Friday, December 15, 2017

Letter to my Colleagues Concerning Turning Point USA and Professor Watchlist: It's Time for Courage and Conviction

 Dear fellow university professors and people who care about education,

I’m a tenured philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania where I’ve taught for nearly 26 years. My areas of expertise include philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, feminist theory, queer theory, Marxism, Critical Theory, Post-Marxism, bioethics, environmental philosophy, and nonhuman animal rights/welfare. I have also been an active union member in the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Professors (APSCUF) for my entire career at BU. The reason I point out my AOS and APSCUF membership is because both make me a candidate for Turning Point USA’s notorious Professor Watchlist. I’ve taken the liberty of enclosing my CV so that you can review for yourselves how my own scholarly and pedagogical work makes me a target. The reason I’m addressing my letter to CHE’s Katherine Knott is because among the articles I have found most helpful in understanding the aims and objectives of TP/PWL was her piece titled “What it’s like to be named to a watch list of ‘anti-American’ professors,” (11.23.16). To be clear, I’ve not yet been named on PWL, but this has not prevented Turning Point USA from defaming, harassing, and abusing me. Perhaps—but this is merely speculation—it’s because I’ve fought back with what little I have, namely, my convictions about what is so deeply wrong and dangerous about this organization—and others like it.

I began to track TP/PWL over a year ago, and have assembled a bibliography of it and TP’s many layers of association to organizations and persons identified as the Alt-Right. From David Horowitz’ 101 Most Dangerous Professors to Ben Shapiro, from websites like Truth Revolt to characters like Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, Ivan Throne, and Lucian Wintrich, I believe I have developed a reasonably good understanding of TP’s objectives, and I’ve attached a bibliography of some TP/PWL sources. Among the things I have come to understand about TP/PWL, for example, is that the “free market/libertarian” language of its mission statement represents of one of their goals, but it also functions as effective cover for their far more repressive aspirations. This certainly points first to Professor Watchlist, but also to their efforts to see TP local chapter members elected to positions held by students at their respective universities, their demonstrably white nationalist political agenda, and their ultimate goal of remaking the academy into an ideologically driven training depot for future, as Steve Bannon puts it, economic nationalists.

The reason, however, that I’m writing to you is that while perhaps the first terrifying story is about Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist’s McCarthyesque aspirations, there is a second connected story that is likely also playing out in the academy, one potentially just as significant and ultimately more destructive for higher education. That second story is about how university administrations and/or faculty unions

·       Respond to the harassment of professors,
·       What protections they’re willing to afford,
·     To what extent universities make real and meaningful their explicit commitment to inclusion, diversity, freedom of speech, and the safety of the campus community.

I’m honestly not sure which has left me the most shaken, the character assassination to which I have been treated by TP/PWL, or the failure of my own university administration to take a stand in defense of its faculty—and ultimately its students. As the AAUP Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students makes clear, the conditions under which students are afforded the opportunity to learn depend vitally on the protection of the academic freedom of teachers to teach. If university administrations are unwilling to take a stand against this kind of assault on academic freedom, even the protections of tenure will soon ring hollow since, while the targeted professors of organizations like Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist may not be fired by their institutions, repression comes in many ways to the same ends, as is clearly demonstrated by the evidence:

·       Driving good professors out of the academy,
·     Creating the potential for negative evaluations of professors seeking tenure and promotion premised on false accusation, unjustly negative anonymous class reviews, public shaming, etc.,
·     Encouraging professors to alter their syllabi such that content which challenges students to think critically about their society, its institutions, it geopolitics, etc., are less likely to be included,
·      Discouraging graduate students considering entering the professoriate from doing so for fear of abuse by an organization like TP/PWL and no offer of protection from their administrations.

