited government and great conservative principles.” No friend of higher education, for the last two years Rauner has blocked attempts to pass a budget. The impasse threatens the continued existence of the state’s public colleges and universities. Last spring, Chicago State University, known as a center for African American scholarship, was almost forced to close. A last minute stop-gap funding measure prevented it, but not without severe wounds. One-third of the university’s 900-person staff were laid off.
Despite the group’s nod to free speech, claiming they stand by the “right for professors to say whatever they wish,” TPUSA also says professors’ “actions and behaviors need to be known.” Inherent to that statement is the ominous reality of a right-wing network, active on social media, that can make professors’ lives difficult with vicious harassment campaigns. Stories abound of online death and rape threats, anti-Semitic, misogynist and racist messages and memes, and intimidation of journalists, outspoken citizens, officials, athletes and other public figures. In the age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, rumors and lies go far beyond any college campus, often putting their targets in danger.
On Dec. 12, California’s Orange County Register reported that one professor was forced to leave her home after she received death threats following the release of a video secretly recorded in her class and posted on YouTube.
Orange Coast College professor Olga Perez Stable Cox, who is on the Professor Watchlist, is heard in the video calmly addressing widely held fears around the Trump election saying, “Our nation is divided, we have been assaulted, it’s an act of terrorism….And so we are in for a difficult time…”
She also expresses hope in people’s ability to “get past that.”
After the video was posted, Cox, her union, and the college received “more than 1,000 emails, calls and Facebook comments,” the OC Register reported.
Rob Schneiderman, president of the Coast Federation of Educators/American Federation of Teachers Local 1911, said, “Someone emailed her a picture of her house, with her address.” The email called Cox a “libtard, Marxist, hatemonger, nutcase” and said “her home address is now going to be sent everywhere,” he said.
Another message read, “You want communism, go to Cuba … try to bring it to America and we’ll put a (expletive) bullet in your face,” OCR reported.
Students rallied in support of Cox but a handful of students claimed she was pushing her own views and “overstepping her profession.”
Rutgers professor Norman Markowitz, who is also on the watchlist, told the student newspaper, The Daily Targum, that the list poses a real and direct threat to First Amendment rights and harkens back to the dark days of the Cold War, when the extreme right-wing of those days created a culture of “self-censorship” and “repressive tolerance.”
“I have taught at Rutgers since 1971, developing courses in, among other things, the history of socialism and communism,” Markowitz said, “I tell my students at the beginning of every course that I teach from a Marxist perspective and I explain what that means in terms of seeing political economy as the foundation of societies.”
Markowitz said he tells his students that he does not expect them to share his viewpoints, and grades are not contingent on whether anyone agrees or disagrees with him.
In the troubling new political landscape, where the president-elect has been called the cyberbully-in-chief, because of his fondness for tweeting his displeasure at critics, the watchlist can be seen in a few ways. It seems to be a source of both fundraising and media attention for Turning Point USA. It can also be a way to build a well-funded network of shock troops pushing the Trump agenda on college campuses by attacking scholars of liberal arts and sciences, especially labor, ethnic/race, gender and LGBTQ studies, for so called “political correctness” with the goal of gutting academic programs.
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon is former chairman of Breitbart Media, which has been a media home for white supremacist, neo-Nazi, conspiracy theorist and white nationalist racist groups (sometimes referred to as the “alt-right”).
Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the ultra-conservative media outlet, specialized in doctored “gotcha” videos designed to smear liberal, progressive and left-wing individuals and groups. In 2010, Breitbart and his comrades at Fox broadcast an obviously edited video of civil rights veteran and Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, portraying her as an “angry black woman” who discriminated against a white farmer. Sherrod was fired but then offered her job back with an apology from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Then in 2011, a video targeting two labor history professors at two University of Missouri campuses was released on the Breitbart website, BigGovernment.com. After their livelihoods were threatened, the two professors, Judy Ancel and Don Giljum were eventually vindicated when it became clear the video had been edited like Sherrod’s had been.
One week before that video was released, Breitbart warned of his intention to go after teachers and education. On the April 18, 2011, broadcast of Fox News’ Hannity, he said, “We’re going to take on education next, go after the teachers, the union organizers,” he said.
Breitbart died in 2012 but it is in this “brave new world” he helped bring into being that Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist emerged. Many say it is not clear the extent of the damage to academic freedom, democracy and higher education this website can cause. It depends upon those who, as Professor Markowitz said, will “stand up against attacks like this emanating from groups who wish to create a climate of fear. Large numbers of people, especially students are worried about Trump and afraid of what he is capable of doing, but they are not running and hiding.”
On Dec. 13, the American Association of University Professors shared a letter, inviting faculty and supporters to add their name to the Professor Watchlist. As of today, more than 10,000 have signed.