Right-wing Vigilantes

    An old adage goes, if you’re not liberal by 20, you have no heart, but if you’re not conservative by 40, you have no brain. It is widely accepted that the university community is primarily a liberal one, but few people have declared war on that bias so completely as Andrew Jones.

    Jennifer Hsu/Guardian

    The Bruin Alumni Association, the brainchild of this former UCLA alumnus, seeks to provide proof of “an increasingly radical faculty” at UCLA. To reach this goal, until very recently, the site offered students up to $100 to provide proof, in the form of lecture recordings and class materials, that their teachers were devoting a significant portion of their class time to “abusive, one-sided or off-topic classroom behavior.” The site also made a ranking of the 28 most radical professor profiles, calling it the “dirty 30.”

    The entire affair is essentially a thinly veiled publicity stunt, no different than the “affirmative-action bake sales” that Jones organized while still an undergraduate and member of the College Republicans. Cookies ranged in price depending on the customer’s race, and the news coverage was invariably more significant than having the people actually buy a snack.

    Jones’ major goal seems to be to work at “depoliticizing the classroom and emphasizing professional behavior,” an idea that most would agree sounds like a good one, but his evidence against the liberal classroom demeanor of UCLA professors is slim, at best.

    The site touts its professor profiles as demonstrating that “these professors are actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic.” But the profiles themselves don’t deliver, as most of those profiled don’t rely on in-class off-topic speeches, but instead on petitions, projects, rallies and activist organizations that these professors have been a part of either in the past and outside of the classroom.

    For example, the front page of the site implies that Douglas Kellner, a UCLA professor of education, “rages about a Bush Reich” in the classroom. But his profile instead states that this professor is “not much of a fire-starter” inside class but rather is judged as a radical from his various papers and publications.

    While it is possible that professors who are politically active may be more likely to share their views in the classroom, the very fact that they are involved is not evidence that they are “actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom” or that they are not displaying “professional behavior.” What happens when they are off the clock doesn’t make them any less knowledgeable about their subject matter, or any less able to teach it.

    It is also important that nonacademic organizations or students may not be proper judges of professor conduct. “Only other specialists can determine whether a professor is just spewing off nonsense out of personal bias or is really conveying conclusions from painstaking research,” said Branislav Slantchev, an assistant professor in UCSD’s political science department.

    This is particularly true in political science classes, where the professors discuss public policy and political theories as a matter of course. These teachers are expected to discuss theories that may offend some students, but it is part of a student’s responsibility to take them in stride. Sandy Lakoff, another political science professor, mentions that taking a political science class “carries with it an obligation to recognize that our theories may be biased and the evidence selective.”

    Of course, political views in a poli-sci class seem more appropriate than such views shared in a math or biology class. But there are ways of responding that are better than Jones’ Web site. Slantchev believes that “students are smart enough to vote with their feet.”

    “Drop classes that are ridiculously biased,” he explained. “Or don’t enroll in them in the first place.”

    Besides, if students are honestly worried about hearing political propaganda in the classroom rather than lecture material, they can research the professor before enrolling in the class. There are several Web sites that provide excellent information on professors, such as Ratemyprofessors.com. It not only includes student ratings on how difficult or clear a given professor is, it also includes student comments that are likely to tell you if the professor spends most of his time discussing off-topic subject matter. If a student ends up in a class where she disagrees adamantly with the professor’s views, it’s a lot more reasonable and a lot less shrill to just drop the class rather than campaign for it to never be given again. After all, you’re paying for the privilege of being able to take a class, and when you don’t like what you’re paying for, you cancel your service.

    The perverse thing about Jones’ publicity stunt is that the criticisms targeting it might be as baseless as the Bruin Alumni Association accusations. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Some of the instructors mentioned [in the professor profiles] accuse the association of conducting a witch hunt that threatens to harm the teaching atmosphere.” But most of the professors interviewed didn’t believe such a program would actually damage student-professor relations as much as the article implies. Lakoff said that students can do whatever they want with materials presented in class as long as they don’t “disrupt the class or take things out of context.” Slantchev also agrees that if such a program were implemented at UCSD, it would not damage his relationships with his students.

    “I give students more credit than that,” he said.But perhaps the most baffling thing about the entire issue is that everyone simply assumes that college students are lambs being led to the slaughter. Students are fully capable of thinking for themselves and forming opinions independent of the herd; just looking at the recent Student-Run Television events provides proof of that.

    Even if one assumes what Jones portrays is true, just because one side may be represented more in a classroom doesn’t mean that students will unwittingly assume that all their professor says is true and sacrosanct. If it is the case that a professor is abusing his power of a captive audience with political beliefs, then word will get around, less people will take the class and hopefully students will complain to the university, the best qualified judge in the matter.

    A vigilante organization such as the Bruin Alumni Association is not only unnecessary — frankly, it is in bad taste.

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