I’ve been reading the descriptions of the faculty on the Professor Watchlist, mostly curious about what percentage are women or people of color (answer: high). Here is a sample criticism of a faculty member: “The letter also calls for building a new multi-cultural center, more support for “underrepresented groups,” increasing the number of minority faculty members, and for Clemson employees to go through diversity training.” An HR training specialist is on the list for teaching people about “microaggressions” in the hiring process (yes, in quotes). Another is on the list for teaching students – correctly – that “colorblindness” is a myth that actually exacerbates rather than diminishes racial biases.
The source cited is always Campus Reform, itself a far cry from an objective, balanced source of news about life on college campuses.
I knew about the Watchlist, but I was foolishly unafraid of it, thinking “No student could plausibly claim that I discriminate against them based on their world views.” That’s true. No student could plausibly claim that. But this list isn’t about reporting discrimination based on political ideology. This list is about putting names, faces, and contact information of liberal academics out there, to pressure them (or their host institutions) to change course. And *that* is – or should be – genuinely terrifying.
Academic freedom has a purpose. Although it protects an individual faculty member speaking within their area of expertise, that protection exists to advance a broader goal for our society: the advancement of shared knowledge. It’s to make sure academics tell us what their expertise leads them to conclude, regardless of whether we’re happy about what they’re saying. It’s to say that knowledge and critical thinking are the goals of higher education, not popularity or marketability. It’s to make sure, for instance, that scientists talk to us about climate change without worrying about the business interests threatened by that discussion. It’s to be sure that people tell us smoking is bad for us even if Big Tobacco played a huge role in the school’s capital campaign. It’s to be sure that the HR training specialist and the Clemson professor can tell us about the ways we sustain racism and sexism, even if we don’t want to hear it, and even if we disagree fiercely. It’s to be sure that philosophy professors can talk about ethical research, even if it means challenging the very research done at their host institution. It’s to be sure that when students leave our schools, they can not only tell you what they believe but why they believe it, so that we can all make better-informed decisions about what to believe or do.
Threats to that academic freedom are not merely threats to liberal faculty members. They are threats to all of us.