UPDATED BELOW, with more links to bloggy commentary.
UPDATED SUNDAY MORNING: a comment by a Wisconsin proffie got stuck in moderation–take a gander at it here. Those of you who might be hiring faculty next year–alert your deans. You might be able to recruit some top-notch former Badgers!
Yesterday, my university and blog-related e-mail accounts filled up with links describing the political $hitstorm that resulted from University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon’s op-ed in the New York Times on Monday about recent events in Wisconsin’s political history and his new blog, Scholar as Citizen. (Enemies of liberty everywhere watch out, he’s got a blog, and he ain’t afraid to use it!) The two-cent summary is that the Republican party of Wisconsin has issued a Freedom of Information Request for his e-mail account for every piece of correspondence since January 1, 2011. Cronon describes each step down the path to Crazzyville on his blog, but don’t miss Tenured Radical’s rundown and commentary, too.
This morning he reports that the New York Times has written an editorial excoriating the Wisconsin Republican Party’s use of the Freedom of Information Act to attempt to intimidate or silence critics. It’s available online here, and will run in Monday’s print edition.
I commented over on his blog yesterday on the Republican Party’s response to Cronon’s complaint about their FOIA request in which they accused Cronon (while misspelling his name: classy) of “intimidation” in complaining about their intrusive and abusive attempts to intimidate him. I said that if they want e-mails from public university faculty, let’s give ’em some e-mail. Let’s cc Scott Walker and Republican Party head Mark Jefferson on every frigging e-mail we write every day, and be sure to forward them every e-mail we receive, including the stuff that goes straight into the spam bucket. (Tenured Radical has their e-mail addresses, if you’re interested.)
Why not go all Merry Prankster on ’em? Clearly, Wisconsin is run these days by a bunch of clowns whose brains aren’t getting enough oxygen in that little Volkswagon they’re crammed into. Think about it: if you ran a wannabe-Machiavellian authoritarian junta attempting to take over a U.S. state, what would be a reasonable response to a history professor who has the stature to get an op-ed piece published in the New York Times? Your options, since you clearly have no frigging clue who Bill Cronon is or even how to spell his name and you probably don’t care to spend .06 seconds on a Google search, are to 1) ignore it, 2) issue a press release rebutting his opinions, 3) get all FOIA on his a$$ and guarantee that his original editorial, his blog, and all of his opinions get wider circulation and get the attention of people who disapprove of FOIA requests for university e-mail accounts? (Or maybe you Googled “William Cronin” and nothing came up, so you thought you’d effectively shut him up and no one would be the wiser? Crack oppo research team you got there, friends!)
I think “Comrade PhysioProffe” said it very well at the Pseudonym Exchange last month. To paraphrase, he suggested that it was a really, really dumb idea to pick fights with people who have connections at the New York Times. And a guy who has just published an op-ed piece on the most valuable piece of opinion real estate in the United States and who’s targeted as a result of said op-ed–well, as the kids used to say, you do the math, geniuses.
UPDATE, later this morning: Bardiac, who I believe has insider knowledge of higher education in Wisconsin, also has some comments on the l’affaire Cronon today. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar chimed in this afternoon, too.
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I bet their emails are full of interesting stuff too! Can we freedom of information the state email of all the sitting politicians involved?
Nicole, yes you can FOIA the email of all state employees — including sitting politicians. That’s why Sarah Palin had a private email account for her various shenanigans.
Knitting Clio said what I was going to say: Republicans have been ahead of the curve on keeping private e-mail addresses. Wasn’t the Bush White House run out of hotmail accounts, or something?
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Hmm, having now read Cronon’s bit – academics might have a fair bit to be concerned about here. In that if the not using academic email to promote partisan politics is a standard disclaimer, people in certain subject areas might be screwed. I mean obviously people who work in politics or sociology, whose work impacts on public policy, but also historians of women who work on things like abortion rights, feminism, suffrage, etc. SO much of our research is political, and if our ‘politics’ conflicts with the standard narrative of a political party, are you being partisan? Are you impacting on voter’s choices in elections?
