College News

'Professor Watchlist' site complicates higher education's free speech debate

The website Professor Watchlist catalogues faculty and staff across the nation who have allegedly voiced liberal agendas in the classroom.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Two years ago, UW-Milwaukee doctoral student and lecturer Stephanie Baran attended a conference where she spoke about the effects racism, sexism and classism have on capitalist practices.

She was not yet teaching at UW-Milwaukee, and the ideas were not ones she came up with on her own—they came from other, senior scholars even more well-versed in the field.

But about two weeks ago, Baran found herself chronicled along with nearly 150 other faculty and staff from universities across the country on a website titled Professor Watchlist, a catalogue of professors and instructors with “radical agendas.”

Initiated by the conservative group Turning Point USA, the site’s mission is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Each listing includes a short summary of the actions the instructor has allegedly performed, as well as an occasional photo. Turning Point USA’s UW-Madison chapter president Justin Lemke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baran, whose summary notes her 2014 reference to racism as an enabler of the capitalist system, said the creators of the website may not see the irony in arguing for free speech and simultaneously alerting students and families of which professors may not agree with their ideas.

“It appears that the people who are on the list aren’t exactly opposing free speech,” Baran said. “But the people who are placed on this list are having opinions, backed up usually by fact, that are in opposition to the thinking or values held by the folks that think this website is a good idea.”

Criticism of professors is not new, especially given the perception of colleges and universities as liberal bastions.

And Wisconsinites have seen attempts to dictate what a professor should and should not teach, including most recently in July when state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, threatened to alter UW System funding over an assignment of an article on gay sex to a summer class.

No UW-Madison professors have appeared on the website yet, but Chad Goldberg, a sociology professor who was an outspoken critic of the Republican legislature’s decision to pull tenure from state statute, said the list has the potential to “chill the exercise of academic freedom on university campuses.”

“Academic freedom is what enables faculty to challenge conventional wisdom and test controversial ideas without fear of reprisal,” Goldberg said. “Without academic freedom, teachers and researchers can’t fulfill their professional responsibility to sift and winnow fearlessly in search of the truth.”

Besides Baran, the only other UW System instructor appearing on the list is Beth Lueck, a professor at UW-Whitewater and president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Lueck, whose website summary claims she gave students extra credit to attend a rally against Gov. Scott Walker, said she was accused of something she did not do.

Lueck also voiced concerns that while conservative groups like Turning Point are active in fighting for free speech on college campuses and consistently deride ideas about safe spaces, the website only provides an avenue for some students to avoid encountering controversial opinions.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Lueck said. “Either you endorse the freedom for professors to encourage civic engagement among their students and freedom of speech for those same students, as well as for controversial campus speakers of all types, or else you admit that students—left-wing, right-wing, and everywhere in between—need to be coddled and kept ignorant of the outside world.”

Lueck said this is not something unique to liberal professors, arguing conservative economics professors will be equally discouraged from teaching controversial aspects of capitalism as biology professors would be from teaching evolution.

She added that she will continue to stand up to individuals and groups who seek to control professors in the classroom, as well as continuing to assign works that she thinks will force students to consider different opinions.

“Allowing students to avoid ‘overly liberal’ professors does these students a gross injustice in preparing them for a life after college which may very well include liberal bosses and coworkers for whom there is no watch list or safe space,” Lueck said.

Baran is now teaching a course on American Ethnic Minorities and said she has no plans to change the way she teaches after being placed on the list—something that has spawned several congratulatory emails sent her way.

She also said she sees some ways in which the catalogue could work in favor of professors who fight back against a growing urge to curb academic freedom in the college classroom.

“Now we’re all sort of linked together as people who have been picked out, so to speak,” Baran said. “Perhaps that collective solidarity can bridge across different universities in the sense that times might be a little tough.”

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