Watching The Professors
A new website that accuses nearly 200 college professors of advancing “leftist propaganda in the classroom” and discriminating against conservative students has been criticized as a threat to academic freedom.
The site, Professor Watchlist, which first appeared last Monday, says it names those instructors who “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
“We aim to post professors who have records of targeting students for their viewpoints, forcing students to adopt a certain perspective, and/or abuse or harm students in any way for standing up for their beliefs,” wrote Matt Lamb, an organizer of the site.
The Professor Watchlist is a project of Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization that says its mission is to educate students about “true free market values.” Charlie Kirk, its founder and executive director, wrote in a blog post that “it’s no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line” and that it was time to expose them.
But Julio C. Pino, an associate professor of history at Kent State University in Ohio who is among those named on the site, said in an interview, “What we are seeing with this site is a kind of normalizing of prosecuting professors, shaming professors, defaming professors.”
“The broader issue it raises is: What kind of country is America going to become in the next four years?” he added.
If I were a university professor, I would be thinking, “Oh good grief. It’s not enough that I have to deal with the snowflakes in class who are policing my lectures and classroom discourse for microaggressions, but now I have to worry about right-wing informers reporting me to a website? Who needs that?”
Then I had a look at the site. It describes itself as follows:
This website is an aggregated list of pre-existing news stories that were published by a variety of news organizations throughout the past few years. While we accept tips for new additions on our website, we only publish profiles on incidents that have already been reported somewhere else.
TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.
Note that they’re not publishing anonymous allegations, only aggregating things that have been reported elsewhere. The question is, were these things reported by reputable journalistic outlets? Can they be believed? I went to the site’s page for Julio C. Pino, quoted in the Times story. Its description:
Dr. Julio Cesar Pino, an Associate Professor at Kent State University faced investigation by the FBI for connections to ISIS. He is strongly anti-Israel and calls Israel the “spiritual heir to Nazism”. According to Campus Reform, a 2002 eulogy Pino wrote in a campus newspaper praising Palestinian terrorist Ayat al-Akras” gained widespread attention.
Follow the link, and you’ll learn a lot about Pino. Here’s an even better link to a different Campus Reform report about him. Excerpt:
Julio C. Pino, who teaches in the school’s history department, has been the target of other investigations in the past. In 2007, the school launched an ongoing investigation after Pino posted on a Jihadist blog. The investigation allegedly concluded in 2009 after Pino was visited at his home by U.S. Secret Service agents.
Early on in his tenure, Pino wrote a eulogy in a school newspaper praising Palestinian terrorist Ayat al-Akras who murdered two Israelis in a suicide bombing. At the time, a fellow professor interpreted the eulogy as a call to arms and urged the university to fire Pino.
Another professor said he often sees Pino wearing military camouflage around campus but dismisses any suspicions by calling it a “fashion statement.”
Pino came back into the spotlight in 2011 after he interrupted a student event featuring Arab-Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi with shouts of “death to Israel!” Pino stood up in the middle of Khaldi’s presentation and said “your government killed people.” He proceeded to call Khaldi a liar before he stormed out of the room. Then-university President Lester Lefton condemned Pino’s actions as “reprehensible” and an “embarrassment to [the] university.”
A few years after his on-campus outburst, Pino published an open letter to his Israeli academic peers blaming them for the murder of Palestinian children and called the Israeli government the rightful heir to Nazism. “You have chosen to openly work for and brag about academic collaboration with a regime that is the spiritual heir to Nazism,” Pino wrote in his letter. He concluded the letter with calls for a jihad, saying “hasta la victoria siempre” and “jihad until victory!”
Pino told Watchdog.org he stands by every word of his original statement.
On Tuesday, the FBI confirmed its investigation after Special Agent Donna Cambeiro told the Record Courier it is “conducting an ongoing investigation.” She declined to offer any further comment. KSU spokesman Eric Mansfield said “Kent State is fully cooperating with the FBI” and assured faculty and students there is no threat to campus.
Student reporters on campus sat down with Pino for an interview on Tuesday after hearing about his alleged ties to the Islamic State. During the interview, Pino denied involvement with the Islamic State and said he is not aware of any investigation.
“I’ve not broken the law,” he said. “I don’t advocate anyone else break the law, so I’ll stand by that statement that I fulfill my duties as an American citizen by speaking out on issues that some people find controversial, of course, but no, I have not violated any laws that I’m aware of or than anyone has informed me of.”
As part of the FBI investigation, several of Pino’s colleagues and students were questioned. Among them was Emily Mills, editor-in-chief of the Kent Stater student newspaper, who said she was asked about what students think of Pino. He is “really, really open about his views and what he believes,” she said.
