The Conservative Group Behind Efforts to Intimidate Professors

by Casey Quinlan –

Turning Point USA encourages conservative student activism, but its latest efforts look a lot like harassment.

Last week, a conservative group called Turning Point USA published a “Professor Watchlist” that targets academics accused of pushing a “radical agenda.” But the project is part of the group’s much larger effort to organize young conservatives on college campuses.

Since its start in 2012, the group has started local chapters at hundreds of universities and high schools across the United States. Founder Charlie Kirk has used the megaphone of social media — he has over 84,000 followers on Twitter — and his regular television appearances as the conservative Millennial to bring attention to his organization and the Professor Watchlist.

Although much of the The Turning Point USA website is benign, some of its resources claim affirmative action is unfair and suggest being confrontational with groups seeking safe spaces.

The Turning Point USA website provides a number of resources for conservative students. It includes T-shirts and activism kits. “Socialism sucks” and “Big government sucks” are the phrases you’ll find most often on their merchandise, although at least one item in its “activism kit” includes a photo of Ron Swanson, the libertarian character from the sitcom Parks and Recreation, next to a quote about how taxes are a “bad word.”

The website’s publications claims that sexism and high rates of sexual assault aren’t real. The “5 Reasons Big Government Is The Real War On Women,” report includes this sentence in bold white text over the photo of a person holding their hand up, “Rape is not a generic term for any action that makes you feel uncomfortable.” The report also makes the popular conservative argument that “government essentially trains women to believe they are victims.”

Turning Point USA also takes a rather Trump-like view of cities in its report“Urban Failure,” which claims that unions are ruining urban school districts.

Through Turning Point’s chapter handbook, you get a better idea of the group’s activism goals and why it encourages students to monitor professors who talk about forms of discrimination and cultural stereotypes. A couple of the suggestions for events would likely create hostile school climates for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people.

One such activity asks students to create a “safe space” to mock students who advocate for safe spaces on campus.

“The concept is to demonstrate that safe spaces are for children,” the handbook reads. “Once you have supplies, determine the time and place for your event. Some student groups host safe space events in conjunction with events on campus that have real safe spaces.”

The handbook advises that students set up a table with crayons, juice boxes, stuffed animals, and coloring books.

Safe spaces are places where marginalized groups can go to get away from the dominant campus culture for a moment, or where someone who has been traumatized can go to heal on their own time. Conservatives interpret this as an attempt to hide from ideas students don’t like. Some student activists say it’s the other way around, and that administrators and students with the most privilege are creating safe spaces for themselves by attempting to suppress or ignore the voices of marginalized students asking for campus reforms.

The message of the proposed Turning Point USA event, especially one that is hosted in an actual safe space, is that students who have experienced trauma or oppression in some form are childish and need to “get over” discrimination, bias, and trauma.

The handbook also suggests holding an “affirmative action bake sale,” in which students create a sign showing white people must pay the most for baked goods, followed by Asian people, Latino people, black people, and Native Americans. The handbook explained that the purpose of the “bake sale” is to illustrate that “certain people get an unfair advantage just for the color of their skin.”

Affirmative action considers race in a holistic admissions process. That means that many other factors are considered, such as personal characteristics like leadership ability, academic record, and community activities. By providing prices for different students, students are misrepresenting the admissions process and insulting the students of color who attend their university. One fact is also conveniently left out of this activity: Affirmative action has been disproportionately beneficial to white women.

And then there’s the Professor Watchlist. The list is worrying to some academics, who see it as an attempt to intimidate and defame them. One of the more disturbing additions to the list is a woman who once wrote an article that was critical of Turning Point USA.

The site allows students to submit tips, but says it only adds professors to the list when “incidents” have been published in news outlets. Students can search by institution to find out if there are teachers at their schools who allegedly “discriminate against conservative students.”

Academics continue to speak out after the list’s release. Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, compared the list to a book from the 1930s, “The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots.” The ACLU and American Federation of Teachers were included in the book.

“There is a continuing cycle of these sorts of things. They serve the same purpose: to intimidate individuals from speaking plainly in their classrooms or in their publications,” Tiede told The New York Times.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress