by Brendan Kennedy
This winter break, as students and faculty at Trinity University left campus, two students decided to challenge their professors over a watchlist that has garnered nationwide controversy. In hope to advance their arguments and begin a debate, these students have made a bet that public discourse at the school will find the debate worthwhile as people return to campus. In a community where disagreements are central to intellectual growth, the quality and productivity of those dialogues is essential.
A debate has emerged surrounding Turning Point USA’s (TPUSA) Professor Watchlist. But the community’s interest in the topic appears tepid at best, with many largely unaware of the issue and others highly suspicious of the list’s goals and credibility. As both the professors who protested and the students who responded have made their cases, it remains to be seen whether either side is willing to extend the disagreement any further.
On a campus that values consequential and meaningful discussions, a fight over TPUSA’s Watchlist will be a hard sell to a community that has already grown tired of distractions.
The issue began over Trinity’s winter break, when two students defended a watchlist targeting left-wing professors against a critical statement made by campus faculty. As the students took to local media to make their case against the professors’ statement, several questions surfaced. The most crucial was this: how did other members of the Trinity community perceive the watchlist’s merits and ideological diversity on campus? In a series of interviews with Trinity students and faculty, we sought to answer this very question. To provide the greatest degree of transparency to our readers, we have also compiled the full transcripts of such interviews.
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In these discussions, we found very different methods of promoting free speech and intellectual exchanges. While a group of conservative students felt that the watchlist was a necessary tool to fight discrimination that they believe exists, a variety of students and faculty felt that it represented a distraction at best and a danger at worst. On a campus where people value productive debates over sideshows, it appears that much of the community is ready to move on.
A Watchlist Receives Scrutiny
The issue emerged when 31 Trinity University faculty were alarmed by a Professor Watchlist from Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a group for conservative college students. The watchlist was established to “document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Additionally, the website claims that “TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
In an act of protest and solidarity, these faculty members requested that they be reviewed for the watchlist. In their statement, the professors expressed fears that the list represented a threat to discourse. “These Trinity faculty aim to send the message that they will not be scared into censoring classroom dialogue,” the statement read. “More importantly, they will not be coerced into changing one of their primary charges: to challenge students to critically evaluate their sources of information, their biases, and their misconceptions.”
Dr. Kelly Lyons, Associate Professor of Biology, and the leader of the professors’ joint statement, explained why she was compelled to release the statement on behalf of the group. In her interview with The Contemporary, she pointed to historical events where such lists have posed a threat to free discourse. “Lists are used to identify people that are targets for one reason or another, and usually they are targets for silencing,” she said. Lyons stated that her politics had no effect on her decision, and that her political views were in fact quite mixed. “I consider myself very conservative fiscally, I am a capitalist, and I also believe we ought to take care of people,” she told me. For Lyons, this means protecting everyone’s right to speak without being targeted. “Any time that lists begin to be made, it means that certain voices, ideologies, or discussions are being targeted for silencing. They’re scare tactics.”
However, two members of TPUSA’s Trinity chapter and leaders of the conservative student group Tigers for Liberty, brothers Jonah and Manfred Wendt, vehemently disagreed with the professors’ characterization of the watchlist. In an email to the professors, the Wendts adopted a tongue-in-cheek tone to inform the faculty members of their rejection by the “prestigious” watchlist. “We… regret to inform you that we have decided that your values do not align with that of the professor watchlist, and we will be discontinuing the professor watchlist rush process with you. This is in no way a denouncement of your character, it is just what we believe is in the professor watchlist’s best interests.” The Wendts then reminded the faculty that, to be included, a professor would have to be “documented by a legitimate news source as a discriminating against conservative students or advancing left-wing propaganda in the classroom.”
The Brothers Change Their Tone
The brothers took to local media with a decidedly different tone. In an interview with The Rivard Report, Jonah Wendt called the protest “laughable” and attention-seeking. In a separate response, posted to the TPUSA blog Hypeline, Jonah took his derision further. In the post, he claimed that the professors’ actions amounted to a “pledge to discriminate against conservative students.”
The professors had already rejected this interpretation, and called the request to join the list “a statement of academic freedom” and a “message that they will not be coerced,” adding that “these Trinity faculty recognize that this act may send the unintended message that they do not value the perspective of more conservative-minded students- this is not the case.” Geosciences professor Dr. Benjamin Surpless, who signed the protest statement, responded to the brothers by email, saying, “as I think you realize, this statement wasn’t about right vs. left, but was about academic freedom.” Moreover, Lyons reiterated that the Hypeline article misstated the professors’ goals. She noted that they did not think that they would actually be added to the list.“It was a protest against the watchlist! We don’t want to be on any list, that’s the point,” she said. “It is mostly designed to mock the list.”
Mr. Wendt’s interpretation differed. “Thirty-one professors,” he wrote, “have publicly signed a statement… with the sole purpose of satisfying their own personal quest to be on an internet watchlist.” Rather than seeing the request to join the list an act of protest against a perceived threat to speech, Wendt viewed the action as a desperate publicity stunt and a pledge to discriminate against conservative students. It is still unclear where that disagreement arose from, and why the brothers were not inclined to accept the professors’ stated motivations. Jonah Wendt, in no uncertain terms, declined comment to The Contemporary, citing previous experiences with the media.