The FBI investigation was revealed back in January of this year.
What on earth is wrong with publicizing this information about Pino? These aren’t anonymous allegations; they’re based on the public record, including Pino’s own statements. If I were a Kent State student — or a parent of a Kent State student — I would very much want to know what kind of classroom Pino runs. I see nothing wrong with this website aggregating credible information.
I picked another professor at random. Here’s what the site says about Joseph Schwartz:
Joseph Schwartz, professor of Political Science at Temple University, took over a College Republican discussion with a representative from Pennsylvania Right to Work Defense and Education Foundation. He and some of his students, insulted the speaker and accused him of racism. Schwartz then exclaimed, “Oh come on, f*****g a–. I believe in the religion of foul language.”
If you follow the link, you’ll go to a column about the incident by Todd Starnes, a controversial figure in conservative culture-war opinion journalism. I don’t follow his work, but conservative Evangelical friends of mine who do, and who are generally sympathetic to his point of view, have told me they always double-check allegations he floats before believing them. In this case, Starnes posts an actual video of the confrontation, and Schwartz did exactly what his critics say he did — and there’s proof.
One more, chosen at random:
Dr. Brittney Cooper is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Cooper stated that white racism is to blame for Brexit. She tweeted “White nationalism gone be the death of all of us. #Brexit” and went on to say “The only thing I know that makes white folks vote against their own economic interest is racism. #Brexit.” In another interview to Salon she stated that white people need to start recognizing that they are “the face of the oppressor.” Cooper has also stated that Christian conservatives worship a “white supremacist Jesus.”
Again, follow the link, which simply quotes choice bits from Cooper’s Salon.com essay reacting to the state of Indiana’s passage of a RFRA. Here are excerpts from that essay. Remember, these are Cooper’s own words:
And given our current anti-Black racial climate, there is no reason to trust that these laws won’t be eventually used for acts of racially inflected religious discrimination, perhaps against Black Muslims or Muslims of Arab descent, for instance. Surely this kind of law in this political climate sanctions the exercise of Islamophobia.
As a practicing Christian, I am deeply incensed by these calls for restoration and reclamation in the name of religious freedom. This kind of legislation is largely driven by conservative Christian men and women, who hold political views that are antagonistic to every single group of people who are not white, male, Christian, cisgender, straight and middle-class. Jesus, a brown, working-class, Jew, doesn’t even meet all the qualifications.
This is why I identify with the story of Jesus. And frankly, it is the only story there really is. This white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, gun-toting, Bible-quoting Jesus of the religious right is a god of their own making. I call this god, the god of white supremacy and patriarchy. There is nothing about their god that speaks to me as a Black woman of working-class background living in a country where police routinely murder black men and beat the hell out of black women, where the rich get richer while politicians find ever more reasons to extract from the poor, and where the lives the church imagines for women still center around marriage and motherhood, and no sex if you’re single.
This God isn’t the God that I serve. There is nothing holy, loving, righteous, inclusive, liberatory or theologically sound about him. He might be “biblical” but he’s also an asshole.
The Jesus I know, love, talk about and choose to retain was a radical, freedom-loving, justice-seeking, potentially queer (because he was either asexual or a priest married to a prostitute), feminist healer, unimpressed by scripture-quoters and religious law-keepers, seduced neither by power nor evil.
That’s the story I choose to reflect on this Holy Week.
Clearly, Brittney Cooper is a crackpot. Nobody made this stuff up about her. She wrote it herself! And yes, it is relevant to Rutgers students, parents of Rutgers students, and Rutgers alumni.
Professor Watchlist clearly needs to be edited more professionally. For example, it ought to link to original sources when possible, not to other aggregators. But based on the entries I looked at, the problem left-wing critics have with the site is not that it makes things up, but that it holds left-wing professors publicly accountable for their words and deeds.
Today on TAC’s site, I wrote about a creative writing professor at Sweet Briar College who decided to toss her lesson plan on the day after the presidential election and harangue her students into admitting that they voted for Donald Trump, and, having received this admission from some of them, proceeded to berate them for their thoughtcrime. I don’t know this because a classroom spy made spurious allegations. I know this because the professor wrote about it herself in a sympathetic magazine, praising her own “honesty,” and calling on other professors to do the same thing during the Trump administration.
Again: parents, students, and alumni of Sweet Briar College should know that this is what passes for pedagogy in Prof. Nell Boeschenstein’s classroom. If Professor Watchlist puts her on its site, I hope its editors won’t only link to my blog entry about her, but to Boeschenstein’s own article in Guernica magazine. It makes the claims more credible.
