Editorial: Professor watchlist avoids academic dialogue

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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Before you sign up for a class, you check the professor’s Rate My Professor and maybe his or her bio on Pitt’s site.

Now, some students might also see if their professors “liberal biases” have landed them on a watchlist.

With the launch of a new website last week, any of your professors who are “caught” attending a rally for liberal causes, going on a Marxist Twitter rant or lecturing about white privilege, could be put on a watchlist.

Turning Point USA, a national nonprofit that aims to promote fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government, launched the website professorwatchlist.org last week as a way for students, mainly those who lean conservative, to learn about their professors’ possible biases.

The site allows users to submit anonymous descriptions of college professors who display a discriminatory bias against conservatives using news stories as sources. According to the site, its mission is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Although the stated goal of the organization is to promote free speech, the site’s efforts to single out professors for their liberal ideology is at odds with enhancing political discourse. Instead of letting conservative students be challenged by viewpoints they don’t agree with, the site allows them the opportunity to avoid ideas and opinions they don’t like. And it targets professors, potentially slandering them without notifying them they’ve been written about.

Recently, conservatives love to criticize college campuses for having safe spaces and trigger warnings because they suppress conservative — and sometimes offensive and harmful -— ideas and speech. But a watchlist is simply another form of suppression. If a student is troubled by an idea or professor’s lesson, they should be able to speak up and confront them openly, rather than make the classroom into the same opinion bubble that social media has become.

As of now, the site has targeted a handful of professors in Pennsylvania — most of whom work at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State — but none at Pitt.  

Ashley Butcher, president of Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, said Sunday that she was not aware of the site until it became public, but will inform those who wish to use it on campus.

Alana Mastrangelo, the regional director for Ohio at Turning Point USA who helped create the initial list of professors, says it’s a tool for students to learn about professors who have shown extreme behavior in their biases.

The professors on the watchlist are added for acts ranging from cursing at a conservative guest speaker on campus, tweeting a political opinion or teaching “critical race theory” in class.

“The definition for discrimination varies. There has to be a news article on them that Turning Point USA then has to approve. The criteria involve anything that censors free speech,” Mastrangelo told The Pitt News Sunday.

In such a politically divisive time, it’s important now more than ever to engage in dialogue and seek to understand each other’s differences. If right-leaning or libertarian students view these professors as radical and refuse to take a class because of it, then it is just as dangerous as the safe spaces they are known to denounce.

Furthermore, it’s not fair for professors — who are pretty free to decide what they say to a class, with certain exceptions — to be unknowingly targeted for supposed biased behavior without notice. Like all of us, they have personal lives and contribute to the community in other ways besides teaching. This watchlist could justify harassment, endanger their safety and their reputations.

Liberal professors aren’t a threat to free speech, just as conservative professors and students aren’t. Any watchlist, whether for liberal or conservative professors, only minimizes open discussion and contributes to the already expanding political polarization on college campuses. We shouldn’t be condoning this.

If you find your professor to be biased in a way that endangers your right to free speech, talk to him or her about it. Don’t hide behind a screen and avoid the discussion.

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