"Big Argus" Meets the Playground Bullies

Peter Wood

Scott Jaschik, editor-in-chief over at Inside Higher Education, knows his audience. Yesterday he threw the cat among the pigeons by running a piece titled, “Big Argus Is Watching You,” which purports to describe the National Association of Scholar’s “Argus Project.” Jaschik gave the facts just enough spin to set the dervishes of the Left in motion. “Academic McCarthyism!” “Ideological!”
 “National Association of Snitches!” "Conservatives!” “Surreptitious!”

Ouch! Ooof! Arrgh! Please don’t hit us again…we’re sorry…(not really)

Just to be clear, for those critics who composed their responses before they finished Jaschik’s article, the Argus Project is a call for volunteers to examine publicly available sources to report and document what’s happening on college campuses. We reached out to volunteers because colleges are many and we are few. Whenever NAS ventures a criticism of some development in higher education as evidenced by a program at, say, the University of Delaware, we immediately hear back from defenders of the status quo that we are generalizing from too small a set of examples. 

We have done in-depth studies of a dozen institutions, systematic examinations of several dozen institutions, randomized surveys of hundreds of institutions—it doesn’t matter. The academic establishmentarians demand the ever-expanding data set. OK. We’re persuaded. American higher education is big (N= 4,276 institutions, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s count.) NAS has eight professional staff. We thought it was time to ask for some help. 

Of course, the “big brother” reference in Jaschik’s title suggests that we plan some national surveillance system, complete with classroom spies. “Unapologetically Tenured” jeers at “Mr. Balch and his secret police network.” Maurice Isserman calls us “snitches.” Don Langenberg, Chancellor Emeritus of the University System of Maryland, demonstrates yet again the lumbering inconsequence characteristic of the snidely self-satisfied state bureaucrat:

Many complex organic molecules have helical (screw-like) structures, which may be either right-handed or left-handed. Assuming that our Big Argus monitors will investigate science courses just as they will humanities courses, what political conclusions might they draw when they discover a professor teaching that most of the organic molecules found in nature are of one helicity?

Where does Chancellor Emeritus Langenberg get the notion that we are going to monitor courses? Certainly not from Jaschik’s article. Jaschik raised the question with Steve Balch, and reported:

Will the efforts to identify “politicized teaching” include sitting in on classes? Balch said that “if people can walk in on their own, they can do it, but it’s not something we would encourage.” He added that “my own notion of etiquette is that if you are going to go to someone’s classroom, you should get permission.”

But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good jest, Chancellor E. And we have “dundermuffin” who refers to conservative students as “hitler jungen.” 

  It is madness to attempt to reply to all this nonsense, but it is probably folly as well to ignore it entirely. So here goes.

Caricature The Argus Project is a “big brother” operation. 

Reality: We take no inspiration from Orwell’s 1984. We’ve asked for some volunteers to help us with a research program that makes use of publicly available documentary sources such as course catalogs and websites. We may on occasion pursue freedom of information requests. We do this routinely. We have declared our intention to publish nothing that we can’t double-check. We are focused on institutions, not individuals. We have neither the capacity nor the interest to snoop into private lives. We promote transparency, and we have a long history of being open and public about our own work.

Spin: The NAS is an ideological partisan organization that is pursuing the Argus Project as part of a right-wing agenda.

Fact: NAS is politically centrist and non-ideological. To ideologues, anything other than congruency with their own views appears “ideological.” Since NAS is manifestly not part of the campus Left, we must, in this logic, be ideological partisans of the Right. But we are not. That leaves our critics scrambling for evidence of their thesis. We’ve been around for 21 years, publishing a quarterly journal, issuing research reports, and distributing our analyses in many media. If the evidence were there to be found, shouldn’t someone have found it by now? One recurrent “proof” of our right-wing outlook is to list some of the foundations that have given us financial support. JP Craig helpfully points out:

For those disinclined to hit the wiki, this organ is funded by “the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.[6]

We’re happy to have received their support, and would be just as happy if the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation and others chipped in. What Craig’s list really proves is that conservative foundations see the NAS as an honest dealer in non-partisan analyses of higher education.

