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Conservative Media Is Waging a War on the Humanities, and It's Succeeding

An influential conservative online ecosystem targets teachers whose expressed opinions question the dominance of white men.
The College Fix homepage.

The College Fix homepage.

It is a common belief among those on the right that American universities have become hotbeds of subversive thought. In National Review, Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison write how "too many universities have discarded their sacred commitments to dialogue and truth in favor of ideological crusades." Surveying the range of this outrage, Nicole Hemmer explains in Vox how "Fear of a liberal university faculty has been a feature of modern conservatism for decades, woven into the very foundations of the modern conservative movement."

This suspicion has frequently targeted the humanities, which last century consisted of live white men exclusively studying dead white men. Today, with the humanities having expanded to include studies in ethnicity, gender, race, and class, such exclusivity has been largely eroded. Some conservatives, in turn, not only feel as if they've lost their monopoly on a cultural arena that once reinforced canonical thought; they also believe that the very nature of liberal education has been altered to undermine their agenda with dangerously liberal notions about justice, equality, and access to power. This suspicion is evident in rhetoric that, again using Hess and Addison as an example, claims how "the academy has abandoned its core values of free inquiry in the service of ever-more-rigid political dogmas"—with "dogma" pretty much being code for any political belief that values diversity.

And so conservatives are fighting back. Through a savvy combination of on-the-ground documentation of "radical" professors and the development of a small but influential media ecosystem dedicated to publicizing campus opinions anathema to right-wing ideology, conservatives have built a powerful apparatus to weaken an arena of American intellectual life that's already being gutted financially by state legislators wanting to see higher education become more economically "relevant."

The website Professor Watchlist offers a case in point. As the brainchild of the right-wing non-profit Turning Point USA, Professor Watchlist describes its mission as one seeking "to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government." Launched in 2016, the website identifies professors (and, in some cases, lists their salaries) who espouse ideas that counter conservative narratives and agendas. One professor gets castigated for lamenting the convergence of "climate change, a threatened fossil fuel system, and an increasingly fragile western hypermasculinity." Another makes the list for arguing for greater gender parity in the economics pedagogy. Yet another is lambasted for arguing the existence of a link between slavery and capitalism.

Nobody is claiming that university professors don't lean to the political left. They do. But Professor Watch is not aiming to bring ideological richness to discourses in higher education in the way that, say, the sociologist Jonathan Haidt is trying to do with The Heterodox Academy. Instead, it is aiming to warp the presentation of accurate information to advance the claim that professors are, in fact, seeking to brainwash students to serve a radical agenda. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues in his new book, What Do You Think Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, nothing could be further from the truth. Professors in the humanities, no matter what their politics, are driven by one overwhelming pedagogical mission: to teach critical thought.

It's hard to ignore how Professor Watch targets a large number of teachers whose expressed opinions question the dominance of white men. It condemns a professor for deeming the University of Wyoming's slogan "The World Needs More Cowboys" as off-putting to non-white applicants. It scolds a university president for associating whiteness with "significant unearned privilege." A professor in Texas is listed for proposing that we should start teaching children about racial issues in kindergarten. After landing on Professor Watchlist's list, a Brown University professor wrote how it "boldfaces the old battle lines of the culture wars ... but it repurposes them for a political agenda even further to the right, into the realm of white nationalism."

The conservative effort to close the opening door of the humanities is further carried out in newspapers funded by right-wing operatives. The national online paper Campus Reform, which is run by the conservative Leadership Institute and at least partially funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, rails against perceived cases of liberal bias on college campuses. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Campus Reform reports having had 9.3 million page views between September of 2014 and 2015. Using student reporters, it covers stories that, in addition to other threats to conservative interests, challenge developments in higher education that favor traditionally excluded groups: a professor reaching out to African-American students before a class dealing with slavery and white nationalism, California Polytechnic State University working to diversify its student body, a university providing emergency funds for immigrant students. Not incidentally, Professor Watchlist uses stories reported in Campus Reform to hunt down troublemakers.

The Campus Reform homepage.

The Campus Reform homepage.

Perhaps the most effective is a website called the College Fix. Run by the Student Free Press Association and supported financially by anonymous right-wing donors through DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund—called by Mother Jones "the dark money ATM for the conservative movement"—the College Fix shares with Professor Watchlist and Campus Reform an emphasis on campus cultural shifts that challenge conventional white privilege. Student reporters slam Harvard University and Yale University for intending "to keep utilizing race as a factor in their admissions." To make the English degree relevant again, they advocate sticking to "the western canon" and "the world's best books" while rejecting literature "that inject[s] progressive ideology and social justice frameworks into the classroom." Condemning "'diversity'-obsessed activists and partisans," the site criticizes San Diego State University for hiring a president who once presided over "bureaucratic and identity based departments" that included a Center for African Diaspora Student Success and the Native American Academic Student Success Center. Media Bias places the site on the extreme end of right-wing bias.

As much as they might want to, universities cannot ignore what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls "the Internet outrage machine." The virtual attacks undertaken by these conservative organizations have resulted in some faculty members being harassed, others canceling classes, and inaccurately reported claims making their way up the media food chain to venues such as Fox News, where the snide tone and failure to check sources only fuels its base and adds to the frenzy.

As a closing case in point, Sarah Bond, a University of Iowa classics professor, wrote an essay in 2017 on the cultural history of white marble statues in which she called them "a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today." Campus Reform saw this claim as ideal fodder and ran a story with the headline "Prof: 'White Marble' in Artwork Contributes to White Supremacy." Not terribly off base. But when the report made it to the Daily Caller, the headline had sharpened into "Professor Equates White Marble Statues With White Supremacy." With that, Bond was offered an invitation to defend herself on Fox News (which she declined) and anonymous death threats, which led her to reconsider sharing academic research with the general public.