Of course you knew this was coming:
In what sense is it “McCarthyism” to draw attention to the professors’ own words and deeds? For people like this, a “McCarthyite” is someone who simply notices what left-wing professors say and do, and says, “Hey, look at this.”
The fact that Professor Watchlist exists, and that there is an actual need for it, is evidence of a profound institutional failure, and a failure of trust. Prof. Stanley Fish, who is nobody’s idea of a conservative, writing critically about Nell Boeschenstein’s nonsense at Sweet Briar, said:
Boeschenstein knows that her performance that day goes against the “general rule of thumb for us teachers… not to say what is right or what is wrong, but to teach our students to think critically.” But she invokes the “these-are-not-ordinary-times” rationale and regrets only that she hadn’t set aside “test preparation and dates to memorize and topic sentences to hone” earlier: “Had I been brave enough to start this conversation in September, I wonder whether some of my Trump-supporting students might have chosen otherwise at the ballot box on Tuesday.” That is to say, had I engaged in political indoctrination from the beginning of the semester instead of merely doing my job, my students might have done the right thing on November 8. The rest of us, however, can learn from her failure to act in time and take up the real work ― of saving the world from Donald Trump — right away: “Don’t defer the conversation any longer. If we do, more bucks will be bound for our desks that we cannot afford to watch pile up”.
And people wonder why so many take a dim view of what goes on in our college classrooms.
I am made queasy by a site like Professor Watchlist, but when academia has lost the ability to police itself, allowing ideological fervor to abrogate a basic commitment to professional standards, then it should not be surprised when the public it serves is no longer willing to trust it. Nell Boeschenstein ought to be professionally reprimanded for her behavior in the classroom that day. If the academy were working as it ought to, she wouldn’t have felt free to abandon her post that day and spend it picking on her students. And she would have been ashamed of having done so, instead of being so proud of it that she wrote in praise of herself in a magazine.
Again: if there are instances of such gross failure on the part of individual academics to abide by basic standards, and a failure of the culture of academia to form the minds of professors in these standards, then they have no right to be surprised when people lose trust in their authority. In my education, the four best professors I ever had were men of the political left. I knew that. But they were not crusaders, or ideologues; they were teachers of moral and intellectual integrity, who challenged us students to think, and taught us how to do so.
I remember how shocked I was as a fired-up campus leftist in my first semester of college, and in a rhetorical composition class, turning in a paper filled with praise for the Sandinistas. I liked the professor a lot, and knew that he was a left-wing activist. Man, he gave me a low grade for that paper, and let me have it, saying it was nothing but cant and groundless appeals to emotion. I was blown away! I knew that he probably agreed with my conclusions, but he analyzed my paper as a piece of rhetoric, and tore me to bits. It was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned as a young writer. He retired a long time ago. I looked him up online, and sure enough, he’s now living in a part of America so blue that it’s indigo, and is engaged in full-time left-wing activism. It probably would not please him to know that he had had so much influence on the development of a conservative writer, but I hope that he would be proud of what he taught me about intellectual integrity. I would trust my own kids to a college full of professors like that, because a teacher like that is trustworthy.
These other ones? Not so much.
Think of Professor Watchlist as a version of BishopAccountability.org. That website — that invaluable website — arose as a collaborative project by Catholic laymen and laywomen who had lost trust in the Catholic hierarchy’s ability to police its own ranks, and even to tell the truth about what was going on inside the priesthood. BishopAccountability.org has a tremendous database, culled from media and court records, detailing accusations of clerical sex abuse and episcopal cover-ups and mismanagement of the crisis. It is not a site devoted to the theological wars within American Catholicism. It only exists as a resource for people who want to know what information is publicly available about particular priests and bishops.
That BishopAccountability.org has to exist at all is a disgrace. But the disgrace does not belong to BishopAccountability.org.
I know, I know, clerical sex crimes and their coverup is not on the same moral or legal plane as fatmouthing left-wing professors. The point is that both websites are grassroots responses to a serious problem within bedrock institutions of civil society, problems that compromise the ability of those institutions to perform their necessary function. Professors who end up on Professor Watchlist may — may — by their public words and actions have forfeited the expectation of trust by students, their parents, and the wider community. You want to take a class from Prof. Brittney Cooper at Rutgers, or is your kid signed up for one of her classes? You may not be a reader of Salon.com, but thanks to Professor Watchlist and other campus watchdog sites, you have direct evidence that she’s a racist crackpot. Let the buyer beware.
