A few weeks ago, reports of a website called “Professor Watchlist” surfaced in the news. The site, created by the nonprofit Turning Point USA, aggregates the names of nearly 200 academics accused of “discriminating against conservative students and advancing leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Immediately, the alarm bells rang. Witch hunt! McCarthyism redux! Students and professors alike decried this “challenge to free speech.” In a New York Times column, George Yancy GRD ’87 of Emory University likened the site to an Orwellian “Big Brother,” echoing numerous claims that liberal professors would no longer be able to voice their opinions.
Any honest person who has spent a modicum of time at an American university must find this frenzied backlash laughable. Liberals under attack on college campuses? Next thing we know, conservatives will claim their voices are being silenced at NRA rallies. The truth is, Big Brother is watching the right far more closely than the left. Five studies carried out by professors across the political spectrum found that the percentage of Republican professors in the U.S is between 7 percent and 9 percent in the social sciences and between 6 percent and 11 percent in the humanities. In contrast, 18% of university social scientists are self-proclaimed Marxists. And one would be hard pressed to find an occasion on which a speaker was barred from visiting a university for excessively liberal beliefs. Does Yancy really feel threatened knowing that nine out of 10 of his colleagues subscribe to his worldview?
Professor Watchlist is counterproductive and juvenile, but it highlights a serious problem in the academy: Liberal thought has become orthodoxy. Campuses that used to harbor the widest array of views and the richest debates in America now exist in large part to advance a political agenda. In this environment, genuine intellectual pursuit cannot take place, as large swathes of the political spectrum are entirely left out. As New York University professor Jonathan Haidt ’85 puts it, “Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals.” Given the preponderance of left-wing professors, it is not altogether surprising that conservative groups are reacting. What else can we expect when the left has claimed the academy as their own?
The response to Professor Watchlist also highlights a different phenomenon, equally deserving of attention: the faux contrarianism of campus leftism. Yancy’s column takes a defiant, heroic tone. Likening himself to Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr., Yancy states that he “refuses to remain silent.” He will continue to advance the ideas he has dedicated his career to, he declares. I can only imagine his bravery. The countercultural disposition to which Yancy pretends used to be a hallmark of campus life. It functioned to challenge conventional thinking and denounce conformity. However, rebellion cannot exist when everyone agrees. Given the ideological bent of his audience, Yancy’s refusal to remain silent amounts to very little. As literary critic Lionel Trilling put it, the true intellectual “dissent[s] from the orthodoxies of dissent.” When university professors feign rebelliousness, they undermine genuine radicalism.
Not only does this hinder true progress, it also further insulates the academic elite from real problems facing society. In fashioning oases for themselves, professors get to play activist without taking concrete steps to address the issues they purport to care about. Indeed, while Yancy gleefully dismantles vectors of oppression with his students, the homicide rate in Chicago climbs steadily. When political ideology supplants debate, we lose out on new ideas that generate real progress.
Trilling contended that liberal academics’ most effective work consists “not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.” Professors at American universities today have strayed from this imperative, instead deciding that advancing their political agendas comprises intellectual pursuit. Rather than challenge their assumptions, they have codified them. So instead of self-righteously denouncing the Professor Watchlist, we ought to recognize the cause of its existence.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Stiles College. His column runs alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .