European Academics are becoming concerned by the rise of online “exposures”, by students who feel their professors and teachers are too liberal or left wing. This comes as the tactics of US websites such as “Professor Watchlist” and “Campus Reform” gain traction internationally, most notably in countries with either far right governments or vocal far right movements, such as Hungary, Brazil, and Germany.
Professor Watchlist, founded in 2016, is an American website run by the conservative political group Turning Point USA. The aim of the website is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The website encourages users to submit “tips”, which can not only include news sources, but also photographic or video “evidence”. Once the site runners have what they believe to be a legitimate case, they upload a file with descriptions of events where the professor allegedly showed anti-conservative bias, along with any videos or pictures they have. Some of the images and files are from public sources such as twitter accounts or TV appearances, but others are videos taken during lectures.
The German “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany AfD) has already attempted to set up a website similar to Professor Watchlist for conservative Germans to expose their left-leaning teachers, however the website is currently unavailable, and instead an apology claiming the site was hacked takes its place. The AfD has a strong focus on what it sees as a “left wing clique” on university campuses, using its electoral success in the past two years to start asking questions about funding for left wing groups and other alleged ties to the far left. Last year, an AfD representative in Berlin’s state Parliament asked three universities for the names of students’ union representatives. Two universities, Berlin’s Free University and Technical University declined on data protection grounds, but Humboldt University President Sabine Kunst has started a lawsuit to uncover the requested names. Humboldt’s SU, The Refrat, has expressed concerns that exposing the names could lead to them being used by “Political Enemies.”
In Hungary, media outlets such as 888 are encouraging students to expose their left leaning teachers also. An article by a journalism student at Eötvös Loránd University claimed that the Department of Media and Communication at that University was one sided propaganda against the Government of Viktor Orbán. Ferenc Hammer, head of said department published a response, correcting factual errors from the article. In response, 888 alleged that it was “ethically questionable” to do this, claiming it was a “veiled threat” against students who disagree with their teachers. They also provided an email address to “share your story” for people “sick of unwanted left-wing politics in the campus classroom.”
As was reported in The University Observer in September 2018, Hungary banned Gender Studies programs from being offered in Universities that receive state funding.
After the election of proto-fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil last year, universities were raided by military police and Bolsonaro’s supporters have condemned the “corrupt ideologies” of the academic community. Fellow Social Liberal Party member and state deputy of Santa Catarina Ana Caroline Campagnolo created a WhatsApp channel so that students could “film or record any party-political or ideological expressions that humiliate or offend [their] freedom of faith and conscience.” The founder of Turning Point USA and Professor Watchlist, Charlie Kirk has praised the Bolsonaro regime, saying on Twitter: “I love Jair Bolsonaro the new President of Brazil. He has identified Marxism has a key threat to the future of Brazil…They call him ‘Trump of the Tropics!’”
In response to these trends, many academics are calling for tighter protections, against both filming in the classroom and the targeted harassment that often accompanies being exposed. In a report on how such harassment and attacks are dealt with, Professor Carolyn Gallaher of the American University in Washington outlined a spectrum from “robust defense [of academic freedom]” to “on the spot reproach [of academics]”, citing several cases where professors were fired or punished without due process in an attempt to avoid scandal.
Another issue she described was that many university administrators don’t understand online harassment, including not knowing what doxing is. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has two recommendations on how to respond to these attacks. Firstly, university actors from governing boards to faculty must “aggressively defend academic freedom both collectively and individually”, and secondly, university administrators must limit or prohibit “surreptitious recording of classroom discourse or of private meetings between students and faculty.”
While many lecturers may support these protections, it’s difficult to see any of them being implemented in Hungary or Brazil where the Governments continue to disregard academic freedom in favour of right-wing populism.