YCT watch list claims bias, is biased

Larisa Manescu

 It’s been five years since the UT chapter of Young Conservatives of Texas last published a “professor watch list.” The compilation of the list, resurrected this year, claims to  identify professors who show bias in the classroom. YCT is currently in the process of accepting submissions for the updated list.

The YCT defines biased professors as those who do not allow views alternative to their own to be expressed in the classroom. The organization has the right idea: The most powerful person in the classroom is the professor. He or she possesses education, experience and ultimately command over students’ grades. However, a professor’s authority shouldn’t intimidate students and prevent them from contributing their own views. Thus, the initiative to catalogue professors’ biases in an effort to sustain a healthy dialogue between professors and students is a respectable and necessary one.

But the “watch list” is inappropriate because it is being run by the wrong people. The process by which it is being created — through the agenda of a political organization —  makes it untrustworthy.

The fact that an inherently biased political organization considers itself the architect of a watch list to identify and eliminate bias is suspicious. This concern would be just the same if the University Democrats proposed the same project.

The process adopted by YCT for evaluating professors consists of three methods: auditing classrooms, reviewing syllabus materials and surveying students. The first two activities are organized by YCT members, making the collection of information unreliable.

James Lamey, a senior English major and member of YCT, denies that the watch list is a project exclusive to the organization. “YCT encourages others to conduct their own research and create their own list if they find ours to be unsatisfactory,” he said. 

All the same, I would argue that no political organization should be entrusted with any project that claims to present objective knowledge. Organizations are founded upon shared values and interests; although they may honestly believe they are advocating for the “real” truth, their members are fundamentally biased in their viewpoints. Instead, entire classes should be put up to the task of evaluating their professors. Just as students complete general course surveys at the end of each semester, they should have the opportunity to fill out anonymous assessments dedicated specifically to evaluating professor bias in each course.

Another shortcoming of the project is its intimidating name. Identifying bias should motivate professors to engage in constructive reform and evolve their teaching style to be wholesome and sensitive to all viewpoints. The label “watch list” discourages and upsets professors with its accusatory connotation. Attaching a professor’s name to a watch list invokes public shame, as opposed to giving him or her the opportunity to improve lectures.

The label disenchants Sheldon Ekland-Olson, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and provost. “This sounds like thought police,” he said. “It is offensive.” The project should look beyond merely witch hunting to uncover bias; it should strive to offer constructive suggestions to combat it. Ekland-Olson, who now teaches an undergraduate studies course called “Life and Death Decisions” that deals with controversial topics such as abortion, euthanasia, war and torture, reveals that he tries “very hard to avoid revealing [his] biases or personal opinions until the very last day of class when it is open season and all questions are permitted and answered candidly.” As a former student, I can testify to his ability to keep us curious about his own views until the last day.

Why not aim at eliminating bias by offering helpful suggestions instead of making provocative allegations? Professors should acknowledge the difference between sharing their opinions on a particular topic and letting strong personal ideas dictate their teaching. Ultimately, YCT’s idea is worthy of examination, but it is the wrong start to this type of study. (Hint: study is a better word than “watch list.”)

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.