Campus Reform regularly publishes articles rehashing professors’ tweets and comments, presenting them as evidence of what it considers liberal bias on college campuses. Schalk has an active Twitter feed
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Campus Reform regularly publishes articles rehashing professors’ tweets and comments, presenting them as evidence of what it considers liberal bias on college campuses. Schalk has an active Twitter feed and is a frequent target.
“I am aware of being heavily monitored,” she said.
Schalk knows that after an article about her is published, she’ll hear from Campus Reform readers. If a more prominent site, like Breitbart or Fox News, picks up the story, she’ll be inundated with emails, messages on Twitter, and calls to her department and administrators.
The messages are vile. People label her with racist and sexist slurs. They compare her to animals and try to shame her for how she looks. Schalk has some filters set up to block certain emails. She asks a friend to scan the other emails in case they contain a threat to her safety.
“I don’t want to censor myself, so I’m not going to,” said Schalk. “I have to accept that this is what comes with it.”
Just a few years ago, professors didn’t have a protocol for dealing with
Campus Reform. It sent the scholars it targeted into retreat and administrators scrambling to respond. The site is now about 10 years old, and much of higher education is learning to live with it. Professors like Schalk have fortified themselves against the hate mail — and found allies elsewhere in academe.
It’s usually not about the things that I say. It’s who says it.
Appearing in a Campus Reform article takes a toll. One scholar who has researched the news site has found that professors of color are disproportionately represented in its articles — and they often suffer the ugliest consequences.
Campus Reform’s breakthrough coincided with the dawn of the Trump era, a time when officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government began echoing the outlet’s central message: that radical, liberal professors are indoctrinating students, and many college administrators are cheering them on. Though President Trump has lost re-election, his enduring appeal signals that Trumpism — and its disdain for intellectuals — is here to stay. So is Campus Reform, an ever-present expression of that disdain in higher education.
Campus Reform’s managing editor did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Schalk also puts a message on her Facebook page to let her friends know that it’s happening again. Friends send her flowers or bring her food. She warns her department, because its administrative assistant gets calls too.
Each ordeal is “just a total waste of time,” Schalk said. “It just exhausts you.”
Sirry Alang’s first experience with Campus Reform was in 2017, when she co-taught a summer class for high-school students called “Black Lives Matter Less.” The Campus Reform article accused Alang, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University, of teaching students that “‘the racial hierarchy’ and ‘white supremacy’ impact the health of African Americans.”
Yes, Alang thought, and what’s wrong with that?
This year she appeared on the site again after she made comments about Breonna Taylor. Alang said that, each time, she received a few nasty emails.
But then, what had once been a slightly disturbing annoyance turned truly scary. During the vice-presidential debate, in October, she tweeted: “The devil, satan, lucifer, the serpent that deceived Eve, the father of all liars, should be taking lying lessons from Mike Pence.”
A joke, she thought.
Campus Reform featured her tweet alongside those of several other professors, including Schalk, from during the debate. Then Fox News picked it up.
Around 5 p.m. that Friday, she got an onslaught of emails, Twitter and Facebook messages, voicemails, and comments on her personal website. They called her the c-word, the N-word, told her they’d burn down her house, referenced hunting season, and said they hoped she got cancer.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Alang said, “and I’m used to these kinds of attacks.”
Alyssa Johnson, an assistant professor of biology at Louisiana State University, had never heard of Campus Reform before she was contacted by a reporter there. One of her tweets appeared in a story on the site in June after a video circulated of an incoming LSU student shouting a racial slur. Amid calls for action, the university posted a statement condemning hate and bigotry, but added that it is “subject to constitutional limitation on our ability to take action in response to free speech.”
Johnson wrote on Twitter that if LSU wouldn’t take action, professors could. She said she would drop from her courses students who were known to perpetuate hate speech. She meant it as a message to students, Johnson said, so they would know that “there was someone in their corner at LSU.” She later deleted the tweet, but a screenshot posted by Campus Reform was also included in stories on Breitbart and Fox.
With each new story, Johnson’s inbox filled up again. She was called a “stupid cow,” an “arrogant slut,” “dirty and disgusting,” and a “zipperhead,” a slur against people of Asian descent.
“That’s when I and my family got scared,” she said. “We left town for a week.”
At first, Johnson blamed herself for putting her family in danger. The messages made her feel like she’d done something reckless and irresponsible. “I did read most of them because I wanted to know if there was an actual threat, if someone had my address.”
Johnson also received an email unlike all the rest. It was from Isaac Kamola, an assistant professor of political science at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn. He explained that he noticed she’d appeared in a Campus Reform story and that she could expect to receive an onslaught of emails — an experience that could be isolating and scary. He also said that he’d been studying the site and gave his analysis.
“While Campus Reform portrays itself as a news outlet, its primary goal is to provoke outrage, and seed online and partisan attacks against faculty,” he wrote. “Their choice of topics, their tone of moralizing outrage, and their slanted and often blatant misrepresentation of materials is designed to stoke outrage at ‘liberal’ professors, with the political intent of creating a viral sensation that circulates through a highly partisan right-wing media ecosystem, and into the broader public discussion.”