I see my story as just one among many similar accounts, and I think it important to tell it both for the sake of encouraging solidarity among faculty, and because I am certain that many who have been subjected to this sort of harassment feel at moments every bit as isolated and betrayed as I have felt. As briefly as possible, please allow me to explain the events that have led to what I think a truly terrifying scenario. I should note that I have a complete unabridged set of relevant email exchange, date-stamped, in support of this narrative, but I have also excluded names here other than those from whom I have permission:

·       Early in the Fall term (2017), I recognized that Turning Point had constructed a Facebook Page utilizing the Bloomsburg University LOGO. I checked the TP website to see if, indeed, BU had a chapter of the organization, and discovered that it did—since about April of 2017. When I inquired of their apparent advisor about whether they’d been formally recognized by the relevant campus agency, BU’s Community Government Association (CGA), I was informed they had been, and that their campus advisor was the same professor as the College Republicans. I reached out to the professor to discover whether he knew about TP/PWL’s objectives, thinking that he’d surely want to know and that he’d steer his students clear of TP/PWL (perhaps to another more suitable and honest organization), if he did know. He replied that TP-BU did not know about PWL, but he implied that, now that they did, these students had no intention of deploying it at BU. I responded that whether they determined to deploy PWL or not was not precisely to the point since they could, and that the point was that the organization was not, in fact what its mission statement represented them to be. I provided him evidence that TP/PWL has demonstrable connections to the Alt-Right, and that a central part of their mission involved the intimidation and repression of professors. There are other reputable libertarian/free market organizations with college student chapters. If pursuing these objectives had been the goal of TP-BU, upon being informed of the repressive aims of the national organization, it seems to me these students would have been relieved to know, and happy to locate an alternative.

·       I had corresponded briefly with whoever it was (I don’t know whether these were students) on the BU-TP/PWL Facebook. Indeed, I felt responsible to alert the group that TP/PWL does in fact have connections to far right and white supremacist groups, and that they ran PWL. I included a blog post I had drafted over a year ago detailing these facts. The respondent proceeded to accuse me of calling BU/TP/PWL members white supremacists. This, of course, was clearly false; indeed, I was trying to warn them that they might be so-associated by others, and that they surely did not want that.  But what I think the exchange illustrates is the standard operating procedure of TP/PWL: accuse a professor of an “attack,” and then use that as an opportunity to call for the repression of academic freedom. I have enclosed that correspondence here as an addendum. I think it likely this was the claim delivered to an agent of the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education (PASSHE) (though my own administration refuses to clarify this), and that this is the source of my own administration’s urgent request for a meeting with me to inform me that I could be the subject of litigation on “defamation” charges—but, again, I have sought, but have received no clarity on this point other than that I ought to “lawyer up.”

·       I then proceeded throughout October of 2017, working through the chain of command, to contact BU chief of communications. My specific request was that BU-TP’s formal recognition and endorsement by BU/CGA be rescinded in light of the fact that TP’s objectives—particularly but not exclusively PWL—do not accord with (in fact stand in direct conflict with) the university’s and PASSHE’s stated public commitment to diversity, inclusion, equality, safety, and freedom of speech. He assured me that he’d be in touch soon. To be very clear: I did not (and would not) make any request that would have violated the first amendment rights of TP or its chapter members. I have a profound commitment to freedom of expression, and have no desire to engage in repression of any kind. Their free speech is my free speech. There is however, a clear difference between respect for first amendment rights and formal university recognition that many will interpret as endorsement. TP chapter members retain the first regardless formal recognition, but CGA recognition makes available to them a wide variety of benefits paid for out of tuition dollars, and it at least suggests an association between the objectives of Bloomsburg University and those of Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist. Aligning the university with TP/PWL sends a profoundly chilling message to a university community—particularly its faculty, namely, “If you want to avoid being named, and potentially harassed, humiliated, or threatened by local or national members of Turning Point/Professor Watchlist, you better be careful that what you teach doesn’t challenge their anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, climate change denial, anti-racial equality, economic nationalism. Your tenure and future promotion or other academic/publishing prospects may be in jeopardy.” I made this clear to our communications director, and to everyone attached to what became a 13-member email thread, and I have retained a now extensive and full compendium of this email.

·       I waited two weeks for a response from the BU communications director, and when none was forthcoming I reminded him of our original exchange. I gather he punted to the BU Community Government Association (CGA), as I then heard from their VP to set up a meeting, which we did. For reasons I don’t know, the meeting with CGA was cancelled. I did receive a message from the president of CGA—who had apparently not communicated with its VP—to set up a meeting. But then I received a message from BU’s VP of Student Affairs, scheduling a meeting (10.25.17) to discuss TP/PWL’s status. By this point nearly a month has passed.

