Cronon's Whirlwind

Peter Wood

Last week Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, filed an Open Records Law request asking the University of Wisconsin to turn over copies of e-mails from William J. Cronon, a tenured professor of environmental history. The request appears to have been prompted by Professor Cronon’s political activism. On March 15, Cronon published a long blog post titled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here).”

And on March 21 he published “Wisconsin’s Radical Break” as an op-ed in The New York Times. Both the blog post and the op-ed criticized Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and conservatives in general. The response from the Wisconsin Republican Party has been widely interpreted as a political reprisal, and I see no reason to disagree. Peter Schmidt’s account in the Chronicle aptly summarizes this dimension of the matter.

The request to see some of Cronon’s e-mail, however, has also been decried by the American Association of University Professors and the American Historical Association, for which Cronon is president-elect. The AAUP, writing to University of Wisconsin chancellor Carolyn A. (“Biddy”) Martin, agreed with Cronon that this is “an obvious assault on academic freedom.” The AHA calls “on public-spirited individuals and organizations to join us in denouncing this assault on academic freedom.”

This claim about the danger to Cronon’s academic freedom strikes me as more doubtful. His ability to engage in research in his field and teach within the area of his expertise would not in any obvious way be impaired by the university turning over any e-mails he may have written on the handful of subjects covered by the Open Records Law request (Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell). To be clear, the request applies only to Cronon’s university e-mail, and is based on the premise that he may, as a state employee, have misused his access to public resources.

Petty? Yes, the Wisconsin Republican Party might have been better advised not to strain after so small a victory, but poor political calculation is not the same thing as violating academic freedom.

The larger context here is that Professor Cronon took a partisan political stand—as he is entitled to do as a citizen. But that entitlement does not extend to his using the perquisites of his position as a state employee to advance his political interests. Politicians and public officials routinely face indictments and dismissals for more extreme forms of such conduct and academic freedom can be no legitimate shield from equal enforcement of the law. Faculty members at public universities are as subject to that law as tax-collectors, justices of the peace, policemen and firemen.

I don’t know of any evidence that Professor Cronon did in fact violate any laws. It may be that the Wisconsin Republican Party is simply fishing. If so, its action is further unwelcome, not as a violation of academic freedom, but as a demonstration of small-mindedness. The better way for the Wisconsin Republican Party to answer a critic is by answering his arguments on their merits.

If Professor Cronon were in jeopardy of losing his job for what he wrote on his personal blog or published in the Times, I would agree with the AAUP and the AHA. Academic freedom in that case would be at risk. He faces no such risk. Separating the ostensible motive of the Wisconsin Republican Party (i.e. political reprisal for his public writings) from its chosen tactic (the Open Records Law request) may seem a fine distinction, but it is a necessary one. It’s necessary because the doctrine of academic freedom will lose legitimacy if it is allowed to become an excuse for breaking the law.

The Cronon affair has prompted widespread commentary, including articles by Paul KrugmanJonathan TobinKC Johnson, and Mitchell Langbert, and an editorial in the Times. Some of this is hyperventilating. Krugman, for example, compares the e-mail request to “the ongoing smear campaign against climate science,” and asserts that there is a “clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.”

What’s needed is some level-headedness and clarity about what academic freedom can and cannot protect. Unfortunately higher education’s traditional watchdog for academic freedom, the AAUP, has recently mislaid its once sturdy understanding of this key concept. The AAUP’s recent pronouncements on academic freedom have served mainly as a rationale for further left-wing-inspired politicization of the university. As a result it is unable to offer trustworthy guidance in a case where a university has been served with a legitimate legal request.

I regret that Stephan Thompson filed this request, but Professor Cronon’s umbrage, the AAUP’s ire, the AHA’s distress, and Krugman’s shivers distract from the real point. Professors who sow the political wind reap the political whirlwind.

This article was originally published on March 30, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog. On April 1 the Chronicle reported that the University of Wisconsin had said it would turn over some but not all of the requested emails (no personal emails or those including student information) to the state's Republican Party. Yesterday the University announced that it had approved a new statement on academic freedom in light of the Open Records Law request.

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