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The New Class Monitors

January 18, 2006

In a move that some professors see as a new low in efforts to monitor their classroom activities, a conservative group is offering students at the University of California at Los Angeles money to tape lectures and turn over materials distributed by professors.

While several conservative groups invite students at various colleges to file reports about professors, these students have not been paid. Faculty members at UCLA said that the pay may violate the intellectual property rights of professors -- and that the tactic is an attempt to intimidate scholars.

"Paying students to inform on professors is right out of the Stalinist playbook," said John McCumber, a professor of Germanic languages at UCLA who is among the faculty members who have already been criticized on UCLAprofs.com, the Web site offering to pay for reports on faculty members.

The Web site is a project of the Bruin Alumni Association, which is working to encourage alumni of UCLA to hold back their donations to protest the actions of liberal professors. The association has been working for several months -- sending thousands of booklets to UCLA alumni and compiling a list of the "Dirty Thirty," those professors it finds most objectionable. Scholars at the top of the list earn five power fists in the group's ranking system.

While there are similar groups of conservative alumni at other campuses, the offers to pay students -- which started less than a week ago -- sets this effort apart and worries experts on academic freedom.

"Asking students to spy is utterly repugnant," said Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the American Association of University Professors. "It's hard to conceive of a practice more unlikely to obtain accurate, useful, reliable information about what happens in a classroom than having to pay students for the information."

Andrew Jones, founder and president of the Bruin Alumni Association, said that his approach to paying students would protect professors from false information. "I felt we needed to professionalize the process" of gathering information about classroom presentations, he said. Too many reports about professors who focus on political issues rather than their course subjects "end up in a lot of he said, she said," but having "solid evidence" will prevent that, Jones said.

"If we are going to be making accusations of professional malfeasance, then I wanted to have real solid independent proof," he said.

Rumors spread among faculty members Tuesday that Jones had backed down from his plan because the link he created to the pay plan wasn't working. But Jones restored the link in the afternoon, adding disclaimers in response to some of the complaints. The disclaimer states that the association will not buy copyrighted materials, and that it will buy only tapes made with professors' permission. Jones also removed from the Web site a different list of "targeted professors" on which his group was particularly anxious for information. He said that list was becoming "a distraction."

The prices offered are as follows:

  • $100 for "full, detailed lecture notes, all professor-distributed materials and full tape recordings of every class session."
  • $50 for "full detailed lecture notes and all professor-distributed materials."
  • $10 for an "advisory" that a class should be examined and professor-distributed materials collected.

Jones said that professors were wrong to think that he was sending students to spy on them. He said he was seeking students who had already enrolled, and who were finding themselves troubled by political discussions in the classroom.

Daniel Solorzano, a professor of education at UCLA, said that he found the new campaign "repulsive" and that the efforts of the Bruin Alumni Association were designed "to chill the campuses." He said that material about him that is posted on the group's Web site is inaccurate, and that he's been torn about how vocally to oppose the group. "I don't want to give them attention, but at the same time, it's very, very serious what they are doing."

He said that the campaigns against professors represent "a very real problem in the academy."

Some professors noted that those who have been criticized on the UCLAprofs.com Web site include many scholars who do work in ethnic studies or women's studies.

Jones said that it was "just random" that the professors his Web site has focused on include many female and minority scholars. He said that he just started researching professors who had signed "radical petitions" and that led him to many such professors. He acknowledged that he was not a fan of ethnic or women's studies.

"Everyone retreats into me-search. 'I'm black so I'm going to study black issues.' White folks don't feel the need to do that," he said. Jones, who graduated from UCLA in 2003, said that he took a Chicano studies course while he was there and found it to be "absolute intellectual rubbish."

Adrienne Lavine, chair of the Academic Senate at UCLA, said that she believed in free speech for everyone -- her faculty colleagues and Jones alike -- although she objected to the "snide and sarcastic tone" of his criticisms. Lavine, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that she has heard from several faculty members concerned about the new Web site and that professors were "more upset by the idea students were being enticed into being paid informants."

Lavine said that she believed Jones was encouraging students to violate UCLA policies on the ownership of course materials and recordings of lectures. And Lavine said that she feared students recruited by Jones would be unaware of these possible violations.

Jones said that his group has consulted lawyers and believes it is within its rights. He stressed that the course materials and lecture recordings would not be sold or published in their entirety. If legal problems arise, he said, "we'll stop" any practice that is illegal, but that shouldn't doom his project.

The UCLA group is not affiliated with Students for Academic Freedom, the group through which David Horowitz has campaigned for the "Academic Bill of Rights." Horowitz and his supporters have frequently cited examples that they have obtained from students about their classroom experiences, but Horowitz said in an e-mail Tuesday that he has never paid for the information. Likewise, an official with Campus Watch, which has encouraged students to report anti-Israel comments made by professors, said that it does not pay those who provide it with information.

Jones said that while he is not affiliated with Horowitz "in any way," their efforts have similar goals. "I'm in no position to push legislation nationally like he is," Jones said. "But my hope is that a relentless focus on one school can produce the same kinds of changes he is pushing for."

 

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