·       At about this same time I utilized my own right to free speech and posted a sign in my office window that read: BU-Turning Point USA=Alt-Right=White Supremacism as a way of alerting potential recruits to the group that it misrepresents its aims, and that its mission statement is misleading.

·       A local TV station, WNEP—without any interview from me (and none requested) ran a story in which two purported BU students apparently misread the poster as a defense of white supremacism (I find this very hard to believe). In the story, BU administration makes clear that this is not the case. But, the next morning I altered the sign anyways to read: Reject white supremacism. Reject BU-Turning Point USA. I cannot prove it, but I feel compelled to point out that I found the entire premise of how this TV news story came about implausible and contrived namely, a report to my dean from parents on Parent’s Day Weekend that the poster made them uncomfortable—a report that somehow made its way to the regional TV News who then interviews two young people who identify themselves as students—but both insist the sign supports white supremacism. It seems that no verification of their status as students was undertaken, and no request was made of myself to clarify the sign. It may be that WNEP did not know whose window this was, but this could have been quite easily discovered. The whole incident was very odd.

·       A few days later a poster appeared in a number of locations on the BU campus: Warning: Communist Professors Teach on this Campus. TP-BU denies putting up the posters. But this timing seems significant. To be clear, I would neither have removed the signs n or requested it. That is free speech. The signs were removed. As it’s likely that this was undertaken by BU, I find it ironic given BU’s stated commitment to student free speech. It’s also important to note that no one from BU administration has contacted me in any fashion about the sign in my office window. I take this to represent respect for my free speech rights as a professor, on the university campus, in the “ordinary course of my employment” as is spelled out in Article 31 of my union contract.

·       I attended the meeting with BU administration (10.25), and assumed they’d be prepared to make some decision. I had offered evidence of PWL, sources for my claim that TP was closely associated with the Alt-Right, and I had prepared (along with my colleague, Kurt Smith) a folder of additional materials. I made my argument for rescinding TP/PWL’s BU recognition, and I made the argument that had the appropriate agents at CGA and the putative faculty advisor conducted an even modestly thorough vetting of TP-USA, they’d have identified all of the issues above, most significantly PWL, and surely would not have extended formal endorsement. This created some bristling among the meetings attendees. It was pointed out by my dean, that a vetting process so poor would have lent itself to formal recognition to groups like the KKK. It was agreed that this process needed to be strengthened. The meeting ended and with another scheduled for 11.29 while the group of 13 “digested” all of the materials I had forwarded to them. I confess, I found this odd since they had been in possession of most of the considerable materials I had amassed (attached) since the middle of September.

·       At this point my story takes a decisive and very ugly turn: after the 10.25 meeting the TP faculty advisor gave an interview to the Washington Free Beacon (WFB). I do not know who came to whom. What I do know is that I’d promised my dean I would refrain from giving interviews. I did, even after a request earlier from the local newspaper, The Press Enterprise. Both WNEP and the PE had run stories with significant misrepresentations without any interview from me—and I did not respond. The article, however, that appeared in the WFB included a selection of emails from the thread of this group of 13 participants at the meeting. The advisor who had given the interview insisted that he had not leaked the email, but he’s quoted in the same paragraph for the interview itself, and it’s very unlikely (given their apparent risk aversion) that anyone else leaked the email. I did not. The WFB story then went viral, and I began to receive hate mail—some of vile (name-calling and the suggestion that I kill myself), some of it bordering on threats, all of it carefully documented, sent to the group of 13, and sent to the BU Police. I have updated the BU police several times since.

·       I requested another meeting before 11.29 to specifically discuss the leak and the harassment to which I have been subjected in light of it.  My request was granted by the VP of student affairs. But she then neither scheduled the meeting nor informed me that she had not scheduled it. In the mean time, I removed my office window poster at my office manager’s request, and I conveyed that information to the group of 13 as well. They were well aware of my concerns about safety—my concerns and my office manager’s.

