'Designed to Intimidate': Revamped Conservative Watchlist Targets Professors in Texas and Beyond

Professors say Turning Point USA's watchlist threatens intellectual diversity.
Professors say Turning Point USA's watchlist threatens intellectual diversity. Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Dr. Robert Jensen, then a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, decided to bring the campus’ conservative and liberal factions together. “I got tired of all the right-wing events and all the left-wing events, with the audience never mixing,” he said.

Jensen was known around campus for his advocacy as an outspoken leftist, but he took pains to separate his activism from his pedagogy, he said.

"I was so conscious about how I was public about positions that were often controversial. I was very clear that there is a big difference between my public work as a writer, speaker and organizer, and my work as a teacher,” he added. “I did not seek to indoctrinate, but I did seek to raise critical questions.”

It was in this spirit that Jensen attempted to organize events designed to break down ideological silos on UT Austin’s campus.

He made a list of outspoken conservative faculty and sent them all emails asking to collaborate to create forums where students and faculty from across the political spectrum could debate hot button issues in an organized fashion.

But his conservative colleagues weren’t into it. “Yeah, I got exactly zero email responses,” he said. The debate program never happened.

Despite his demonstrated commitment to ideological diversity, Jensen says, his name landed on multiple "campus watchlists." These lists, published and distributed by conservative think tanks and activist groups, identified "radical professors" accused of trying to indoctrinate college students with leftist ideology.

Jensen retired in 2018. But he was still included in the most recent version of the professor watchlist compiled by one of the country's most vocal conservative advocacy organizations.

Founded during the height of the Tea Party movement in 2012, that group, Turning Point USA, says it “plays offense with a sense of urgency to win America’s culture war.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has described Turning Point USA as "now the dominant force in campus conservatism."

“On all sides, you get this siloing and a comfort in just staying in your own little group. On that, I think the intellectual left and the intellectual right are both open to critique.” - Robert Jensen, professor emeritus

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The group started publishing its professor watchlist in 2015. The mission, the group says, is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

But critics have long blasted the list as contemporary McCarthyism and an effort to intimidate academics from expressing themselves freely.

The latest version of the list issued this year includes new professors whose scholarship focuses primarily on race and ethnic studies, or so-called "critical race theory," a hot-button issue that's become a catch-all phrase for Republicans in Texas and beyond.

Turning Point USA didn't respond to the Observer's requests for comment. In the past, Matt Lamb, who helped organize the list, dismissed claims that it had a chilling effect on academia.

“This site is a beautiful example of freedom of speech,” Lamb told The New York Times in 2016. “Professors can say whatever they want, other people can report it and we can compile the reports on whatever they say.”

Turning Point USA cofounder Charlie Kirk has also defended the watchlist, claiming that it's "no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line."

Kirk argued that the professors "attack and target conservatives, promote liberal propaganda and use their position of power to advance liberal agendas in their classroom."

The primary targets of professor watchlists have always reflected any given era's cultural battles, said Dr. Snehal Shingavi, a professor of English at UT Austin who has been included on multiple watchlists over the last two decades.

“In the mid-'80s [and] early '90s, the main focus in the Middle East was not Islam; it was communism,” Shingavi said. “After 9/11, it becomes Islam.”

Shingavi is an outspoken critic of Israel and has long advocated for Palestinian rights. These positions drew the attention and wrath of conservative groups, especially after 9/11, he said, because “that was a moment where anti-Palestinian rhetoric mixed with a growing Islamophobia amongst a wider public in a way that hadn’t happened before.”

The recent focus on race scholarship in Turning Point USA’s latest version of the list reflects national culture wars’ shifting focus towards race in the past several years, explained Shingavi. “Since Black Lives Matter began in 2014, everything has decisively shifted to the question of racism,” he said.

Both Jensen and Shingavi argued watchlists end up damaging the quality of university education overall by threatening the diversity of ideologies to which students are exposed. “These lists are designed to intimidate us, and they have a chilling effect for the people who don’t have tenure, or for university administration who are afraid to back them,” said Shingavi.

To Jensen, leftists and conservatives too often stay in echo chambers. "On that, I think the intellectual left and the intellectual right are both open to critique,” he said. “But this [the list] represents a real lost opportunity to build an intellectually vibrant campus.”
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney