Academic witch hunts are back: The new McCarthyism, a sign of the stupidity of the post-truth era

A new watch list targets “lefty” professors. It would be sad and silly if it weren’t so frightening

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published December 4, 2016 12:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/William J. Smith)
(AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/William J. Smith)

In late November three blocks from the White House, a group of leaders from the so-called alt-right, who many consider to simply be white supremacists, gathered for an annual conference called the National Policy Institute.  Their goal was to discuss and debate the opportunities offered by a Donald Trump presidency for their white nationalist plans. In the wake of a rise in hate crimes, the meeting sent a chill throughout the nation.

But making America whiter “again” is not the only thing we need to fear with a Trump administration. Only two days after the alt-right convention in D.C., Turning Point USA launched Professor Watchlist, a website designed to call out college professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

As Rebecca Schuman wrote for Slate, in other circumstances, these might be two unrelated events, but “as the president-elect’s surrogates cite Japanese internment as a 'precedent’ for what may come, any ‘watch list’ of any sort is worrying.”

Trump’s inability to handle any sort of critique and his bullying of reporters and the media all suggest that we are about to enter an era of censorship, threats to free speech and other forms of suppressing dissent. When the “liberal” media come under attack it generally isn’t long before the “tenured radicals” come under fire, too.

Turning Point’s founder and executive director Charlie Kirk wrote a blog to explain that the purpose of the list was to expose professors who are out of line: "Throughout the next 120 days, Turning Point USA will be running ads to make sure students, faculty, and administrators see that these professors made the Professor Watchlist.” The 22-year-old closes his post with the chilling phrase: “We believe these people need to be exposed."

Each listing on the site — 200 professors so far — includes a photo. Clearly the website is less about documenting issues and more about public shaming and potentially targeting.

The watch list is a sign of the right’s new McCarthyism. But it’s also a sign of the amazing stupidity of the post-truth era.

Today’s McCarthyism combines the red scare witch hunts of the 1950s with the 1980s attacks on multiculturalism of the culture wars and the post-9/11 loyalty tests. But Trump-era McCarthyism has further added the novelty of cyberbullying and a post-truth, fake news lack of connection to reality.

Kirk, who himself did not attend college, has been heralded as a rising force on the right and he even spoke at the Republican National Convention. One of his goals is to educate “students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” His other goal is to go after the so-called power of left professors on college campuses.

Kirk’s list would just be a sad sign of what happens when a young, uneducated conservative pit bull decides to gain a name for himself by bolstering the myth of a dangerous left-wing professoriat poised to poison the minds of the young, if it weren’t so frightening.

The problem with the list — besides its more than obvious McCarthyist witch-hunt tactics — is that it’s really stupid. It makes claims that have no basis in reality. It exaggerates. It creates crisis where there is none. And worst of all, it promises to increase conflict rather than improve it.

In fact, one of the greatest ironies of the list is that it proves that Kirk really should consider going to college. Apparently he has taken some college-level courses, but they clearly haven’t taught him some really basic critical reasoning skills. If he had studied history, logic, evidence and reasoning, his list might be less idiotic.

One of the professors on the list, Robert Jensen, joked that he wouldn’t assign the project “a failing grade.” Instead he’d “give the project an incomplete, with an opportunity to turn in better work in the future.”

Even Bill O’Reilly schooled Kirk when he interviewed him on his show to discuss the list. Kirk squirmed as O’Reilly pressed him on the validity of the information on the list and finally ended the interview with “as long as the facts are straight.”

But here’s the thing: The facts are not straight. Kirk’s list is based on flimsy information that simply doesn’t support his claims that there is a problem of left-wing professors discriminating against conservative students.

Let’s start with the easy one. In his interview with O’Reilly, Kirk claimed that the list was many years in the making and came as a response to the many stories he had heard of conservative students being bullied and harassed in classrooms. He explained that he felt the need to call attention to these outrages. And he told O’Reilly that such an effort “hasn’t existed until right now.”

Hmmm? No professor watch lists until now?

Joerg Tiede of the American Association of University Professors wrote a piece this week about the first red scare watch list. In 1934 conservative political activist Elizabeth Dilling published "The Red Network — A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots."

And who could forget the blacklists of the McCarthy era? Attacks on leftist professors in that era had two phases,, according to Ellen Schrecker:  “In the first stage, the alleged subversives were identified, usually by an official body like HUAC or the FBI. In the second stage, they were punished, usually by the imposition of economic sanctions.” Some faculty, though, were fired.

Kirk apparently can ignore this history, probably because he hasn’t studied it in college. But he even forgets the precedent set by his own sources. Much of his site directly references a number of the already existing resources that police liberal faculty. For instance, many of the faculty on Kirk’s list also appear on David Horowitz’s Discover the Networks. Horowitz leveraged the post-9/11 culture of fear to launch his “Academic Bill of Rights” and claim that college students were indoctrinated by left-leaning faculty. He later published "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Professors," which argued that many U.S. professors were anti-American.

Kirk doesn’t only forget history and his sources. He also doesn’t seem to understand that there is a difference between what a faculty member does in the classroom and his or her extramural speech, social media posts and research. As Jensen explained in his piece about the list, much of the “proof” offered of faculty bias does not come from classroom encounters. In fact very little of it does. Instead Kirk’s list cites tweets, essays, books, blogs, published op-eds and other off-campus activity as evidence of faculty discriminating against students in the classroom.

And Kirk fails to appreciate the fact that faculty are citizens, too. They can tweet and post articles on Facebook and write op-eds. They can express political beliefs, rant about racism and express dismay at the election of Donald Trump on their own time. As the University of Illinois had to learn after it rescinded a job offer to Steven Salaita in response to some of his tweets, extramural speech can’t be taken to stand in for classroom behavior.

There is no necessary correlation between classroom conduct and the actions of a private citizen. Most of the list’s examples have nothing whatsoever to do with a faculty member in the classroom. This makes it a perfect example of McCarthyism in the post-truth era.

But the stupidity doesn’t end there. Kirk joins a long line of hysterical conservatives who freak out that faculty members are indoctrinating students, but there is no evidence to back up any of their worries. In fact all the research on student political beliefs and college show that faculty do not influence their students at all. A 2008 article in The Guardian ran down a series of studies, all of which concluded that faculty members are not indoctrinating anyone.

Matthew Woessner, a conservative faculty member who has conducted some of this research explained, "There is no evidence that a professor or lecturer's views instigate political change among students."

Instead, the research shows that when students engage with faculty, their views moderate. If students lean more left or right over the course of college it is typically a result of student activities and peer interaction.

In other research Woessner further found that Republicans and conservatives, while vastly outnumbered in academia, “were, for the most part, successful, happy, and prosperous. Fewer than 2 percent of faculty (Republican or Democratic) reported being the victims of unfair treatment based on their politics.” While this data reflects faculty not student attitudes it does show that ideas of bias against conservatives in academia is also exaggerated.

Other research shows that if there are political biases in the classroom, they come from students and are directed at professors. In a 2006 study by Woessner and his wife, they found “that when students perceive a gap between their political views and those of their instructor, students express less interest in the material, are inclined to look less favorably on the course, and tend to offer the instructor a lower course evaluation.”

Of course it is a great irony that the right champions the classroom concerns of conservative students. Most of the time, the mantra of the right is to disparage the whiny, coddled college student. In yet another sign of Trump-era hypocrisy, when the whining is about attacks on conservatism, it is legitimate. If it is in relation to Black Lives Matter, students apparently need to get over it.

Needless to say, all campuses have protections for students who feel they are suffering bias or discrimination. As a Penn State spokeswoman interviewed about the watch list explained, “If students in a classroom believe that an instructor has acted beyond the limits of academic freedom, there are policies and procedures in place for seeking a faculty conference and mediation.” The idea that students don’t have protections on campus is ludicrous as well.

It is also clear that Kirk has never studied statistics because his list does not offer a statistically relevant sample.  In 2013 there were 1.5 million faculty members at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Kirk’s list has found a whopping 200 folks that purportedly are a threat to conservative students. Assuming that the 2013 number of faculty has mostly held steady, Kirk’s database represents .013 percent of all the faculty in the nation. It is a textbook example of a data size that is irrelevant. It literally proves the point that this is a nonissue. But in the land of post-truth hysteria one example is all it takes to freak everyone out.

So Kirk’s list is a sad, pathetic and seriously stupid sign of the sorts of concerns that occupy the minds of the rising new right. It is easy to joke about it — and many have.  Shortly after the watch list was launched and Kirk called on students to submit tips, a new hashtag emerged on Twitter — #TrollProfessorWatchlist — and it included submissions of Harry Potter characters, a Trump University lecturer and Jesus Christ.

The hashtag is a great way to push back on the inanity of the list, but it is a mistake to miss its dark, chilling side, too. What Kirk and others like him do is perpetuate a myth about the “dangers” of higher education that facilitates attacks on the value and meaning of college education. Make no mistake: Behind Kirk’s vendetta is a desire to destroy public higher education and replace it with a neoliberal privatized model that looks a lot like Trump U.

State funding for higher education is down about $10 billion since the recession. Today more than half of all faculty members are adjuncts, who often have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some professors make less than 50 cents an hour and far too many find themselves on food stamps. As public funding has gone down, student tuition bills have gone up, leaving students carrying a debt burden of more $1 trillion. Nearly 4 out of 5 college students are working part-time while studying for their degrees, averaging 19 hours a week.

That is the real scandal of higher education, not the trumped-up charges that faculty members are harassing conservative students. Maybe now that Kirk’s list has been outed as a baseless witch hunt, he will consider going back to school and learning from the very same professors he supposedly finds so frightening.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Academia Charlie Kirk Editor's Picks Mccarthyism National Policy Institute Turning Point Witch Hunts