On a different vein, under the UK’s freedom of information act, this request is a legal grey area. Because the FOI only allows access to ‘public’ records, not the private records of indididuals. Emails – even if sent from a public account – aren’t necessarily public because they are created by individuals and not the institution, and interestingly, neither is all research. Because, at least in the humanities, individuals retain the copyright of their research – so it doesn’t belong to the university – it is not ‘public’ and cannot be accessed under a FOI until it is literally placed in the library. I would argue that emails fall under the same area. They are not public if pertaining to research or private concerns. Someone may be able to request emails relating to university administration and students, if it is argued that in that role the individual is the personification of the institute (which they probably are).
This has no bearing on whether a university can access your account, but it is a defence they can use to refuse an access request, at least in the UK.
Of course, the Wisconsin Republican Party hasn’t requested all of Cronon’s email. If it had, however, they may have learned just how hard faculty members work. (Not that the party leaders would change their views about the tenured and the damned.) Here’s Cronon about the number of emails he receives (found on online syllabus for his American Environmental History course):
“A much better way to contact me is via email …, but please do this sparingly; I receive 80-100 emails per day and it’s all I can do (and sometimes quite a lot more!) to keep up with them all. If you don’t hear back from me in a timely way, please just resend your email—and try to forgive me for frequently getting swamped with the heavy volume of messages I receive!”
Nice summary. But Cronon’s own chronology notes that the FOIA request was made before his NYT Op-Ed, in response to a *blog posting* that he made as a “study guide” to the background of recent Republican state legislation. The study guide is pretty even-handed; indeed, Cronon paints the modern conservative movement as effective and well organized.
So it didn’t even take a NYT op-ed to unleash the Wisconsin GOP’s attempt at intimidation: it took a *blog posting*.
Ah, you’re right, Brian. Still: especially after the NYT op-ed, I think discretion would have served the Republican party better than their FOIA request.
These folks don’t seem that bright is all, so it would be delightfully ironic if they’d left things in their professional emails. Of course, part of the point about the harassment of a FOI request is that it is a hassle for the recipient, and of course, things can be taken out of context.
I’m thinking about coming to Madison for Professor Cronon’s classes! I received my degree in Geography in 1970 so I missed his teaching. I can tell that this prof is one in a million! Say yes to scholarship! Say yes to academic freedom!
I wish I could say something profound, but there’s not much except it’s so depressing. I’m working on the revisions of my email signature, but I need to make sure I understand our campus policy…
And let’s remember, folks: William Cronon moved to Madison as a child, grew up inspired by the Wisconsin landscape and, among other writers, the great naturalist Aldo Leopold, and took his BA at Wisconsin before going to Oxford. He probably bleeds badger–and he certainly contributes a huge amount to keeping Madison a great center for history and environmental studies. In attacking him, these clowns show that they don’t care about one of their state’s treasures. It’s obscene.
They should do their Army Math, too. If nothing else, the attempt to swarm Cronon is evidence that the budget shenanigans out there in recent weeks are about far more than a partisan effort to deal with a cyclical budget crisis, or even about payback for campaign contributions by public unions. They are a small and early front in a broader assault on the middle ground of American politics and society. As Cronon’s blog post and op-ed suggest, Wisconsin really does have a somewhat peculiarly polar political personality over time, held together by the broad elastic middle. But if you erode the middle economically it will cease to be able to function politically or socially or culturally, and then things can get ugly. The Wisconsin radical right probably thinks that “ugly” is good for them, but the state’s history, to me, anyway, suggests that its left will not idly consent to get steamrollered by its right. By far the best to use the recall provisions, but when underlying consensus and fundamental trust are eroded, there’s no guarantee of that or anything else.
Also see this Slate.com article: http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2011/03/25/wisconsins_most_dangerous_professor — the author, Andrew Leonard mentions that he just purchased two of Cronon’s books; when I checked at Amazon, those two books were ranked something like #45 and #51 — not bad for history publications!!
