Education

College Professors Fear Transparency

The blowback from even the suggestion of revealing bias says a lot about the situation.

Arnold Ahlert · Apr. 2, 2020

Turning Point USA (TPUSA) is the largest conservative group on America’s college campuses, which have closed and moved their courses online due to the coronavirus. TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk views this as an opportunity to expose the political bias that exists at many of these institutions. On Sunday, March 22, he issued a tweet addressing the issue: “To all college students who have their professors switching to online classes: Please share any and ALL videos of blatant indoctrination with [TPUSA]. Now is the time to document & expose the radicalism that has been infecting our schools. Transparency!”

Judging by the blowback, transparency is the last thing many of America’s professors want.

In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education insisted transparency was akin to weaponization. “The coronavirus-prompted shift to remote teaching was stressful enough for faculty members before Charlie Kirk weaponized online learning,” it complained. And though the Chronicle admitted that research reveals “faculty members skew left politically, and conservative students can feel marginalized, there’s no evidence of a siege on conservative thought in the classroom.” Moreover, it asserts that accusations of indoctrination are a “common right-wing talking point.”

Asserting that professors skew left politically understates reality. A study published by the National Association of Scholars of 8,688 tenure-track professors at 51 of the 66 top-ranked colleges in the nation revealed the ratio of Democrat-registered faculty members versus Republican-registered faculty members was 10.4 to 1. If one removes two military colleges, West Point and Annapolis, technically described as “liberal arts colleges,” from the calculations, the ratio is 12.7 to 1. Mitchell Langbert, an Associate Professor of Business at Brooklyn College who conducted the research, also discovered that 39% of the colleges in his sample had zero faculty members who were registered Republicans.

Dylan Bugden, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington State University, is worried about that transparency. He has decided not to record his lectures and instead post presentation slides, short quizzes, activities, and an exam, while remaining available for office hours. “I find it difficult to teach without referring to important events and issues in the world,” Bugden explained in an email. “Doing so is a powerful way to help students see that what we learn in class is not just abstract or a mere intellectual exercise, but matters for the things they and their peers care about.”

He further asserted that such an approach leaves faculty members — especially women and people of color — vulnerable to attacks, even as he admits some students have given him course evaluation asking him to keep his personal politics out of his teaching material. Ultimately he decided that even if the risk of an online campaign against him is low, it is still “so severe that it’s simply not worth it.”

Rachel Michelle Gunter, a professor at a community college in North Texas who teaches American history, is equally concerned. Thus she will send her students to her video lectures on YouTube, where those videos will be “unlisted,” meaning they can’t be found by conducting a YouTube search or going to her faculty page. After two weeks, the videos will be made private.

Yale University professor Jason Stanley offered advice to professors on how they should prepare for ostensibly being outed by conservatives. “If one of your colleagues gets hit, support them,” he tweeted. “It is not a time to lecture them about [what] you think they did wrong. They need your support, not your moralizing and sanctimoniousness. We’re all in this together. This is an attack on academic freedom, not a time for Schadenfreude.”

Transparency is an attack on academic freedom? Shouldn’t one not only be proud of what one what teaches but willing to see it disseminated as widely as possible?

That professors would be fearful of being “exposed,” coupled with the fallback excuse of being “taken out of context,” is telling. Jeffrey A. Sachs, a lecturer in history and politics at Acadia University in Canada, insists there is a “vast and highly successful” right-wing apparatus ready to destroy a professor who says the wrong thing, assigns the wrong reading, or submits the wrong grade. “Simply put,” he huffed, “faculty are alarmed because they are paying attention.”

To emphasize the point, the Chronicle notes Mr. Sachs has compiled a database of professors “who have been fired for political speech.”

Not exactly. Some professors were fired, but some resigned, some were suspended or demoted, and some were denied promotion or had their course canceled. Moreover, the notion that any type of free speech insulates one from the consequences of that speech is absurd. Many of these educators said outrageous things for which they should have been held accountable.

That it was all the doing of a vast right-wing conspiracy? One of those professors, Erika Christakis, taught at Yale before she resigned in 2015 for what Sachs described as her criticism of “safe spaces” at the Ivy League School.

Hardly. As Christakis herself revealed in a Washington Post op-ed, an email she sent urging students to think critically about an official set of Yale guidelines on costumes to avoid at Halloweenone in which she wondered if there was “no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious” — precipitated a firestorm whereby nearly “a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home.”

Precipitated by right-wing students? “I am a registered Democrat, and I applaud Yale’s mission to better support underrepresented students,” she added. “But I also recognize the dizzying irrationality of some supposedly liberal discourse in academia these days.”

Perhaps the widespread exposure of “dizzying irrationality” is what the current controversy is really all about, especially when one considers the skyrocketing costs of college that has left America’s students mired in a collective $1.6 trillion in student debt. Perhaps if future consumers got firsthand information on what some professors are saying, they might think twice about enrolling.

“For those that are using the classroom to intimidate conservatives or otherwise lie to, bully, or indoctrinate students to hate America, we will highlight those cases so parents, students, administrations and donors can make better, more informed decisions moving forward,” a TPUSA spokesperson explained. “Knowing the truth shouldn’t be controversial.”

That it is speaks volumes.

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