MHC professors place ‘Professor Watchlist’ into historical context

Graphic by Andrea Kim '17 

Graphic by Andrea Kim '17 

BY SHILOH FREDERICK '17 

Charlie Kirk did not need a college degree to tell that something was amiss in the colleges and universities throughout the United States. In an email to media outlets in late November Kirk wrote, “It’s no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line.” Kirk claimed that every day he had to listen to story after story about college professors targeting conservative students and promoting liberal propaganda in their classrooms. Kirk, the 23-year-old founder of the conservative youth activist organization Turning Point USA, decided “enough is enough.” It was time to expose these professors. So, on Nov. 21, “Professor Watchlist” went live. 

“Professor Watchlist” exists as an online registry meant “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the website’s mission statement. The list of more than 200 professors and administrators has been compiled from “pre-existing news stories” that are used as a basis for accusation against these professors. 

The professors catalogued thus far mostly teach subjects connected to the humanities and social sciences. The accusations against them, however, range widely. According to the website, one professor from the Metropolitan State University of Denver earned his spot on the list because he “allegedly harassed and bullied Republican students, then forced the class to write an essay criticizing the Republican Vice Presidential candidate (Sarah Palin).” The watchlist also claims that a philosophy professor at Santa Monica College “led students in an ‘EcoSexual Sextravaganza’ in which participants ‘married the ocean.’” The entry continued, “After the ceremony, she encouraged students to make their way to the shoreline to ‘consummate’ the marriage and ‘make love with the water.’” Other accusations were less laughable. According to the website, two administrators from the University of North Carolina, Asheville allegedly ignored dealing with a man going into a women’s restroom and taking photos. 

Cited for being a Marxist and for having a “politically-loaded Twitter account,” respectively, two University of Massachusetts, Amherst professors have also made it onto the “Professor Watchlist.” No other professors from the Five Colleges are listed on the website as of yet.

Mount Holyoke professor of history Dan Czitrom is disappointed that he did not make the list. “Somehow, to be on this list, to me, is a kind of badge of honor.” For Czitrom and other Mount Holyoke professors, attempts like this to monitor the speech of liberal college professors is nothing new.  Czitrom pointed to the work of Accuracy in Academia in the 1990s as a recent example. Founded in 1985 as a nonprofit research group, the AIA made it a priority to “return to their traditional mission — the quest for truth.” Like the nascent “Professor Watchlist,” AIA went about documenting and exposing liberal political bias in education. Czitrom was eager to challenge them. He said he invited them to sit in on one of his classes but they never took him up on his offer. 

History professor Lynda Morgan also drew parallels between “Professor Watchlist” and other watchdogs of the recent past. “We’re not there yet, but it does smack of McCarthyism,” she said. “Who’s to say whether or not this could not blossom to something worse than it is … In the environment that we’re in now I think you have to take note of it.”

Politics professor Chris Pyle, someone with an extensive background in dealing with lists, would disagree. As the whistleblower to the US military’s domestic spying list of civil rights and antiwar groups in 1970 and a person named on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list, Pyle thinks “Professor Watchlist” is absurd. “It’s a private organization trying to label people as left wingers,” he said. “So what? What are they going to prove by it? They’ll prove very little.”

Professor of economics Jim Hartley also does not see why there has been such a fuss over this list. “In essence, it really isn’t all that different than many other ratings sites for professors.  I don’t see them as doing any good or harm.  Sometimes a student will leave a clever or amusing remark, so that is fun, but otherwise, they are just places where discontented students can express their discontent.  No harm in that.”

So far, there has not been much reaction to the watchlist besides several news items and opinion pieces written about it, as well as the parodical hashtag #trollprofwatchlist.

Czitrom thinks that the appearance of this watchlist fits into a larger narrative of conservative culture. “There’s a certain mentality among a lot of conservatives that, in terms of history, that there’s this desire to go back to the way things were … This is part of a broader conservative cultural trend that I see which they keep making the claim that they are victims, victims of bias, victims of professors who somehow try to force them to think a certain way.”

Morgan connected this situation with an anti-intellectual trend within the United States. She said, “People confuse someone who’s trying to help students look at things from a variety of different angles, which is what the best teachers do anyway, with trying to propagandize or brainwash or something like that, and that’s really not healthy.”

For Czitrom, Morgan and Pyle, the existence of“Professor Watchlist” won’t cause them to censor anything they say in their classroom or change their teaching methods.  Morgan said that if her name appeared on the list, she would feel honored. “It means you’re not being mealy-mouthed and you’re saying something that is important.”

Similar to the offer he made to Accuracy in Academia in the 1990s, Czitrom welcomes supporters of “Professor Watchlist” to attend one of his classes and share their thoughts. He is also in favor of addressing them using a tactic associated with the anti-Vietnam War movement called the ‘teach-in.’ “The idea was that you have an open mic [and] people speaking with some expertise on what was happening in Vietnam,” Czitrom explained. “I’d be in favor of a public forum … Don’t run from these people. Let’s talk. Let’s debate. Let’s discuss. Let’s have at it publicly. What is it precisely that you’re objecting to that a faculty member is doing in the classroom?”

Samantha Chyatte ’19, Marya Jucewicz ’17, Hannah Roach ’17 and Leah Willingham ’17 contributed reporting.

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