Academics worldwide are facing threats of secret recording and denunciation online by their own students, a sign that tactics used by far-right activists in the US are being adopted more widely.
In the US, websites such as the Professor Watchlist — which purports to challenge those who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” — host names and pictures of academics and invite students to submit tips on who else should be publicly exposed. The campaigning news website Campus Reform lists dozens of student “campus correspondents”, recruited to “investigate and report liberal bias on college campuses throughout their state”.
But in recent months, the trend appears to have spread beyond the US. Last October in Germany, a politician from the far-right Alternative for Germany party launched a website where university students and schoolchildren could submit screenshots and audio of lecturers and teachers who criticised the party.
The portal idea was condemned by Peter-Andre Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, as an attempt to “intimidate” professors using students. The portal is currently unavailable and displays a message saying it has been hacked.
Filming in class has also become an issue in Brazil since the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, with one of his allies urging students to send in evidence of “ideological professors and indoctrinators”.
Last November, a group of US scholars launched the Network of Concerned Academics (NCA) in response to what they said was a “sustained campaign of demonisation” and a “manufactured” media storm around free speech on campus. University administrators “need to be firm and vigilant about prohibiting surreptitious recording in classrooms,” the group said.
Whether universities should ban students from recording in class has been contested in the US, with some academics arguing that recording could be useful in exposing sexual harassment, for example, and that to punish students for it would be repressive.
Michael Meranze, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and one of the founders of the NCA, argues that it should be up to the academic whether students are allowed to record. “When faculty fail to meet (their) responsibilities they can be held to account through clearly defined procedures. Surreptitious taping doesn’t do that,” he says. In 2017, the American Association of University Professors released guidelines urging universities to “establish institutional regulations that prohibit the surreptitious recording of classroom discourse”.
But there are fears that universities are still not confronting the scale of the challenge, with administrators unaware of how online harassment works and failing to demand corrections in stories circulating online, according to a report released in 2018 by Carolyn Gallaher, a professor at the American University in Washington. “Attacks on professors are likely to continue, if not accelerate. The cases detailed here suggest universities have a steep learning curve and not much time to climb it,” the report warns.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)