The professors’ actions seemed to represent a criticism of the watchlist’s very legitimacy, but two students saw things differently.
Some confusion may spring from contradictions in the Watchlist’s stated goals. “TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish,” the list’s page states. Still, as the Wendts reminded us, the list doesn’t only target perceived discrimination, but also professors guilty of “advancing leftist propaganda.” “Students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls,” the website states. Professors have expressed incredulity at the types of offenses that fit this definition, while others have said the claims that had gotten them on the watchlist were either untrue or misleading. While the site claims to “only publish profiles on incidents that have already been reported by a credible source”, critics have questioned what exactly that standard is worth when the definition of credibility is curated by TPUSA itself.
Critiques, and Defenses, of the List’s Validity
These concerns led many faculty to protest the list. Dr. Surpless sought to further clarify his goals in his response to the Wendt brothers’ email. “Compiling lists of people whose views don’t coincide with a given belief system is scary to those in the academic world, where we commonly challenge ourselves and others to think deeply about nearly every topic you can imagine,” he said. “Simply holding a point of view is not a valid reason for putting a person’s livelihood at risk or limiting the scope of academic conversation.”
Several members of the Trinity community echoed this sentiment, even if they did not join the protesting professors or endorse their actions.
Dr. David Crockett, Chair of the Political Science department, and an advisor to the conservative student group the Wendts lead, Tigers for Liberty, preferred discourse and intellectual challenge over setting up a watchlist. “I don’t know what’s to be gained by that. I would much rather see engagement of ideas and arguments rather than watchlists that simply, in my view, are not going to convert anyone. I’m not sure it’s much of a helpful institution in the ideological conflicts that we might have.”
Ryan Hernandez, a conservative-minded Political Science major who graduated this past December, also expressed disapproval of the watchlist. “I don’t believe TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist is a productive tool whatsoever to address potential liberal bias. It seems like a ridiculous idea (which) sought only to gain attention.”
In addition to general opposition to the idea of an academic watchlist, conservatives and liberals alike agreed that TPUSA’s watchlist in particular has a questionable methodology. Dr. Crockett questioned the rigor of the site’s review process. “The methodology involved is somewhat suspicious… I’m not sure who’s verifying these claims,” he said. And Dr. Surpless seemed to encourage the Wendts to confirm the watchlist’s credibility for themselves before they decide to launch a full-throated defense of it. “I would encourage the Tiger chapter of Turning Point USA to review all of the entries of professors on the list, reading the news stories carefully, to make sure that there really is evidence, in context, that demonstrates that the professor in question has quashed student free speech.”
Still, the Wendt brothers were not alone in thinking that their watchlist was not just valid, but necessary.
Savannah Seiler, a Political Science and Economics of Law major who serves as President of the campus Pre-Law society, said that her conservative views had brought hostility. “I believe (the watchlist) is a useful tool for conservative students who cannot handle the stress or focus on their education in spite of being attacked for their beliefs,” she stated. “There has been name calling and, on occasions, lengthy discussions about how certain conservative beliefs are dangerous, racist, sexist, etc.. Conservatives often feel threatened in strongly liberal classrooms and are usually on the defense.”
The Wendt brothers, while refusing to answer questions on the subject from The Contemporary, appear to agree. According to these students, conservatives on campus face more than mere intellectual challenge – they face a unique level of hostility, name-calling, and discrimination.
A Broader Debate on Intellectual Diversity and Dialogue
Claims of students facing discrimination based on their ideology raises the question of what exactly constitutes discrimination in an exchange of ideas. What happens when a professor exposes flaws in a student’s views in hopes that the intellectual challenge will force the student to strengthen their position? When does the intellectual sparring that occurs in a classroom transform from aggressive, but fair, to discriminatory?
It is worth noting that universities often have the job of making that determination. “While I know that some of the professors on the Watchlist likely deserve censure, you’ll notice that the universities and colleges that employ them have commonly taken action against them, especially where those professors have clearly quashed the rights of students to speak openly and freely,” Dr. Surpless noted. Dr. Crockett repeated a similar idea, saying that if dialogue with professors failed, there was a formal process for students who felt that they were truly discriminated against.
Beyond these formal processes, not everyone is convinced that college students are always able to draw the right lines between challenge and hostility.
Dr. Crockett bemoaned the tendency of ideologues to demonize people with opposing views. “I think we have a tendency to look with favor on people who agree with us and to be suspicious of people who don’t.” He added that tone was often an important component in how views were treated in class. “If someone says their views aren’t appreciated very much, I want to know how are you articulating your views, are you respectful, does the professor seem to shut you down just because they don’t like your view or are you being obnoxious in the presentation of your views.” Nipuni Gomes, a senior English and Communications major as well as an on-campus journalist, felt the same way. “It is not so much what a student says as how a student says it. There is a world of difference between a student who rationally expresses their political opinions and engages in a healthy discussion… and a student whose goal is to prove anyone who does not share their views wrong using strong language but weak arguments,” she said.
