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“Watchlists” for Professors a Precursor to “Watchlists” for Teachers?

December 1, 2016

The news has been full of reports of a “Professor Watchlist” assembled by a conservative group called Turning Point USA. Described in Common Dreams blogpost by Deirdre Fulton as “…a round-up of academics accused of “discriminat[ing] against conservative students and advanc[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom,” the list was assembled by Turning Point USA based on “pre-existing news stories,” though the organization encouraged its readers to “submit a tip” if they become aware of “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”

To understand what Turning Point USA views as a “radical agenda”, it is helpful to see what they view as the kind of lessons they value. Their mission statement is a good place to look:

(The) right-wing non-profit Turning Point USA (TPUSA)… stated mission “is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.”

By that standard anyone teaching economics courses that suggest deficit spending is necessary, that government regulation is necessary, and that some aspects of the government shouldn’t be privatized would qualify as a “radical”. Basically, anyone who questions the virtues of deregulated free market capitalism would be deemed “radical”.

Ms. Fulton’s post includes a quote from Robert Jensen, a University of Texas Journalism Professor who is among the 200 professors included on the initial list, that describes why this kind of watch listing is particularly threatening now:

It would be easier to dismiss this rather silly project if the United States had not just elected a president who shouts over attempts at rational discourse and reactionary majorities in both houses of Congress. I’m a tenured full professor (and white, male, and a U.S. citizen by birth) and am not worried. But, even though the group behind the watchlist has no formal power over me or my university, the attempt at bullying professors—no matter how weakly supported—may well inhibit professors without my security and privilege.

If we define “radicalism” using the framework of TPUSA and these watch lists expand as “tips” are submitted by TPUSA adherents, I can imagine school boards across the country embracing similar watch lists devised by groups who develop their own definitions based on teachers who promote evolution, who advocate desegregation, and who advocate taxes on the 1% to raise funds to strengthen the safety net. And as vouchers for private schools and non-union privatized schools increase under the watchful eyes of the nominee for Secretary of Education more and more classroom teachers will be inhibited in their ability to assign books that question “…the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” There is a toxic mix of policy change that is about to occur and those of us who are prepared to question it may find ourselves on watch lists. It is imperative that we take a stand to make certain that our grandchildren are able to explore a wide range of ideas and draw their own conclusions about how our economic system should work.

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