U professors put on watchlist for anti-conservative views

Thursday, January 26, 2017 - 6:54pm

Dr. Swathi Yadlapalli at work in the Shafer Lab in the department of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology on Thursday. As a professor of science, Dr. Yadlappali does not face issues surrounding politics in the classroom as other professors do.

Dr. Swathi Yadlapalli at work in the Shafer Lab in the department of Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology on Thursday. As a professor of science, Dr. Yadlappali does not face issues surrounding politics in the classroom as other professors do. Buy this photo
Jeremy Mitnick/Daily

 

LSA junior Enrique Zalamea, the president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans, has a poster up in his room that reads, “Came to college, still not a liberal.” He said it stems from a joke, but the words on the poster mean a great deal to him. After all, it hasn’t been easy to defend his conservative views on campus.

“It's playing off that joke that college makes people more liberal, and when you think about it, it's true,” Zalamea said. “It all boils down to (how) liberalism is taught like a fact as opposed to an opinion.”

Zalamea is not alone in thinking some professors have a tendency to lean toward liberal ideologies. This became apparent in November, when conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA published a list of professors on a website called Professor Watchlist.

The mission of the website, according to its homepage, is to collect the names of university faculty from across the nation who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Anyone can submit a tip of a professor they feel meets this description through a form on the site.

Two of the people on the list of roughly 150 come from the University of Michigan: History Prof. Juan Cole and Communications Prof. Susan Douglas.

Exposing students to all points of view

The idea of Professor Watchlist first came up this past summer. Matt Lamb, Turning Point USA’s director of campus integrity, helped start the list following one of the organization's conferences for high-school and college students.

“We'd been hearing all these stories about professors lashing out at students or professors putting odd things on Twitter,” Lamb said. “We thought: ‘Wouldn't it be great if there was one place we could put all of these stories?’ It would be really great for students to see what's going on at these campuses, or campuses they're considering going to.”

Lamb’s main concern is not that professors have political opinions, but that they aren’t presenting both sides of the issue in the classroom. He wants to use the website to reach out to students and notify them of professors on their campuses who might not be receptive to their views, or even respectful of them.

“We know we're not going to change the professors' minds, but it's more (about) getting our point of view out to students who are still forming their political opinions and might be more willing to listen to us,” Lamb said. “Professors are supposed to encourage debate. If a professor wants to present a liberal point of view, that's absolutely fine, but present it in such a way that encourages debate, not shuts it down.”

“It’s an odd time we’re in right now”

In order to keep the site verifiable, Lamb only posts submissions that come with proof that the professor in question actually wrote, said or did something to attack conservative views. Douglas’s name is accompanied by a link to a commentary about an article she wrote for the political commentary website “In These Times,” in which she stated that she hated Republicans.

“I hate Republicans,” Douglas wrote in the 2014 editorial. “I can’t stand the thought of having to spend the next two years watching Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa or any of the legions of other blowhards denying climate change, thwarting immigration reform or championing fetal ‘personhood.’ ” She then went on to say she misses the days when people of two different political parties could have respectful, impactful discourse.

Douglas said she found out her name was featured on the Watchlist through an email from a colleague. When she first heard the news, she wasn’t quite sure how to feel.

“It's an odd time we're in right now,” Douglas said. “On the one hand, you feel what the intent of this is. Even though the founders of the site said that their intent is not to suppress expression, clearly that's one of the things they're trying to do. And in these times, one has to take those concerns seriously. And on the other hand, I looked at it and was like, ‘I'm not going to take this seriously,’ because these people have never taken a class with me — they've never seen what I'm like in a class.”

What Douglas found most intriguing about the situation was that her article was actually meant to lament the partisan divide the country currently faces. The title she wrote was “We Can’t All Just Get Along,” but it was changed by her editors to “It’s Okay to Hate Republicans” — without her consent — before it was published. The title has since been changed back to Douglas’s original line.

However, Lamb felt the intention of the piece wasn’t as important as its content. And although he’d never sat in on one of Douglas’s classes, he was concerned with how the article might seep into her lessons.