This is not to say that NAS attempts to practice neutrality on issues we take as central to higher education. We are an advocacy organization. We advocate for academic freedom, for merit-based academic appointments, for responsible institutional governance, for transparency in higher education; we advocate against racial preferences, identity politics, politicization of the curriculum, and manipulation of students for political ends. That’s not a comprehensive list, but it is also not what fair-minded observers would call a political list. 

The possible exception is our stand against racial preferences. On this we line up with a large majority of ordinary Americans, such as those who passed the civil rights initiatives in California, Washington, and Michigan. But we certainly recognize that the publicly avowed view of many faculty members is that opposition to racial preferences is a right-wing cause. This is a mistaken opinion, as demonstrated by the liberal political views of the many opponents of racial preferences. Yet mistaken as it is, the assumption remains.

NAS has no foreign policy positions; no positions on non-academic domestic issues; no party affiliation; and no connection whatever to the numerous “culture war” litmus tests that typically define “right” and “left” in America. We don’t have official positions on abortion, gun control, immigration, or global warming. Yet by the slap-dash logic of the academic Left, because we oppose racial preferences, or because we have received grants from conservative foundations, we are “right wing.” 

The Argus project welcomes volunteers whatever their political views. Our hope is to gather people who have the energy, intelligence, patience, and time to do good work. If we are so non-partisan why do we seek volunteers through Townhall.com? It isn’t the only place we seek volunteers, but we go where we think we can find people who are skeptical of how higher education today operates. We are not going to find many of those skeptics among the orthodox defender of the campus status quo, which happens to be on the Left. 

Balderdash: The NAS wants to “deprive students [of] the opportunity to discover, in depth, different ways of seeing.” (Karin Foster)

Plain English: The campus left has evolved a patois to talk about indoctrination as though it were in fact liberating. Ms. Foster provides a neat instance of this doubletalk, in which outrageously one-sided, immune-from-evidence declaration of “theory” is justified as giving students “informed frameworks to think through.” We’ll stick by our Enlightenment rationalism on this matter. Theories that are self-contained and self-justifying worldviews that shrug off contrary evidence and treat thoughtful criticisms as “offensive” are the stuff of indoctrination, not “informed frameworks.” The NAS aims to foster opportunities to pursue the truth, including intellectual discovery. 

As I said, I’m not trying to answer each and every jab, skin-kick, and eye-gouge offered up by the excitable dundermuffin and his friends.   Perhaps there are some rules-of-thumb to be learned from Scott Jaschik’s decision to frame the Argus Project as a Big Brother operation and for the instant cries of “McCarthyism!” that he provoked from the bleachers.    Clearly any publicly announced effort to hold colleges and universities accountable is an exercise in secrecy. Clearly any use of publicly available records is a violation of the privacy of others. Clearly any initiative that seeks to gather well-documented facts is a low attempt to bully the professoriate.  

In short, if anyone is borrowing the totalitarian techniques imagined by Orwell, it isn’t the NAS. It’s the folks who are trying to stigmatize candor, transparency, and accountability applied to the university. To be sure, the effort to stigmatize attention to campus goings-on is highly selective. When Scott Jaschik and staff do so, they call it “journalism,” and hold their heads up high.   When NAS mounts a journalistic inquiry, however, Jaschik suggests we're Big Brother. (By any measure, Inside Higher Education’s investigations are far more intrusive than anything NAS has contemplated. ) Last fall, the College of William and Mary introduced a “Bias Incident Reporting Website,” which really does invite students, faculty, and staff to snitch (with a promise of confidentiality) on each other. FIRE has inveighed against it for violations of free speech and due process, but the chorus of folks who accuse the NAS of “McCarthyism” for looking at public records seems utterly unmoved by William and Mary’s efforts to create a Cuban-style spy-on-your-neighbor system.

They call what we do McCarthyism; we call it journalism and an exercise of First Amendment rights.  

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