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Big Argus Is Watching You

July 30, 2008

Want an extra set of eyes on your syllabus for the fall semester? Like it or not, you may be getting one.

The National Association of Scholars announced on Tuesday the launch of the Argus Project -- named for the figure of Greek mythology whose body was covered with eyes -- to recruit volunteers to monitor college campuses nationwide. The volunteers, a mix of faculty members and private citizens, "have begun to look into whether that college conducts politicized teaching, requires ideological adherence, or sustains slights to conservative students," said the association's announcement.

Stephen H. Balch, president of the association, said that about 30 such volunteers are in place, and that they will not necessarily identify themselves to campus officials. Many more will soon join the network. They will provide reports to the association's staff members, who will review any material before it is used. Balch said that Argus was a way for the association to monitor many more campuses than its small staff could do by itself.

Asked whether some might view the idea of monitors as intrusive, Balch compared the Argus volunteers to "freelance journalists" and said that they would be dealing with "publicly available information." 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."

The National Association of Scholars has always insisted that it is not a conservative organization, but rather one that is committed to a set of traditional and nonpartisan academic values. To recruit Argus volunteers, however, the association sent invitations to readers of Townhall.com, a conservative Web site whose education section features such articles as "Evolutionists Fear Academic Freedom," "The Liberal's Agenda -- Antichrist or Just Anti-Christ?," "Quit Whining and Study," and "A Lawsuit a Day Keeps the Leftist at Bay."

Townhall readers who responded were given a questionnaire and then some were selected for the program. Asked if using such an ideological Web site for recruitment might raised questions about the association's balance, Balch jokingly asked back whether he should have recruited Salon readers. Asked whether he might have recruited from both sites, he said that "we needed a place where we could get volunteers. They have an electronic database of a quarter of million people. We thought it was a cost effective way of reaching people." Balch added that the association's view of itself stands as a group that "stands for principles that a very broad spectrum could find perfectly satisfying."

The blog Free Exchange on Campus -- whose members include numerous faculty and civil liberties groups -- is less than impressed with the arrival of Argus. A posting called "Informants R Us" speculated that Townhall's readers were drafted as "eagle-eyed, no doubt incredibly judicious informants" because David Horowitz's readers at Frontpagemag.com "already had other projects on their plates."

 

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