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Condemning the Harassment Shouldn't Mean Dismissing the Concerns: A Response to the Campus Reform Controversy

Faculty and instructors should not be targeted by threats because of their political or ideological beliefs. Recognizing this point, however, in no way diminishes the concerns raised by some of the incidents that trigger those responses. A recent study and a resulting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education confuse these two important points. Perhaps the researchers’ zeal to issue a condemnation consistent with the first led them to miss the mark on the second.

The study, titled “Data Snapshot: Whom Does Campus Reform Target and What Are the Effects?”, summarizes a research project by a joint team from the American Association of University Professors and Trinity College. In their study, the researchers scoured more than 1,570 articles published by Campus Reform—a conservative outlet focused on higher education—and identified those that covered instances where a faculty member’s “speech or writing displayed ‘liberal bias.’”

For the study, the research team then reached out to 338 individuals who were the subjects of such stories in 2020 (some were the subject of more than one story) and carried out an online survey. The survey had a 63% response rate, yielding a sample size of 213.

One of the study’s authors, Isaac Kamola, stated in the Chronicle article, “[Campus Reform is] not telling trolls to go out there and harass these faculty members … However, they’re creating the conditions in which that’s possible. And they’re not bearing the responsibility.” Kamola and his co-authors are right to condemn the harassment, but in stopping there, they fail to address the real concerns that spurred the Campus Reform articles in question.

The problem isn’t with the questions the study poses, which seem important to ask. And, to be sure, the authors raise some concerns to which Campus Reform should respond. For instance, a Campus Reform fundraising campaign reportedly stating that “the time has come to expose leftist thugs and their attacks on freedom” is combative, dismissive, and generally counterproductive. Further, Campus Reform’s practice of “provid[ing] direct links to faculty contact information” alongside the stories is one that should be stopped, given the threats and harassment that often follow the articles.

While these concerns are well-founded, the study overreaches. Although it provides evidence that the instructors named in the Campus Reform articles do indeed tend to receive threats, the results convey no information regarding whether the incidents mentioned in these articles merit concern. Perhaps we’re just supposed to assume that Campus Reform’s coverage is solely based in conservative hysteria.

Such an assumption would lead to unjustified conclusions. For instance, 78% of the 213 respondents reported that the story in which they were featured concerned speech in a public forum (“such as letters to the editor, tweets, or public presentations”). Classroom speech was 9% and research publications made up 8%. The study authors criticize what they view as Campus Reform’s insinuation that “faculty members engage their students in the classroom in the same way they discuss issues on Twitter or other social-media platforms.” The authors are right to identify this as a potential concern. However, is the burden on Campus Reform to affirmatively demonstrate that instructors bring their public persona into the classroom? Or is the burden on instructors—or on academia more generally—to demonstrate that those with overtly biased social media personas leave their biases behind when they enter the classroom?

The problem with assuming that the burden is on Campus Reform, which is essentially what the authors do, is that there is certainly evidence (here, too) of ideological bias in college teaching. There is a significant slant in how material on controversial topics is taught, presented, discussed—and tweeted—by American college instructors. Based on my experiences and from what I've heard from colleagues at various institutions, the following scenario is commonplace: In almost any undergraduate class that touches issues of race and identity, the question “What are the benefits of race-based college admissions?” gets thoughtful and sincere answers. But the question “Why might someone object to or have concerns about making college admissions decisions based on race?” rarely gets asked. And if it does, the response is crickets. If this is still not compelling, there is data on self-censorship in the classroom and numerous case studies, many of which I outline here.

The conclusions from the study are grouped into three categories: Who Is Targeted, Threats and Topics, and What Are the Effects? Since the effects appear to come from outside the Campus Reform organization, as recognized by the authors, we’ll focus here on the first two. In the first category, the study authors note that a disproportionate number of the stories focus on faculty “from the most prestigious research universities in the country.” The authors dismiss this in their study by saying, “Campus Reform’s overwhelming focus on the most prestigious universities suggests that an apparent goal of the website’s coverage is to delegitimize not just higher education generally but specifically those institutions that make the largest share of contributions to research production in the United States.” [emphasis added]

A reasonable argument could be made that Campus Reform should pay attention to those institutions. Bias in such institutions is concerning. Research conducted in an environment characterized by overt and pervasive ideological bias will shape other work, conclusions, and policies that are promulgated downstream. Further, other institutions likely emulate those that are more prestigious, broadening the impact.

In the second category, Threats and Topics, the authors similarly misstep. The study finds that race was the primary topic of speech—at 42.5%—that led to the Campus Reform stories. Yet, this only confirms that conversations about race are some of the most controversial in our society today. And, race is one of the topics on which, within higher education, there is rarely a variety of perspectives. (See the earlier example about race-based college admissions. A similar exercise can be done with white privilege or colorblind racism.)

To be sure, pointing out these problems with the authors’ interpretation does not mean that every time an outlet like Campus Reform yells “fire,” we should all run panic-stricken for the exit. But we have an obligation to students and to one another to take the problem of ideological bias in academe more seriously than we currently do.

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