It’s a generic email, a version of which Kamola has sent to just about every professor he has seen appear in Campus Reform stories since January. Johnson said it did make her feel less alone. She agreed to talk to other professors who were going through the same thing to help them understand it.
Kamola had heard a lot about Campus Reform in 2017, after Trump’s election, when people like Johnny Eric Williams, his colleague at Trinity, appeared in an article that led to such serious death threats that the college closed the campus temporarily. Last year, one of Kamola’s friends from graduate school appeared in an article and received serious enough threats that security escorted her to and from her campus for a time.
“I was so mad that I had taken my eye off this ball,” Kamola said. He started researching the site and is writing a book for Pluto Press, set to publish in October 2021, about how Campus Reform “fits into the Koch-funded infrastructure.”
Campus Reform is operated by the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to prepare conservative students for jobs in politics, government, and the media. On its 2018 tax form, the Leadership Institute called Campus Reform a “watchdog to the nation’s higher-education system, exposing bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.” Professional and student journalists and student activists “report on the conduct and misconduct of university administrators, faculty, and students.” Some of the nonprofit’s donors include the Charles Koch Institute and the Bradley Impact Fund, which supports “fidelity to the Constitution” and free markets, according to its website. The Leadership Institute’s total expenses for that year were $19.3 million, $1.45 million of which went toward Campus Reform, the tax form said, an increase over the previous two years.
Morton Blackwell, founder and president of the Leadership Institute, declined a request for an interview.
Kamola also started tracking the professors who appeared in Campus Reform articles. He hired research assistants, who look at the website every day and contact the professors mentioned. They call themselves the Faculty First Responders.
These stories are not breaking through in the national news way they were in 2017.
Along with the generic email, they now also send faculty members advice on how to respond to the story, what to tell their administrators, and guidelines for what they think administrators should say publicly.
The Faculty First Responders send what they consider good examples of supportive responses from college presidents, like one from Kent Syverud, chancellor of Syracuse University, after a professor encouraged students to join a counterprotest to a “March Against Shariah” rally. Syverud defended the professor’s freedom of speech.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College, said that some college presidents and boards of trustees now understand the site a little better.
“If you had asked the majority of college and university presidents about Campus Reform in 2016 or 2017, the majority, my guess, would not have known very much what you were talking about,” she said.
“These stories are not breaking through in the national news way they were in 2017,” Kamola said. “But it is having an effect on a number of faculty members.”
L.D. Burnett, a history professor at Collin College, in Texas, and a Chronicle contributor, was also included in the Campus Reform article about the vice-presidential debate. She tweeted that “the moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” Collin College posted a statement saying it was aware of “the hateful, vile, and ill-considered Twitter posts by one of its faculty members” and called the comment “a setback to the hard work and dedication of our campus community.”
“My college president’s response wasn’t just a betrayal of my colleges’ responsibility to stand by its faculty on issues of free speech, but it put me in danger,” Burnett said. “Real danger. What the college response did was endorse the anger of all the people who decided I was vile and hateful.”
Burnett studies the culture wars and intellectual history. She decided to put up a fight. She posted emails she received from a Campus Reform reporter on Twitter. She wrote publicly about her administration’s response in The Chronicle Review. The organization FIRE, a free-speech group, has sent letters to Collin College on her behalf.
Burnett sees Campus Reform as part of a backlash that started in the 1970s when women and people of color made gains in the work force. It was at that time, she said, that conservative groups, like the Leadership Institute, founded in 1979, sprang up to limit the advances of a quickly diversifying academe.
“Campus Reform’s aim is not and cannot be to devalue a Stanford degree or topple Harvard University from its pedestal at the top of higher education,” Burnett said. Their agenda, she argued, is to “use ginned up outrage” to make people less willing to support public higher education with tax dollars.
And Burnett thinks it’s working. She got a phone call from someone who identified themselves as a Collin County taxpayer who was angry at the idea that his tax money might be going to her salary.
Alang, the Lehigh professor, felt similarly. “Their whole idea is to discredit higher education,” she said. “It’s discrediting women and especially people of color in higher education.”
Rarely do the people writing to her engage with her ideas. It’s her as a person — a Black woman, who is an immigrant — that they seem to have a problem with.
“It’s usually not about the things that I say,” she said. “It’s who says it.”
Stefan M. Bradley, a professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University, connected the phenomenon to the opposition to Communism in the late 1960s. The activist and philosopher Angela Davis, for example, was fired from her position at the University of California at Los Angeles because she was a member of the Communist Party.
“Much of it was couched in the rhetoric of the state not tolerating anti-American rhetoric, and the state insuring that Communism doesn’t infest the educational system,” Bradley said. When scholars questioned the racial politics of the time “somehow that got translated into being anti-American.”
Schalk, the Wisconsin professor, said she had come to understand why the people writing to her were so mad. “We are teaching children things that maybe they don’t want their children to know,” she said.
Schalk is somewhat resigned to the idea that Campus Reform isn’t going anywhere.
But neither is she.
Dan Bauman contributed to this article.