Turning Point USA Threatens Academic Freedom

Last fall, Turning Point USA released a new initiative called “Professor Watch List”. TPUSA states that the goal of the website is to provide information about “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls”. They claim that they continue to fight for free speech, but professors across the country countered that notion following the release of the Professor Watch List. TPUSA has faced harsh criticism from the academic community in response, citing fears of eroding academic freedom. The highly polarized political climate has incited concerns about the public’s ability to have reasonable disagreements and discussion.

The website launched in the wake of a series of campus protests at Missouri, Georgetown, Cornell, Texas, Virginia, Oberlin, DePaul, and University of Chicago. Before the election, Black Lives Matter chapters held protests in reaction to local events and in solidarity of those taking place elsewhere. At most stops while speaking on “The Dangerous Faggot Tour”, protests greeted the right-wing ideologue, Milo Yiannopoluos, who speaks at Turning Point USA events. In May 2015, a contentious encounter at DePaul University sparked a debate on the proper role of academic institutions in the context of free and open debate. University of Chicago published a letter in August 2016 condemning safe spaces and trigger words, because it limits potential discussion. Many academics, especially those concerned with sexual assault and other traumatic events, replied in outrage citing the well being of their students as their chief concern. In return for the outcries and protests from liberal students and faculty, the National Review, Tomi Lahren, and other conservatives have called the protesters ‘soft’, and ‘snowflakes’.

This environment led directly into Turning Point USA’s launching of the “Professor Watch List”. Instead of advocating for open discussion, TPUSA sought to use the website as an intimidation tactic against outspoken faculty members. Many professors of differing political persuasions took to Twitter to voice their outrage. Navy War College and Harvard Extension professor, Tom Nichols tweeted, “Every American scholar should demand to be on the #ProfessorWatchList. As a life-long conservative, I can’t imagine anything more Soviet.” Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet says that the Washington Times misinterpreted his academic writing, landing him on the list. Academia raises concern with the Professor Watch List because it limits academic freedom, and the ability to communicate with the public and students through effective mediums.

TPUSA does not have the power to directly silence faculty members, but does create pressure on universities along with deterring faculty. Steven Salaita cites outside pressure as the cause for the withdrawal of a professorship offer from the University of Illinois in 2014 after he posted tweets about the Israel/Gaza conflict. Salaita spoke at Illinois State University on October 10, 2016, and told the crowd “Academia is controversy averse, and tends to have a long memory of controversy.” Salaita is an outspoken critic of higher education in the United States, as he sees an erosion of academic freedom. He said that academic freedom gives highly educated people the ability to pursue controversial subjects without fear of losing their job. Tenure positions exist for this reason. The irony of TPUSA’s program is the direct contradiction it makes with their critiques of campus protesters. It shows a disdain for viewpoints to the other extreme of their own. Instead of protesting the comments of college dropouts, like Milo Yiannopoulos, TPUSA condemns some of the most informed and learned individuals in the country.

In response to Turning Point USA, academics reported “suspicious” behavior. Some professors reported themselves, while others reported well-known icons such as Indiana Jones, Professors Gilderoy Lockhart and Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series, Doc Brown from Back to the Future, author James Joyce, musician Rick Astley, and Jesus Christ. Though the snarky and humorous posts with the hashtag #TrollProfWatchList show that the academic community does not consider TPUSA to be legitimate, their presence grows stronger on campuses across the country, including Illinois State University. Their signs with slogans like “Big Government Sucks” appear on every floor of Schroeder Hall, and generated enthusiasm from a segment of the young conservative movement. At this time, there are no Illinois State University faculty members on the Professor Watch List.

President Barack Obama expressed concern about the growing polarization on and off campuses in the United States. At a town hall style meeting in September 2015 he said, “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because, you know, my—I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.” In his farewell address, he returned to this topic in the context of not only college campuses, but American culture. One of the gravest threats to our democracy is that “we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions.” What Obama advocates for is a moderate political environment, where the Yiannopouloses, the Salaitas, the protesters, and administrators find a balance. All have a right to voice their concerns, and have their comments be the subject of critical inquiry. Upon a flaw in logic or fact, comments deserve scrutiny, without the scrutiny amounting to intimidation. Because, in the words of Vice President Mike Pence, after the cast of Hamilton publicly delivered a message of hope and concern directed at him at the end of their performance on November 18, “That’s what freedom sounds like.”

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