Seiler, in her defense of the watchlist, gave a similar definition of discrimination as those who opposed the list. “It is a fine line, but I believe as long as your beliefs are being challenged based on valid evidence, theory, and effectiveness then it is intellectual challenge,” she said. Interestingly, she also raised questions about how consistent students are in making that judgment. “I doubt students will always be able to distinguish between intellectual challenge and discrimination, because some people are overly sensitive or prideful.” In her experience, however, Seiler had no doubts about what she experienced, stating “there is a difference between challenging beliefs and berating them. There has been name calling and, on occasions, lengthy discussions about how certain conservative beliefs are dangerous, racist, sexist, etc. Conservatives often feel threatened in strongly liberal classrooms.”
Hernandez, on the other hand, said that he frequently sparred with his professors over ideas, but never felt unfairness from them. “While the majority of professors had different viewpoints than I did, I never felt like I was discriminated… Saying that, I don’t think it would be the worst threat to academic freedom to have an outside group be a watchdog, just not have that group create such a negative, threatening list.”
Dr. Crockett added that he was sympathetic to conservative students who felt outnumbered in academia, saying that this phenomenon had been proven time and time again, even affecting his own career path. But his solution to this problem was always engagement and discussion. “If you’re a conservative student in higher education, you have to know what you’re getting into… So if someone says their views aren’t appreciated very much, well, I want to know how do you articulate your views? Are you respectful?… Most of us faculty members like to have people with divergent views in the class because it makes the class more interesting.”
With the Professor Watchlist receiving criticism from a diverse range of voices across campus, the passionate defense of the list by the Wendt brothers raised questions about how conservatism was being represented on campus. These questions have also followed the actions of Tigers for Liberty, the on-campus conservative student organization which the Wendts run. Hernandez spoke of his dismay that his conservative principles were obscured by a number of unproductive distractions from the group. “When looking at people who they’ve brought to campus, whether it’s Milo (Yiannopoulos), who just used slurs to upset people rather than advance actual conservative principles, to writing ludicrous op-eds making fun of people upset at Clinton’s loss, further dividing campus, it’s clear that my views are not represented,” he said of Tigers for Liberty.
Gomes, who is currently editor for the on-campus publication 1966 and formerly was a journalist for the student-run paper The Trinitonian as well as The Roar, has expressed concerns about how the group’s actions have made a polarized political climate even more toxic. “(They) show no respect for anybody who disagrees with their opinions, having on multiple occasions gone as far as to publicly demean and insult even Trinity University professors who have respectfully disagreed with them.”
Celebrating the Role of Discourse
Those involved in the debate expressed admiration and praise for the discourse that occurs on Trinity’s campus, and elsewhere in higher education.“I think Trinity was and is super awesome in taking me outside of my comfort zone when in that learning environment,” Ryan Hernandez told me. Seiler urged her fellow conservative students to use their time at Trinity to “examine your beliefs… Make sure they are based on a strong foundation and backed up with credible evidence. Remain open-minded to other ideologies and polite to those with whom you disagree.” And Manfred Wendt, in his conversation with The Rivard Report, treasured this very same experience, saying “all of our professors do an amazing job of sidelining politics and just focusing on the subject in the class.”
Faculty, with their added perspective and experience of their own, further praised the opportunity for dialogue that an undergraduate experience at Trinity provided. In his letter to the Wendt brothers, Dr. Surpless urged them to “embrace what you have at Trinity… I have realized how special my four years at a similar liberal arts college were to my own intellectual maturation; since then, I have only rarely had the same types of dialogues.” Dr. Crockett agreed, saying “for undergraduates, this is the last time in your life that you’ll be able to feast at the intellectual banquet represented by a liberal arts education. Part of that should be exposure to a variety of ideas and arguments.” Dr. Lyons added that this was a benefit for students throughout their lives. “People outside of this university,” she said, “are clamoring for our students because they are multifaceted, they think in many ways, they are skilled in many ways.”
The power of dialogue and intellectual challenge at Trinity University is praised by professors and faculty alike from all ideological backgrounds.
As a number of professors challenge Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist as a threat to our climate, two brothers with the group’s campus chapter have decided that defending the list is a fight worth having. The process of determining the value of this list through substantive public debate is certainly educational, and it is a process that we should all volunteer to defend. While some conservative students believe that the list is a necessary tool in protecting their ideas on campus, many hope to avoid what could be an unproductive conversation over a watchlist that is, at best, misguided.
|Brendan Kennedy is a senior Political Science and Spanish major at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas. His research focuses on police-community relations in San Antonio, Texas and around the U.S.
Benjamin Collinger, a sophomore History & International Studies Major and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary, also contributed reporting.
In the interest of transparency, we have chosen to publish the full transcripts of exclusive on-the-record interviews or statements that informed this article.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.