This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a move reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism, the conservative youth organizing group Turning Point has launched a new website – Professor Watchlist – whose stated mission is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
The site lists more than 100 professors from across the country based on statements they made in and out of the classroom that oppose conservative ideals. Four local professors made the list. The website contends that it aims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” but argues that students, parents, and alumni should know about the incidents and professors that “advance a radical agenda.” One of the local professors on the list, Sara Goldrick-Rab, said the list is nothing new.
“For decades conservative groups have attacked faculty whose ideas they perceive as threatening,” said Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, in an email. “It’s ironic that they do so in the name of free speech, as they actually seek to restrict my free speech.” An advocate for affordable higher education, she was added to the list because of a 2015 tweet that compared Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler. The Twitter rant criticized Walker’s signing of a bill that eliminated state protections for tenured professors and made devastating budget cuts to public education in the state. At the time she was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, where the school’s budget was reduced by $250 million as a result of the bill. She left the school for Temple in May. “I’ve been on these lists for much of my career,” she said. “And while the stated accusations are false, and have nothing to do with my teaching, it’s clear that I’m a target because I challenge powerful people who don’t want college to be affordable or accessible.” Matt Lamb, director of constitutional enforcement and transparency at Turning Point, took exception to the professor’s response to being on the list.
"We can’t understand the professor questioning our commitment to free speech. TPUSA is all about promoting and supporting the right to free speech. We are exercising it through our website and we are defending it by not suggesting that anyone attempt to limit this professor’s, or any professor’s, own free speech," Lamb wrote in an email.
"The professor might have our organization confused with other campus groups, administrations, and professors, who seek to limit expression through the imposition of “free speech zones” and lists of words/phrases proscribed for use on campuses," he wrote. "Regardless of the source of confusion, we can assure you that TPUSA, non-categorically and without exception, supports all manners of free speech, including the professor’s."
Joseph Schwartz, an award-winning scholar and outspoken Democratic Socialist, teaches political science at Temple University. His name appears on the list because of a 2013 incident that occurred at a campus meeting for Temple’s College Republicans group. He used foul language during a debate with the club’s invited guest and was asked to leave. The incident was recorded on cellphone video and eventually made its way to the Fox News website. Schwartz, who said that he and the College Republicans group patched things up soon after the incident, also questioned Turning Point’s motive for the list. “The [Turning Point] website says it promotes ‘American values of the free market,’” said Schwartz in an email, “and wishes that professors promote these values in the classroom. So conservative ‘free market’ ideology is fine to be professed by professors, but not any other political or moral points of view? So much for the principle of intellectual freedom!” The site also lists the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies, and Regina Austin, law professor. Turning Point was founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012. According to its website, tpusa.com, the organization “works consistently to re-brand free market values.”
“With sound bites like, ‘Big Government Sucks’ and the incorporation of pop culture, TPUSA is able to reach new demographics and continuously expand the base,” reads the website’s About Us page.