Denunciation is as American as apple pie - but less appetising. From settler days, when "witch-hunt" was no metaphor, through McCarthyism to Deep Throat, snitching has been one of the more contentious ways in which the republic has protected itself from the enemy within.
Arthur Miller would not name names and wrote a play about the virtue of silence (The Crucible). Elia Kazan named names and made a film about it (On the Waterfront). William F. Buckley began his career as the dean of American conservatism in 1955 with God and Man at Yale, a book-length denunciation of the left-leanings of his teachers.
Who are the latest defenders of American privacy from state snoopers, asked Kurt Vonnegut in last Saturday's Guardian, and he came up with the unlikely answer "public librarians" - those plucky guardians of civil rights who are at this very moment junking "radical" books so that borrowers' reading preferences cannot be profiled under the provisions of the Patriot Act. (In another age, of course, it was those same librarians who banned Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes.)
In eras of political nervousness, such as the present, a sure way to get headlines and spots on primetime TV is to denounce the enemy within and crank up a vigilante website. And, as young William Buckley discerned, the campus is where the Benedict Arnolds are always to be found, happily at work poisoning the nation's youth.
The website www.campus-watch.org launched its counterattack on the "electronic intifada" against the homeland in September 2002. It specifically targeted "professors who hate America" and, by the same token, who might be thought to love Arafat and Bin Laden. Campus-watch got coverage on CNN and in all the big papers and racked up some 100,000 hits in its first week online. Its actual blacklist, for all the site's energetic canvassing, was small. Over the past couple of years, Campus-watch has moved away from naming hateful professors to setting up a clearing house for the kinds of complaints that are politically congenial to it. As such, it performs a useful, if ideologically single-minded, service.
No such pusillanimity from Andrew Jones, the founder of the Bruin Alumni website. "Bruin" is the cuddly name attached to the UCLA bear mascot. (Nearby Caltech was unworldly enough to adopt the beaver.) A 2003 alumnus, whose undergraduate republicanism was hard-baked by 9/11, Mr Jones perceives an "exploding crisis of political radicalism" at his alma mater. He intends to do something about it.
On his associated website www.uclaprofs.com, Mr Jones bravely names members of a radical cell he calls the "dirty 30". These are "indoctrinationist professors", who are graded with "power fists" on a scale of one to five. Five fists puts you up there as the Wolfgang Puck of radicalism.
Most provocatively, Mr Jones is offering cash awards of up to $100 (about £56) for "information about abusive, one-sided or off-topic classroom behavior" by professors. Name your name, serve your country and make some spending money. What patriotic snitch could resist? Presumably all over the UCLA campus undergraduates are attending their classes wired up like flipped mobsters in the Sopranos.
Predictably, the Bruin Alumni websites attracted huge press publicity. Far more, one might think, than its anaemic stats warrant. The official UCLA Alumni Association (which is extremely peeved at Mr Jones) represents some 350,000 graduates worldwide and has 86,000 registered members. It is integral to UCLA's fundraising operation, which brings in around one-quarter of a billion dollars a year.
Mr Jones's Bruin Alumni Association seems to comprise little more than its 20 founding members and has raised, at last count, the unimpressive sum of $22,000 (hence the piddling $100 bribes). Thirty "dirty" professors, out of a teaching staff of 2,839, seems well short of explosive. More so as none of the dirty ones has any national name recognition, outside their academic specialisms: and some not even within. We are not talking Lenin.
If one looks at the Daily Bruin website, the student and faculty body at UCLA are clearly bored with Mr Jones's denunciations. What does excite them is a different kind of snitching, namely the "prof review". This has expanded hugely over the past few years with sites such as www.professorperformance.com, www.whototake.com, www.teacherreview.com, www.reviewum.com and www.coursereviews.com.
There are two serious objections to the prof reviews, as they are currently posted on the web. Sites such as www.Pick-A-Prof.com routinely, for a fee, advise on which teachers are generous graders, which have high drop-out and flunk rates, or which burden students with heavy learning loads. This erodes standards in an option-based, course unit system, as students (why not?) follow the lines of least resistance and highest reward.
Free access sites such as www.RateMyProfessor.com (which has 5m ratings and comments on 714,000 teachers) become trash buckets into which any kind of student pique or rage can be dumped - conceivably blighting careers and turning professors into class-pleasers. Future employers will, be sure of it, have a peek before taking you on and present employers before offering you a raise. Why risk an unmerited black mark? Especially as that remark may never be expunged from the web record.
Paradoxically the prof review sites (which use freedom of information law to dig up grading practices) have boomed, as the personal privacy rights of students have become increasingly shielded by data protection regulation.
This has led to a kind of crisis of conscience at UCLA in which they have "dis-indexed" from public access their own comprehensive prof review site ( www.Bruinwalk.com ). The media studies personnel who run the site are rethinking the whole question of "e-opinions about UCLA professors". How can the consumer demands of customers (which is what students paying 20 grand a year are) and the authority and dignity of the teaching profession be balanced? Can they be balanced?
Bruinwalk is right to see Pick-a-Prof and Rate-my-Professor as much more sinister types of denunciation than Mr Jones's seedy Snitch-a-Prof and Fire-My-Professor initiatives. What is at issue is not a conspiracy to subvert America by a cadre of radical academics. It is the power relationship on which universities have traditionally conducted themselves that is threatened.
Teacherreview.com, by the way, has opened an international section and is inviting comments on UK profs.