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Prof Cuts Ties to UCLA Group

Thernstrom calls paying students to report on liberal professors “over the line”

By Marie C. Kodama, Contributing Writer

A conservative alumni group at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has drawn national scrutiny after offering students money for gathering information on “radical” professors.

Last week, three advisory board members of the Bruin Alumni Association (BAA), including Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom, resigned from their posts in protest of the new measures, which Thernstrom described as “over the line.”

Thernstrom, who has taught at UCLA and is considered one of Harvard’s most conservative professors, said he was contacted by the BAA at its founding last year and agreed to join in support of its goal to promote objectivity in the classroom.

Thernstrom said that two major problems facing higher education today are “a growing gulf between political and ideological beliefs” and a “teach your own politics” approach by faculty members. He said he joined the BAA to “combat this tendency and encourage a more balanced view on what’s going on in the world.”

However, after BAA President Andrew Jones, a recent graduate of UCLA, began a series of aggressive measures—including publishing a list of the “dirty 30” radical professors and offering monetary rewards for students to gather information about professors—Thernstrom decided to officially sever ties with the group.

“In this case, there was no consultation at all for the schemed, announced list of professors to be targeted and for paying students,” he said. These actions “were over the line, and this led me to resign.”

UCLA professor emeritus Jascha Kessler, another advisory board member who resigned, said he was also surprised by Jones’ strategy to employ students in collecting lecture notes and tape recordings of the targeted professors. Students were offered up to $50 for collecting lecture notes and hand-outs and $100 for “full, detailed lecture notes, all professor-distributed materials, and full tape recordings of every class session,” according to the BAA website.

“I wrote Jones by e-mail informing him that...the notion of payment was shocking to me, certainly a product of vigilantism,” Kessler said.

“He had either not thought or intended to ask his Board for their advice, let alone consent,” he said. “Hence, I was out of there like a shot, quite offended.”

Kessler labeled Jones’ maneuvers as “redolent of early Hitlerism” and other professors, including those on the radical list, criticized BAA’s actions.

“On a personal level, [the strategy] is of course repugnant, sometimes humorous,” said UCLA professor Sondra Hale, one of the “Dirty 30.” “Moreover, this is against university policy and a number of university lawyers are looking into it.”

She added that she found Jones’ actions wrong on ethical grounds as well.

UCLA professor Peter McLaren, ranked as “Enemy Number One” on the list, at first found humor in BAA and its strategies.

“When I realized that this group was not joking I thought about the more serious side to this McCarthy-like red-baiting campaign in that it reflects a broader trend in U.S. society towards what could be called authoritarian populism,” McLaren said. “Jones appears through his website to be auditioning to be the next Karl Rove.”

The BAA’s actions prompted discussion about whether classes should be taped.

“It’s really a shame that this chilling website could affect the classroom,” Hale said, expressing concern that students might misinterpret a lecturer’s remarks.

Thernstrom was less severe in his criticisms and even expressed a note of sympathy with Jones’ efforts.

“Different views are appropriate and vital, and I agree with the [BAA’s] concept but the way Jones carried it out was an unwise decision,” he said.

But McLaren said that strict objectivity is difficult to achieve.

“I don’t think you can create a space of neutrality in the classroom because everyone speaks from somewhere,” McLaren said.

Hale agreed, adding that despite professorial biases, “students can think for themselves.”

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