Professor Cronon Email Investigation Seems to Turn Up Empty

Ashley Thorne

The Chronicle reports:

Two conservative groups that have stirred controversy by demanding that public colleges in Michigan and Wisconsin hand over professors' e-mails related to labor controversies have failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by the scholars from the documents obtained.

In March the deputy executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party filed an Open Records Law request to see emails from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon's university account. The request seems to have been a response to Cronon's political activism - the Wisconsin Republicans were checking to see whether the professor was using his university account (at a public university) for political purposes. The AAUP and other groups denounced the move as a violation of academic freedom. NAS president Peter Wood, however, called it petty and foolish but not an infringement of academic freedom or other rights:

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.

The Wisconsin Republican Party has made no statements about its findings, so it may still be possible that the emails contain evidence of wrongdoing by Cronon. But even if it does not find such evidence, its actions were legitimate, albeit pettifogging. As the Chronicle puts it, "A Chronicle analysis of state open-records laws determined, however, that they contain no blanket exemptions for college faculty members or explicit references to the desire to protect academic freedom as grounds to withhold records from the public."

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