·       During this same period I also was visited at my office unannounced by the CGA VP—now resigned—and this meeting was very odd and uncomfortable. I extended my hand in greeting; he refused to shake it. I asked him if he’d like to sit down; he refused to do so. He volunteered that he’d been a TP member in high school. He was very nervous. He kept checking his watch and looking at my open door. I asked him if he needed to go to class; he did not respond. He complained of corruption in CGA. I responded that I wasn’t the right person to whom to report this. He asked if I was going to pursue TP/PWL. I explained to him that I had a duty to my fellow faculty members, staff, and students to bring TP/PWL to my administration’s attention because their objectives—particularly the repression of faculty voices—was inconsistent with BU’s mission. The young man has since tried to “friend” me on Facebook. I deleted the request and blocked him.

·       Two days later my colleague was visited after her evening class by an unknown somewhat older woman who appeared to be looking for someone else—and would not tell my colleague who that was. My colleague was sufficiently “creeped out” by this that she reported it to BU police.

·       During this same period, the national offices of TP/PWL produced a poster (attached) that exemplifies precisely what the organization is and does. The poster takes an old photograph of me and juxtaposes it with an alarmed looking man. It reads: “This extremist professor claims that freedom is the new white supremacy. Wait…that woman is allowed to teach?!” This poster has gone viral and has generated abuse, near threats, and harassment on Facebook and elsewhere in cyberspace. It suggests that local BU-Affiliate Turning Point/Professor Watchlist are in contact with the national organization despite the advisor’s insistence that the local chapter was not interested in PWL. It’s just unlikely that the national office would have found its way to me at this particular moment without that prompt.

·       On 11.21 (the night before Thanksgiving Eve), I received a request—with some urgency—to meet with the BU interim provost. Here I was informed that my union contract (APSCUF) Article 31 specified under what conditions—“ordinary course of employment”—PASSHE General Council would represent me should TP decide to sue me for defamation, and that PASSHE would not likely defend me. Indeed, in conversations with AAUP since, I have come to understand that universities typically do indemnify themselves against the threat of litigation aimed at faculty. What I’ve believed all these years is that this is precisely what a union is for, and that this is among the central aims of union representation in the protection of academic freedom. I have no idea whatever on what grounds I could be sued for defamation. I have maligned no individual in any way whatsoever. I have discussed these issues on FB—but certainly not any particular persons. I don’t even know the TP-BU members. And while I have made out my arguments there just as I have here against TP’s formal recognition, that argument is not directed at any person.

I was also informed that BU was going to honor its endorsement of TP/PWL despite what TP had in fact done to a BU professor—despite the fact that the example TP made of myself offered clear illustration of precisely its motives, and in contrast to the local group-advisor’s insistence that TP-BU was not party to PWL. That the assault on my character appears to have originated in the TP national offices is, I think, largely irrelevant. I’m a professor at BU. TP/PWL has a chapter here. The way I read Article 31, "ordinary course of employment," I am clearly entitled to protection given the facts. These events are plainly about the ordinary course of my employment: they are about what I (and every other professor) can teach, under what conditions we will work, and with what assurance that we will be safe. What could be more relevant to a professor’s working conditions than the existence and formal recognition of an organization whose objectives include the repression of the free speech rights of professors who don't behave in a fashion for which they offer ideological approval? The course of my employment depends on my being able to teach without the threat of reprisal. I have every reason to believe that because TP/PWL has attacked me, they will do so again—that is about the conditions of my ordinary employment.

BU administration acknowledges that the university’s poor vetting procedure would have permitted recognition to the Ku Klux Klan, and that the KKK’s recognition would not have been rescinded once it had been given. I was invited to participate on a “taskforce” to redraft more rigorous vetting procedures.  But I see this as something of a consolation prize—one that cannot address the potentially repressive effect TP/PWL might have on BU faculty, and one that I think is unlikely to have particularly more teeth than BU’s original procedures given how apparently easily cowed is our administration with respect to the claim that this is about student’s free speech rights. I would counter that it is not, and that were the situation reversed—were a student being attacked by a professor with respect to a view held by the student—we’d likely see a very different response.

