Words by Morgan Krakow, Photos by Ty Boespflug


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom floor to ceiling, John Bellamy Foster’s walls are lined with books. The sociology professor’s library of society, philosophy, and environment reading is extensive, passed down and collected over decades. Foster has taught at the University of Oregon since 1985, and until recently, has maintained a fairly private life. However, in December 2016, his name was added to a list of perceived radical professors by the national conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA, which has a University of Oregon chapter.

Across the nation, universities are grappling with protests, bias reports, and cancelled speakers as they deal with academic freedom. Conservative students have publicly stated that campuses are too liberal and that they don’t feel free to express their ideas inside and outside of the classroom. To reconcile this, students have brought controversial speakers that represent dissenting viewpoints, like conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Often, other students protest and disrupt these speakers, creating a cycle where either side uses academic freedom to ground their actions. Reactions are extreme and sometimes violent, adding to an ideologically charged environment on campus, and a heightened national rhetoric. Academic freedom isn’t just a hot-button topic right now. The button has melted, and everything around it is on fire, entrenched in a war of ideas about what’s permitted in a university classroom.

In Eugene, the story of academic freedom is more tame. University of Oregon has avoided shouting matches and massive protests with the ASUO permitting Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in March 2016 before he entered headlines nationally. But the university hasn’t stayed out of the news completely. In a Huffington Post article written by Greg Lukianoff, founder of the nonprofit Foundation For Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E), the University of Oregon was listed as one of the top 10 worst schools for freedom of speech. F.I.R.E. says it advocates on behalf of university students’ right to free expression. Turning Point USA’s watchlist is another reaction showing the intensity of the national conversation that reaches campus.

On the Watchlist

This isn’t the first time that Foster, who considers himself a Marxist and a socialist, had his views come under fire nationally. He was previously included in conservative author David Horowitz’s 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Foster didn’t think much of one person’s perspective, but today, he says there’s growing pressure to silence professors and is more willing to speak out.

The Professor Watchlist stems from what Matt Lamb, the Director of Campus Integrity at Turning Point USA’s national headquarters, calls issues of bias and free speech on campuses nationally. The list, comprised of 170 professors, demonstrates a belief held by some within the country: that university faculty are radical and unwilling to engage with conservative students’ perspectives. But in the case of Foster, his placement on the list isn’t for a hostile or offensive classroom, like others on the list including Arthur Butz, a Northwestern University professor. Butz is cited as a Holocaust denier. Rather, it’s Foster’s position as editor of the Monthly Review, a global socialist magazine, which in its first issue published in 1949 included an article by Albert Einstein. Lamb says a professor’s work in and out of the classroom go into their consideration for placement on the list.

“It’s generally something that a professor says or does where we feel like it would lead to students in the class feeling like they couldn’t share their opinions on a particular subject,” Lamb says.

The Professor Watchlist is not a function of the government, but to Foster, the practice of publicly listing professors to watch is reminiscent of other points in history. Foster draws comparisons to the McCarthy Era and Germany in the 1930s, when universities also came under fire publically. He sees the popularity of branding certain professors rising, as the politics of today are changing. Foster views Horowitz’s newest book, Big Agenda: Trump’s Plan To Save America, as the most worrisome because Horowitz claims the Trump administration will try to dismantle public service unions. Foster believes that includes university faculty as targets. The David Horowitz Freedom Center is listed as a partner organization on the Turning Point USA national website. According to Foster, the public intimidation disturbs him, because he feels it could make his colleagues feel unsafe to teach openly. It could poison a university environment that’s based on openness to ideas and theories.

“It’s not a threat to people like me because I’m going to speak out no matter what,” Foster says. “Because my views are clear and because I’m tenured.”

The University of Oregon’s public academic freedom policy does make room for free expression in both the classroom and outside of it, stating that “members of the UO community have autonomous freedom to conduct research and produce creative work, and to publish and disseminate that work.”

According to Lamb, no one is put on the list without a link to a previously published article about them. Some of the stories link to right wing websites like Breitbart. Others link to sites that provide broader coverage like the Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Foster’s page on the Professor Watchlist contains a link to David Horowitz’s website “Discover The Networks, A Guide To The Political Left.” The article focuses on Foster’s editorial role at the Monthly Review, and his writings about the natural environment becoming increasingly commodified.  

