Faculty

What It’s Like to Be Named to a Watch List of ‘Anti-American’ Professors

November 23, 2016

Eric Gay, AP Photo
Joan Neuberger, a historian at the U. of Texas at Austin, was put on Professor Watchlist because of her activism against the state’s new campus-carry gun law. "The people who put this list together are not only challenging free speech," she says, but also "have no idea what goes on in the classroom."
Attending a demonstration in Ferguson, Mo. Advocating against campus-carry gun laws. Writing about gun violence as a public-health issue.

Those are the types of actions that landed about 200 professors on a watch list started on Monday by Turning Point USA, a nonprofit group that aims to "to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government."

The group’s website, meanwhile, intends "to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom."

The watch list isn’t a new idea. The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, a book by the conservative gadfly David Horowitz, did something similar in 2006.

Matt Lamb manages the website for Turning Point USA. Comparing the list to sites such as the Campus Pride Index, which bills itself as a "national listing of LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities," he said it’s just one of many resources students have for evaluating colleges.

"We are going to make it easier for students to know what’s going on," he said. Mr. Lamb, who said the project wasn’t intended to affect free speech, would like colleges to return to being open marketplaces of ideas.

But to many professors, the idea of a watch list seemed newly chilling in a political climate in which some scholars have been the targets of racist and anti-Semitic abuse. Whether the list ends up having a chilling effect on speech depends on how seriously people take it, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that views itself as a defender of campus free speech.

Professors on the list reacted with a mix of disbelief, confusion, and pride; one scholar even took to social media to wonder why he wasn’t named. Some scholars used the Twitter hashtag #trollprofwatchlist to mock the whole enterprise, submitting false tips about Indiana Jones and Professor Xavier, from the X-Men comic-book series, among others.

So how does it feel to be in the cross hairs of Professor Watchlist? "It would’ve been humorous a few months ago," said Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology at Boise State University, in Idaho. "It’s not funny now."

“It would've been humorous a few months ago. It's not funny now.”
To Mr. Hampikian, the list represents a strain of illiberal thinking that’s currently accumulating power. He was named to the list, which he called "absurd," for writing a satirical op-ed about his state’s campus-carry law for The New York Times in which he asked state lawmakers when he could shoot his students.

"They are putting normal people on the list," he said. "That’s what’s frightening. That should wake people up."

Freedom of Expression

Joan Neuberger, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, advocated against the campus-carry law that went into effect in Texas this year. The watch list’s write-up on her says she pushed to ban guns from classrooms, in violation of state law. Ms. Neuberger started her advocacy before the law took effect.

"A website that seeks so openly to discredit me by suggesting (incorrectly) that I broke the law and (nonsensically) that I have no credibility as an experienced classroom professor can only exist to chill my right to free speech," she wrote in an email.

Ms. Neuberger specializes in Russian history. She found her appearance on the list ironic. In her courses, she delves into the conservative values and interests that promoted patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and authoritarianism in Russia.

“A website that seeks so openly to discredit me by suggesting (incorrectly) that I broke the law and (nonsensically) that I have no credibility as an experienced classroom professor can only exist to chill my right to free speech.”
"The people who put this list together are not only challenging free speech," she wrote, but also "have no idea what goes on in the classroom."

Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, called the list unusual, but he’s not sure what difference it will make. After all, a quick Google search brings up his writings on gun violence, which he considers an important public-health issue.

Mr. Galea ended up on the list for writing in The Boston Globe that "guns facilitate hate" after a mass murder this year at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Fla. He sees working to curb gun violence as part of his responsibility as dean.

"For those of us who have the privilege from operating within the academic sphere to engage our energies, our thinking, and our actions on working to create a better society, I would consider that very pro-American," he said. "My every interest is in creating a better country for myself and for my children."

But while Mr. Galea questions whether the list is in any way productive, he supports the freedom of expression it represents. "I would encourage anyone who disagrees with anything I’ve written to write counter to it and rebut it in a public space," he said.

By Wednesday morning, Mr. Galea was no longer on the list. Professors who refute the website’s claims by submitting contrary information can be taken off the list, but Mr. Lamb said he wasn’t sure why the professor had been removed.

A Tool of Intimidation

What concerns Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor of communications at Clemson University, is that people might take the list at its word instead of conducting additional research about the professors it names.

Most of the listings are sourced from conservative outlets such as Campus Reform and Discover the Networks, and readers have discovered errors in entries, including a description of Melissa Click that suggests the professor still works at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Mr. Kumanyika is especially concerned about readers who take the list as gospel, he said, because of the current political environment, in which people struggle to agree on basic facts.

“It's indicative of a particular way of understanding that we probably should be a little bit worried about.”
"You almost don’t want to entertain it seriously, but I think it’s indicative of a particular way of understanding that we probably should be a little bit worried about," he said, noting that historically such watch lists are used to intimidate people.

Mr. Kumanyika appeared on the list for attending protests in Ferguson, Mo., and supporting demands by Clemson students protesting the campus’s racial climate. "Well, I’m proud that I went to Ferguson, both as a citizen who was exercising my right to engage in protest and as a communications professor who has published work about Ferguson," he said.

Since the website went live, professors have posted on social media to stand in solidarity with those on the list and to report their own politically motivated work to the site. Mr. Kumanyika said that solidarity was encouraging. "Ultimately," he said, "we are going to need a lot of that as we go forward."

Update (11/23/2016, 12:55 p.m.): This article has been updated with comment from Turning Point USA and word that Professor Galea had been removed from the list.

says she advocated for banning guns from the classroom,  in violation of state law. Ms. Neuberger’s petition was started  before the law went into effect.