Penn State

Professors address issues of ‘radical’ online watchlist

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Penn State educators met the idea of ProfessorWatchlist.org with passion.

The online assembly of college professors with reportedly “radical” positions or research is compiled by Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, 23, who calls his group a “national student movement” with the goal “to identify, educate, train and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.”

The stated purpose of the website is to “expose and document” professors who discriminate against right-wing students or advance left-wing ideas. Parents, students and alumni, the site says, deserve to know.

Professors at Penn State reacted after a Centre Daily Times story about the existence of the list and the presence of a University Park researcher on it.

One of the Penn State professors, Joshua Wretzel, teaches philosophy, along with ethical leadership.

“I don’t want to make up minds for my students,” he said.

His whole goal is to teach them to think for themselves. If they agree with him, great. If they don’t, that’s great, too, as long as they are learning to find answers and form arguments on their own.

Willa Silverman teaches French and Jewish studies.

“College kids are legally adults,” she said. “They can vote, pay taxes and join the military. Therefore, they are also of age to think for themselves, to make informed decisions not only about their courses, activities, friendships and student jobs but also about how they choose to comport themselves in the world based on their values and opinions.”

Dan Letwin teaches history. He specializes in social history and how things like labor, race and class have shaped the country.

He doesn’t bristle at student critique or evaluation. He thinks things like Rate My Professor or student evaluations are a good idea. But the word “watchlist” brings memories of other events like the prosecution of antiwar dissenters during World War I, or the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings of the McCarthy Era.

“What’s different about the watchlist is that it comes out of that tradition,” Letwin said, pointing to a history of suppression of ideas and demonizing of dissent.

Wretzel, too, wrestles with the “McCarthy-esque precedent,” calling the idea of cataloging those with different ideas “poisonous and toxic.”

“There is a difference between things that I say on Twitter and things that I say in the classroom,” he said.

Letwin sees the list as part of an “atmosphere of intolerance, even violence” in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election win.

“In that context, now there is a watchlist,” he said. “It’s part of a whole cluster of assaults on our democracy.”

The watchlist is having the tables turned on it by professors speaking out against it, and recently by a list of more than 100 Notre Dame professors asking to be included on it.

“This is the sort of company we wish to keep,” the professors wrote.

Penn State’s Peter Hatemi is one of five professors in Pennsylvania listed on the website, along with two professors from Temple, one from the University of Pennsylvania and one from Penn’s law school.

Efforts by the CDT to reach Hatemi for comment have been unsuccessful.

Silverman is not only concerned about the effect on educators, but also about the effect on students.

“Weighing a variety of views not necessarily in accord with one another, evaluating the evidence used to support such views — these are all steps in informed decision-making, as they are in assuming the responsibilities of a citizen of our democracy,” she said. “The type of critical thinking skills cultivated in a world-class university such as Penn State — especially but by no means exclusively in the liberal arts — can provide these young adults with tools to help them make informed decisions and to confidently engage ‘ideas that are outside their comfort zones.’ ”

And she doesn’t just say that as someone who gets a Penn State paycheck.

“I speak with conviction here as both a teacher and as the mother of a college student,” Silverman said.

For Penn State, questions about the website are answered simply.

“We support academic freedom. We are a marketplace of ideas,” said spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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