“She said: ‘I hate Republicans.’ Well, okay, you can say that, but if you're teaching a class and you have a Republican in your classroom, what position does that put them in?” Lamb said. “I know she said she didn't like the title, but there's still a line in her editorial … you kind of assume that creeps into the classroom when these things come up.”

Douglas, however, isn’t convinced her outside writing affects the way she teaches. And while she notes it would be impossible to know the political affiliation of every student in her classroom, she does her best to encourage them to look at all points of view.

“There are faculty whose scholarship often informs their teaching, but who can be public intellectuals and write about things that never come up in the classroom,” Douglas said. “I wouldn't bring it up in the classroom because it would never be appropriate … When I teach a class of 300 students, I can't know all of their political views. That just doesn't happen. And I don't care what it is. What I care about is teaching them how to think analytically about the media.”

Juan Cole, who is also on the Watchlist, was targeted for a blog article he wrote in 2015 in response to the Charleston, S.C. church shooting. According to Professor Watchlist, Cole asserted right-wing Jews and a culture of Islamophobia contributed helped inspire the shooter, Dylann Roof. Cole declined to comment for the Daily.

“Faculty have the right and duty to teach controversial subjects”

In the history department, Prof. John Carson, the director of undergraduate studies, is responsible for handling any curriculum issues that might arise. This would include complaints of a professor attacking or even not bringing up the other side of a political debate. Carson said he had not had any curriculum complaints in his two-and-a-half years as director, but the department makes sure students are hearing the analytical argument, not the professor’s opinion.

“If a student found something controversial, we might talk to the professor and make sure things were being presented in a scholarly way that accentuates not passions, but scholarly analysis,” Carson said. “And as long as that’s the case, faculty have the right and duty to teach controversial subjects.”

Carson was upset to see the list online in November. As a friend and colleague of Cole, Carson stood by him when he was added to a similar site, Campus Watch, in 2002, and he decided to submit his own name to the website in a show of solidarity.

He was not alone in this: Professors from all across the country submitted their names to the site in droves, saying if the purpose of the list was to target academic freedom and shame faculty who teach ideas Turning Point rejected, they wanted their names added, too.

When Lamb received the submissions, he wasn’t amused. He deleted the spam submissions, but said it didn’t deter him from working on the site. In fact, he felt the swell of professors turning themselves in only proved the list wasn’t a threat to their freedom at all.

“Professors would send in tips … which I think confirms our point, and dispels the myth that a lot of these teacher organizations are promoting that this is somehow a threat to academic freedom,” Lamb said. “But you wouldn't want to be on a list if you thought this is a threat to academic freedom, so I just take this as an acknowledgement that they're lying, and that this is not a threat.”

Communications Prof. Kristen Harrison, the department’s associate director of undergraduate studies, agreed with Lamb that the list probably isn’t a threat to anyone’s freedom. However, she did see it as a way to scare professors out of sharing certain ideas — albeit a way that is probably futile.

“The Professor Watchlist is an intimidation tactic,” Harrison said. “There’s nothing to watch … professors are usually a pretty benign group, and our most radical actions are written down. And so you go into the library and find a book and say ‘Wow, I disagree with that,’ and that’s pretty much the best way to resist our ideas.”

LSA junior Collin Kelly, the chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, also felt the list isn’t going to accomplish much, and his professors seem to be making every effort to encourage debate and differing viewpoints.

“Every professor I've had has gone out of their way to advocate for both sides, and make sure they weren't taking one side of the story or the other,” Kelly said. “Then again, I don't identify as conservative … But calling (professors) out without trying to create some sort of dialogue seems very shortsighted and kind of inflammatory.”

Zalamea said he’s never had a problem with any professors discouraging his beliefs, and he hasn’t heard of that happening to any of his classmates, either. In fact, he feels he can still make meaningful relationships with professors, even when they don’t share his opinions. He said he wouldn’t use the list to avoid certain professors or classes, though he doesn't necessarily think it’s a bad idea.

“If you're a student who thinks it's so important to take a class where the professor aligns with your political views, it helps,” Zalamea said. “I don't think it necessarily reflects a division, but it reflects being on a liberal campus and wanting to be with people who share your political beliefs.”