Academics are issuing warnings about a UK organisation that is calling on students to report lecturers’ “political bias” for publication on its website. “Education Watch” is based on a US site that lists lecturers who have advanced what it calls “leftist propaganda”. Academics in the US have faced threats of death, rape and harm to their children after being singled out by “Professor Watchlist”.
Education Watch, on the website of Turning Point UK, was launched last month by the British arm of Turning Point USA, an organisation seen as Trump’s youth wing. Turning Point UK was given messages of support from MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel.
Education Watch, it says, is a tool for UK students to report lecturers for “leftwing bias”, which it claims universities are “overrun” with.
The website says any naming and shaming will be on a “case-by-case basis”. “So far, we are simply documenting the incidents without naming the teachers, though we may sometimes name the university or the school. However, if some incidents are serious enough, we may decide it is necessary to publicly name the individuals involved. This would not be our default approach, however – unlike in the US.”
But academics in Britain say that encouraging students to provide evidence of bias is highly dangerous.
“This is populist rightwing propaganda, encouraging the false idea that there are evil professors out there, indoctrinating young people, who need to be dealt with,” says Eric Lybeck, presidential academic fellow at Manchester University’s Institute of Education and a member of the Council for the Defence of British Education, who has been researching the organisation. “Turning Point UK and Education Watch have been transplanted to the UK very intentionally by rightwing groups in the US. They are pretending to be a student organisation, but they are not a grassroots organisation at all.”
One US academic who received a death threat says: “It is ridiculous that I have this additional threat in my life because of this, that I have to worry if my kids are safe. This is someone using their money to increase the chances of a hate crime against certain individuals.”
Hans-Joerg Tiede, of the American Association of University Professors, has been cataloguing the often “traumatic” impact on individuals of being on the Professor Watchlist and a similar site called Campus Reform, for four years. He says many academics – especially women – have received threats of murder and sexual assault or attacks on their children, via social media or email.
Tiede says one professor was put on the list for a book chapter on how to teach maths in a way that works better for black and minority ethnic children. “She was inundated with death threats. She was Jewish and received antisemitic threats and threats of sexual assault. Instances like that are happening with some regularity,” he says.
Betsey Stevenson, associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, is at the top of the Professor Watchlist, and has been on it for two years. Stevenson worked in the Obama administration, but was listed on the site for some fact-based research on the gender distribution of examples in economics textbooks, arguing that this might be putting girls off the subject.
“If this was a student-led organisation you’d see the Watchlist highlighting the furthest left views, but that’s not what you see. This is such a random, scattergun list. It’s obvious it doesn’t come from inside universities.”
She adds: “UK academics should be cynical about this. There is no good intention here.”
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says she received death threats. “Sites like this are trying to control the narrative. They want to paint university education as being inherently liberal and evil.”
She adds: “I would say to UK academics, be careful about who might be trolling your Twitter feeds, and be careful when talking about issues like race or gender.”
Anthony Zenkus, a lecturer in social work at Columbia University, is on the Professor Watchlist for a tweet criticising capitalism. At first he thought the posting was silly, but now feels it is “insidious”. “The term watchlist is loaded. They are preying on fear, implying these ideas are dangerous.”
Turning Point UK was set up last year by George Farmer, a Tory donor and son of a Conservative peer, who stood as an MEP for the Brexit party.
The Guardian reported on the group’s apparent links to the far-right in February 2019. Farmer has since deleted all tweets on his Twitter account, in which he had called Jeremy Corbyn “Jew-hating Jeremy” and London mayor, Sadiq Khan a “Grade A twat”.
Like its American counterpart, Turning Point UK does not reveal its donors. Membership charges are in dollars, and in a tweet last week it thanked “our friend and ally” Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, for helping to establish the UK organisation.
On the website it describes itself as a “grassroots organisation” educating students about free markets, limited government and personal responsibility. There is also merchandise: for £12.68 you can buy a Nigel Farage T-shirt. So far no lecturers have been named on Education Watch UK, but a message on the website says: “We have received many reports of political bias in our education system. We will publish the examples we receive here.”
It also says: “There is a reason why people are getting nervous about this – as they should be. We are finally doing something, with the very small and limited resources we have, to actually push back against the leftist tyranny on campuses that is being pushed down people’s throats.”
Lybeck describes this as “an invented culture war”. “This is just crowdsourcing McCarthyism. In the US they have created this idea that there is this intellectual elite that disdains America and doesn’t share its values. I think if people want to use that playbook here it will be harder. But the money is there and they are trying.”
Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, says academics are right to be fearful. “This is part of a wider movement that could be highly dangerous. It is a rightwing, populist, anti-education offensive and it has important allies at the highest parts of government both here and in America.”
Tanja Bueltmann, professor of history at Northumbria University and one of many academics who has expressed dismay at the launch of Education Watch, says: “It doesn’t matter if it comes from right or left – we don’t want a system of vigilantism.”
We approached Turning Point UK to see if they wished to comment.
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