Will This Get Me on The Professor Watchlist?


In the Age of Trump it should perhaps come as no surprise that a Professor Watchlist has emerged. We regularly get hints and sometimes direct statements from Trump and his retinue that enemies, both real and imaginary, will be dealt with. While Trump has pulled back from his unconstitutional plan to “Lock Her Up” and while he has offered fewer implied threats that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan can be put in his place if he crosses the chief executive, there remains the toxic idea that making American great again is dependent on silencing many folks who neither share his diagnosis of the American Dystopia nor approve of his remedies. There is genuine concern that he will use the tremendous powers of the federal government — with its power to discredit, to spy, to tax, to arrest – and his Twitter predilection to bloody his opponents.

Some Monday morning quarterbacks have argued that the Trump victory was a victory for the uneducated, heartland voter. After all, Trump is on record as saying that he loves the uneducated. Thus, the election is a repudiation of the educated, coastal elites and of the meritocratic class, including pointy-headed liberal professors, whose progressive ideologies have ruined the country rather than help the country prosper. In the election of Trump, it’s the gut that has triumphed over the head. It’s a victory for the spontaneous, impulsive, and authentic forces over the thoughtful, fact-based, and phony forces of the misguided liberals. It’s the victory of the straight-talking showman over a woman who would continue the policies of her “professorial” predecessor.

Even some liberals like Thomas Frank (In his book Listen, Liberals which I reviewed in a previous blog) argue that the Democrats have put far too much faith in and paid far too much attention to the winners of the meritocracy. At the expense of the working class, the long-time base of the Democrats, Democratic strategists rested their hopes for power and influence on the creative class, the knowledge workers who filled positions in law, government, medicine, publishing and academic life. While embracing the multi-cultural wing of the Democratic party, these meritocratic winners did little to address the economic challenges facing all middle class families, in part because they were too busy defending their own privileges. A post-election Democratic autopsy should pay attention to critiques such as Frank’s.

There’s no question that university professors are the winners of the meritocratic game. They are most likely bright to begin with, eager to continue their educations through to the Ph.D., and willing to enter a rigorous selection process, often for jobs whose demand far exceeds the supply. And there’s no question that if they have a political ideology at all, it’s a liberal/progressive one. This is a point made very well by Neil Gross in his 2013 book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?

Gross and others offer many reasons why the professorate is liberal. One is that the academy has been receptive to and encouraged predictably liberal females to enter the ranks, especially in the “soft” humanities. Another is that conservatives are not attracted to a profession that pay less well than business jobs and whose group norms they find uncongenial. Conservatives have chosen to wage skirmishes rather than full battles in the groves of academia; they have directed their energies elsewhere, like representation in state governments.

One of the group norms offers another explanation. Professor culture is an argument culture, that is, one puts forth carefully research ideas and submits them to others in the academic discipline for validation. Through the peer review process, the truth theoretically emerges. Thus, out of the universities come wide consensus about climate change, income inequality, the rank ordering of the best Presidents, and the place of Shakespeare in global culture. In an argument culture, one wins through the powers of persuasion rather than through raw power.

This is not to say that in some places professors representing conservative points of view aren’t discriminated against in the hiring process. Nor is it to say that professors never behave badly, using their authority to make students toe some ideological line, spouting back in class and in essays what the professor wants to hear. This coercion is especially irresponsible when the professor’s subject (chemistry, computer science) is apolitical. But these instances are rare; the most egregious examples are cherry-picked by opponents to be representative of all professors. A radical Marxist sociologist at Duke represents an infinitesimally small portion of college teachers across the nation.

And there is some truth to the idea that a college student will not be presented in his classrooms with the full spectrum of opinions about the social value of religious belief or the wisdom of capitalism or the need for some form of reparations for historically discriminated against Americans or the potential success or failure of a Trump administration. The structure of instruction – with its single instructor in front of a class of 50 – prevents this exposure, though many instructors attempt to present multiple point of view or perspectives on issues and controversies.  And the best professors are more interest in the rhetorical skills of the student-writer rather than the conclusion the student-writer has reached.  There is faith that across four years and more than 40 classes the undergraduate will be exposed to a diversity of opinions and habits of thought. The chances are increased when students becomes active agents of their own education and seek out such diversity rather than leaving it to chance.

The Professor Watchlist is the product of a Lemont-based organization Turning Point USA which has as its mission the promotion of the virtues of free-market capitalism, the desirability of small government, and the proselytizing of these ideas on college campuses, where they believe these ideas are in short supply and are mocked by liberal professors. Their aim is to expose this generation of college students to standard conservative orthodoxies and to unleash their entrepreneurial talents.

This Watchlist is not without precedent. There have been throughout the last half century various attempts to caricature and discredit out-of-touch, privileged liberals. This is a point exhaustively made in The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (2016 by Steve Fraser). The Watchlist’s most immediate ancestor seems to be David Horowitz’s One Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at American’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Democracy (2009). Horowitz has been one of conservative’s most active and influential cultural warriors. He regularly spins out indictments of the left, like the notion that Obama has betrayed America. His book about tenured radicals seems to be the north star for the 22 year old Charlie Kirk, the wonder boy who founded TPUSA four years ago.

The Watchlist has been greeted with alarm and amusement. Many professors are legitimately worried that such a list warrants a crazy student to create mayhem in much the same way that the fake news report about a Clinton-led child sex ring operating out of a DC pizza parlor inspired an assault by a man armed with a rifle. The memories of mass murders at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech are still fresh in our minds.

Part of the amusement at such list comes from the inept way in which information is gathered and posted. One professor sneezes and suddenly the campus is an incubator for the ebola virus. While a small number on the list, currently at 200, are true crazies, most are professors who have the audacity to raise issues about systematic racism, the ill-effects of income inequality, and alternative forms of social organization like that of the Scandinavian social democracies and who do so in a non-coercive way. Part of the amusement comes from the observation that this youth-based organization acts like a collection of  zealous apprentices trying to imitate the swagger of elders like Horowitz and talk-show host Sean Hannity.

One source of amusement for me stems from what seems to be an article of faith of TPUSA and its Watchlist division: that colleges are outside of the American grain and are camps of indoctrination. If professors were successful in their indoctrination objectives, how do you explain the fact Trump captured not only a large portion of the vote of those without a college degree but a surprising number of educated white voters? Only 51% of white educated women and 39% of white educated men cast their votes for Clinton. At best the brainwashing professors get “D” grades.

If anything, the appearance of The Watchlist further emboldens professors who suspect that what they do might get them on the list. They become more committed to make their campuses sites of resistance to the ideology and policies of the President-elect. One small indication is that many professors are clamoring to get on the Watchlist just as many citizens hoped to get on Nixon’s enemies list in the early 70s. Better to be on the list than not.

In the wake of a highly divisive election, “political therapists” have called for individuals to reach out to “the other,”  to have conversations with those who don’t share political beliefs. The recently completed  TPUSA Activists Workshop, where one-term radical Republican Joe Walsh (Illinois) and rogue journalist James O’Keefe were featured speakers, gives no indication of a willingness to enter reasoned, respectful conversation, at least not to the faithful who walked around in “Big Government Sucks” and “Taxation is Theft” tee shirts.







About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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