As colleges grapple with free expression, one organization has begun compiling a controversial watchlist of professors it considers a threat to free speech. Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that promotes conservative values among college and high school students, recently named Matthew Guterl, professor of Africana studies and American studies, to its website “Professor Watchlist.” The website launched Nov. 21 with the aim to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the website. Professor Watchlist profiles feature a photograph of the professor and a description of any “liberal” articles that the professor has written.
The Professor Watchlist cites Guterl’s response to a letter University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent to the university’s class of 2020 stating that the college does not encourage the creation of safe spaces. In his essay, Guterl asserts the need for safe spaces as a place to initiate productive debate on college campuses.
According to the website, Guterl described the University of Chicago’s opposition of safe spaces as a “cold, Darwinian approach.”
“It is not our job to make intellectual noise — a raucous debate, a clashing set of ideas, a hurtful back-and-forth — just because we can,” he wrote in his essay.
The compilation of the watchlist began in the summer of 2016 at the urging of “student activists … parents of our students, donors and other supporters” who called for a “central location where we could see all this information,” said Matt Lamb, manager of the list and regional field director for Turning Point USA. The watchlist’s creation is unrelated to the 2016 presidential election, Lamb added.
The list is meant to serve as a tool in the college selection process, he said. Lamb added that the watchlist offers “information on what resources a college provides” to conservative students, similar to sites that indicate a college’s suitability for first-generation or LGBTQ students. The list does not aim to discourage enrollment at certain colleges, but rather said that it strives to prepare students “to be ready for some kind of fierce resistance” to their views.
The watchlist “represents an increasingly public assault on intelligent thought,” Guterl wrote in an email to The Herald, adding that it is made by people “who want to scare faculty into submission” and is also “a very real challenge to those who value constructive engagement with real social and political problems.”
But the list does not include enough overarching information about a school to aid in the college decision process, said Ross Cheit, professor of international and public affairs and political science. “This is one thing that one person at Brown wrote — that doesn’t help you decide anything about Brown University.”
Lamb said the watchlist names professors who seem inclined to not only disagree with but also delegitimize certain political views in the classroom.
“All of the entries have to have documented news sources behind them,” he said. “It can’t just be heresay,” Lamb said. The entries must not only provide evidence of a liberal viewpoint, Lamb added. “What they’re saying would have to shut down debate in a classroom.”
But Cheit argues that Guterl’s entry “was based on a single article,” he said.
“It’s hard to believe they read that article carefully,” Cheit said. Guterl’s article “is sensible, well-argued,” he said, adding “it’s not a polemic ... it just happened to be something about safe spaces.”
Gary Gutting, a recently retired professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, was included in the watchlist because of an op-ed on gun laws that he wrote for the New York Times.
In most cases, the “evidence” for including individuals on the watchlist relies on views expressed in public media, not the classroom, Gutting wrote in an email to The Herald.
“The (creators’) assumption — totally unjustified — was that those who hold political views will use their classes to impose their views on students,” he added.
Some professors cited concerns that this type of watchlist, contrary to its goal of promoting free speech, in reality aims to curb free expression in academia.
“Free speech requires that everyone be mindful of others. It demands mutual respect,” Guterl wrote, adding that the watchlist is “inherently angry, fearful and disrespectful.”
While Turning Point USA has the right to publish the list, “I have the right to say that it’s disgraceful, shallow, (not) useful and problematic,” Cheit said.
Over 100 Notre Dame faculty members petitioned to be added to the watchlist after Gutting and another faculty member were named to the list. “I was proud of my colleagues at Notre Dame and honored by their support,” Gutting wrote.
The example of the faculty at the Notre Dame indicates the watchlist does not limit academic freedom, Lamb said.
Once he was named to the list, Guterl began to receive “angry, private hate mail,” he said. “The list is ridiculous until someone actually starts to take it seriously,” he added.
“Given the current political situation, there’s a danger that such silliness can quickly turn sinister,” Gutting said.