I have appealed to my union for help, and while I have received acknowledgement of my concerns, I have not received any correspondence as of this writing (about nine days). I remain hopeful. It’s important to stress that this account is about every of the nearly 200 professors on PWL. It’s about every untenured professor intimidated by this reincarnated McCarthyism. It’s about every professor, including some who have come to me in fear, who will decide not to teach some material, some book, some theory, some idea because they’re afraid it could land them on PWL. I’ve encouraged some of my fellow faculty to respond to the Add My Name campaign sponsored by AAUP—but more needs to be done to generate awareness and solidarity. I took a stand because what’s going on here is wrong. I took a stand because it’s easy to say what we’re about in academia is inclusion, diversity, equality, and free speech; it’s another to mean it.

It’s also important to say that, whatever its intentions or objectives, Turning Point/Professor Watchlist is now a part of the Bloomsburg University landscape. The very fact of that is repressive. We must respect the rights of students to freedom of expression. But to do so at the direct expense of their professors’ freedom to teach, research, and write is not merely wrong, but will harm students.

Thank you for any consideration you can offer to posting my letter. Please feel free to contact me for any additional information.

Wendy Lynne Lee
Professor, Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

Turning Point USA/Professor Watchlist: Sources

Professor Watchlist:

1.     Professor Watchlist/AAUP Statement:
2.     Professor Watchlist/Chronicle of Higher Education:
3.     Professor Watchlist/National Education Association:
4.     Professor Watchlist/American Federation of Teachers:
5.     Professor Watchlist/American Prospect:
6.     Professor Watchlist/American Federation of Teachers:
8.     Professor Watchlist/American Prospect:
10. Professor Watchlist:
11. Professor Watchlist:
12. Professor Watchlist:
15. Professor Watchlist:
17. Professor Watchlist/Racism:
21. Professor Watchlist:
23. Professor Watchlist:
38. Professor Watchlist:
39.  Professor Watchlist:

Turning Point Donors:

Turning Point Finance “SuperPAC” to elect members to student government: “In elections this spring, candidates at Ohio State University and the University of Maryland at College Park dropped out after they were caught violating spending rules and attempting to hide the help they received from Turning Point.”

Colleges and Universities that have denied Recognition to TP/PWL:

5.     TP Denied Charter at UW-Steven’s Point:

Turning Point Samples: Anti-Semitism:

Turning Point Samples: Anti-Muslim:

2.     TP Anti-Muslim:
3.     Foster Friess/TP Bd. of Advisors: “He has a long history funding Islamophobic organizations. One of Friess’ biggest beneficiaries is a collection of some of the largest Islamophobic organizations in the country, including Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy and David Horowitz’s Terrorism Awareness Project.”
4.     David Horowitz:

Turning Point Samples: Racism:

1.     Joe Walsh, TP Advisory Board:

Turning Point Samples: Misogyny and anti-LGBTQ:

3.     Ivan Throne:
7.     Ben Shapiro:
8.     Ginni Thomas, TP Advisor:

Turning Point Samples: Connections to the Alt-Right:
David Horowitz:

4.     David Horowitz:

Ann Coulter:


Sebastian Gorka:

Turning Point Connection to Gateway Pundit and Lucian Wintrich: is a right-wing,[2][3][4][5] far-right,[6][7][8] alt-right and pro-Trump[9][10][11][12] website founded by Jim Hoft after the United States presidential election in 2004.[13][14] According to Hoft, it was founded to "speak the truth" and to "expose the wickedness of the left".[15] The website is often linked to or cited by Fox News, Drudge Report, Sarah Palin and other well-known conservative people and sites.[16] The website is known for publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.[17][5][18][19] One week after the 2016 presidential election, The Gateway Pundit published a post entitled "One Week After Election Loss Hillary Clinton Looks Like Death", stating that "[s]he looked like death… She’s either been on a bender, or crying her eyes out… or both".[29] A February 13, 2017 article in The New York Times cited that post in describing The Gateway Pundit as a "provocative conservative blog" that promotes "false rumors about voter fraud and Hillary Clinton’s health".[16]In October 2017, The Gateway Pundit published an article which falsely implicated an innocent individual as the shooter in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, a story that was also pushed by Google as a "top story".[30]