Foster tells students on the first day of his environmental sociology classes that he’s on the list, and hasn’t had any complaints or concerns about it. An open classroom with a rich discussion is important to him. He encourages comments and conversation throughout his lectures, and during break-off groups. For him, it’s not about opinions, but rather educated arguments formed from the readings and class materials.

“My belief is that if you give a lot of that kind of intellectual freedom to people and you let them sort out their own ideas, you really do see people grow,” Foster says. “You really do see solutions emerge.”

Foster doesn’t see all campuses as extremely leftist, and often actually feels like an outlier in his beliefs and ideas. “There’s sort of this tendency to say ‘well, the universities are controlled by people like me,” Foster says. “But actually, I’m a very isolated figure. When I retire, they probably won’t replace me with anybody like me.”

An Engagement To Argue

Outside of the Lillis Business Complex on Feb. 23, cardboard posters read “Big Government Silences” and “Big Government Lies.” Students pass by, some stopping to ask questions. The conversations that ensue are what the university’s Turning Point USA chapter president Adam Sharf is hoping for. The junior public relations major says that they are trying to start a healthy debate rather than negatively spotlight professors. He says that even within the club, the Professor Watchlist is often debated. At the time of the interview, he was not aware that any University of Oregon professors were on the watchlist.

“The individuals in our chapter at the University of Oregon don’t all have to and don’t all agree with everything that the national organization does,” Sharf says.

Sharf seeks to engage students in a diverse range of  ideas and not shut down discussions. He’s using this group for materials and support to screen films and plans to hold a panel discussion on styles of government spring term. As someone who believes in free market ideals and ascribes to a more conservative and libertarian ideology, Sharf feels like a political minority on campus. This is a trend that he cites as common across the nation. He sees the majority of universities and professors as liberal.

“I’m not saying that’s evil and that I’m against it,” Sharf says. “It’s just a fact that the majority of campus tends to view things from one side, and I think that it’s just really positive to bring this other perspective to campus.”

At a table outside of the Erb Memorial Union, “Make America Great Again” hats shield the February downpour for Trent Capurro and Ted Yanez, members of the College Republicans club. Capurro says he hasn’t been silenced in the classroom, rather the opposite; his professors have asked him to speak up and share his perspectives.

Yanez echoes a similar sentiment. He says that in his classes, his professors have been inclusive. He says that he doesn’t think the Professor Watchlist is an appropriate response to issues of bias. “I think it’s a little ridiculous,” he says. “Just because if you really do advocate for free speech, you should be against that sort of thing.”

Agreeing To Disagree

The discussions surrounding academic freedom at UO often end up at Johnson Hall. Administrators are tasked with upholding the university’s free expression policies, while protecting students from harassment and harm within the classroom.

For President Michael Schill, the Professor Watchlist reflects a national trend and rhetoric that is not limited to Turning Point USA, but he says most of it “is on the right wing of politics.” Schill says that such groups do not offer helpful ways to achieve their objectives. “I think there are some national groups whose sole purpose is to try to humiliate universities,” Schill says. “That’s their political slant.”

“My belief is that if you give a lot of that kind of intellectual freedom to people and you let them sort out their own ideas, you really do see people grow,” Foster says. “You really do see solutions emerge.”

The academic freedom to express certain beliefs can sometimes border on harassment, as with the recent incident of Law Professor Nancy Shurtz who donned blackface to dress as a book character at a Halloween party students had been invited to. “Most people think there is a line,” Schill says. “Because you end up with – as we did with regard to the incident at the law school – a line between two rights coming into conflict with each other, right to be free from harassment and the right to be able to state your views and engage in free speech. So, where that line is, is very difficult.”

Looking forward, Schill notes that academic freedom often means engaging in discussions and disagreements. He says these conversations are at the core of universities and are where students can experience the most growth. “The challenge is to do that in a way that’s respectful,” Schill says, “and that leads to dialogue rather than to monologue.”


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