Finally, you might remember last year the online clash I had with Katie Grimes, a young Catholic theologian at Villanova who, on the basis of her own published work, despises the Catholic Church as a spiritual charnel house of homophobia and white supremacy. You think I’m kidding? Read here. Note that left-wing Catholic critics blasted me not for telling lies about Katie Grimes, but about drawing negative attention to her actual written work. This, even though Villanova University trusts her to teach Catholic theology to its students.
It’s fraud, straight up. And it’s about time those perpetuating the frauds got called on it. This stuff matters, too. As one of my readers said last year:
I watched in horror at what a top-flight humanities grad program did to my sister. She went in a lively, driven, extreme talent with original thoughts. I was so excited that she got into the program. Now she just sees Dead White Zombies on every street corner, feels compelled to deconstruct the oppressive subtexts of hardware stores and ice cream, and is ONLY friends with people who consider themselves revolutionary academics because they use the c-word on Tumblr as a performative rebellion against whatever social poltergeist that they proxy for their daddy-rage. Not to mention the only job she can find is bagging groceries, is more depressed than I’ve ever known her, and “can’t” bring herself to talk to her priest, because her little tribe has turned her against him.
So Katie Grimes isn’t the problem, she’s the product of the problem.
It’s not that these professors are ashamed of what they’re doing. It’s that they don’t want the common people to know about it. It’s easier to read Professor Watchlist and shout “McCarthyism!” than it is to defend the garbage it documents. But shouting “McCarthyite!” works about as well as shouting “Racist! Homophobe! Islamophobe!” Those epithets have lost their meaning, because they aren’t intended to describe, but to silence dissent and legitimate inquiry.
Professor Watchlist isn’t the problem. It’s the product of the problem. Put another way, I’m glad the site is there, but the existence of Professor Watchlist is a testimony to a profound breakdown of trust within American society. That is the main story. How we repair that, I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. Got any ideas? Let’s hear them. I’m talking about real ideas, not the frantic suggestion that if we just call the Professor Watchlist people enough names, the serious problem they document will cease to be a problem at all.
UPDATE: Wise words from the editors of Heterodox Academy (thanks, reader, for tipping me off):
Turning Point USA has a constitutionally protected right to publicize and criticize the words and actions of professors that it finds offensive. But we think that this project will only exacerbate a problem we are trying to address at Heterodox Academy: professors and students are increasingly afraid of voicing and debating opinions in the classroom. For this reason, we–the executive committee of Heterodox Academy–believe that Professor Watchlist is pernicious and misguided. We expect it to have the same speech-chilling effects as do many of the “Bias Response Teams” that are being implemented nationwide, which encourage students to report professors and fellow students for anything—including sincerely expressed opinions—that they interpret or misinterpret as offensive.
We call on everyone who is concerned about the state of higher education to stop devising ways that members of an academic community can report or punish each other for classroom speech.
Whether the reporting is done to a campus authority, setting in motion weeks of time-draining bureaucratic procedure that is often far removed from common sense, or whether the reporting is done to the Internet at large, triggering public shaming campaigns and a cascade of threatening tweets and emails, such reporting systems encourage everyone to walk on eggshells. This kind of fearful climate deprives everyone of the vigorous debate and disagreement that is essential for learning and scholarship.
Serious question: I don’t want to know if my kid’s professor is a leftie. Who cares? I do want to know if my kid’s professor has been known to behave in ways that grossly betray academic standards. Again, this is what happens when you have a severe breakdown of trust in authority.
UPDATE.2: A good comment from a reader:
I had one of the professors on the list, Mark Tushnet. He is so honored because he wrote, in a pre-election blog post, that the winners of the culture wars should take a hard line with the losers. This has been reduced, as is the way of the internets, to saying that Christians should be treated like Nazis.
While his personal politics was hardly a campus secret, and he was relatively open about his own jurisprudential philosophy, in my two classes with him he taught the material. He engaged students on the merits. He challenged our thinking on all sides of the issues. Never did he berate anyone for expressing an ideological disagreement.
If the point of Professor Watchlist is to avoid professors of the Nell Boeschenstein variety, that’s understandable. That’s not why anyone goes to college. But Mark Tushnet? Nothing in my experience qualifies him for such a list, unless the whole point is to avoid/call out people whose views–rather than behavior–its creators disagree with.
Jon Haidt said in a comment that people should lay off professors for what they say outside of class. Generally, I agree, but Nell Boeschenstein acted unprofessionally and ideologically in class, then wrote a piece about it, praising her own righteousness and encouraging other professors to do the same. How should we regard that?