Heh. It would be very fitting if Cronon made some bank out of this $hitstorm. Another reason those Wisconsin GOP doofuses should have let well enough alone!
I love how the state now contributes less than ever to public Universities, but somehow, faculty are still “public officials”, according to Republicans.
Love the email idea, but my been-schooled-at-too-many-risk-management-meetings side says: of course, we’d never want to do anything that would violate FERPA (student privacy) or confidential personnel issues — which would eliminate 75% of my emails — funny, that I actually do work other than navel gazing all day long.
Alas, this varies very significantly between institutions. Some of the most ‘liberal’ (Oxford and Cambridge chief among them) claim any work produced using University resources as University intellectual property. This has yet to be tested in a case, and not a few academics allegedly sent back their revised contracts with the new provision crossed out at Cambridge, so the actual state of academic intellectual freedom in the UK is not really known… but it may not be as rosy as painted in the quote above.
I’m a professor at U.W. Madison and this is all we’ve been talking about since it happened. I see this as a blatant attack on academic freedom and an attempt to intimidate a professor into silence — and to make the rest of us think twice before publishing or sharing anything that could be construed as critical of our current government. It’s working. I’m furious, my colleagues are furious, and moreover we’re very disappointed in our chancellor’s failure to publicly refute these tactics and take a stand. Here is her official statement: http://www.news.wisc.edu/19163
The GOP response in which they called Cronon a “public official” isn’t even correct (aside from the fact that it’s just ludicrous). With respect to the UW, only the big guns like the chancellor and vice chancellor are “public officials”; faculty are NOT public officials. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a table that describes the law in every state that defines “public official”: http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=15233
Finally, for me and most of my colleagues, this sheds new light on the new badger partnership plan, which will have U.W. Madison splitting off from the rest of the U.W. system and having a new oversight board instead of the existing board of regents. The majority of this 21-member board will be appointed by Walker, our right-wing nutjob governor. This board will have control over all things personnel, including hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. I wonder if Cronon hadn’t been tenured, and he were going up for tenure next year under this new board (as I will be), would they tenure him? What if it’s somebody doing stem cell research, or political research, or women’s studies research, or queer studies research? I think what we’re seeing here is the end to academic freedom as we know it at U.W. and we’re going to see a big exodus of professors.
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My contract, which is not at Oxbridge but is at a UK institution, allows me to retain my right to my work – so presumably this depends on the institution. But, given that for REF purposes, most humanities academics get to take our work with us to our new institutions and a look at the job-listings highlights the number of REF poachings (employing somoeone with a fab publication record at the last moment to up your dept’s stats in the forthcoming national research assessement) that are ongoing at the moment, the universities that do have this in their contracts certainly don’t seem to be using it. Otherwise, when you left Oxbridge, they could theoretically submit your work for the REF, even if you no longer work there.
Perhaps noone ever leaves Oxbridge… ROFL.
albe–sorry that your comment got stuck in moderation. I will add an update above to highlight your comments, which I think are valuable for their insider perspective.
If your predictions come true, U. Wisonsin’s loss will be a major gain for the rest of us, so long as we can forstall the crazzies in our states. Care to move to Colorado, friend?
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I wouldn’t characterize the Chancellor’s response as disappointing. Rather, it is extremely carefully worded–100% certainly drafted with extensive from the legal counsel’s office of the university–and makes it clear that the university’s response to the request will be handled by proper procedures and in accordance with appropriate legal standards. The fact that she spent an entire paragraph on academic freedom is very telling. She couldn’t possibly afford to make it sound even to a disingenuous reader like she has prejudged the case.
Agree w/CPP here–sorry I didn’t point that out myself. She can’t appear to prejudge the case, not with it being such a political hot potato.
Now, back to my infinitely overdue grading. . .
I think we’re talking about different things here, though I agree that no-one much is using these rules in either of the Oxbridge universities. They’re much more aimed at the sciences in case someone comes up with the next penicillin or whatever, is my impression. I wouldn’t like to guess what will happen with the REF and backdated claims, it has its own rules. All I’m saying is that UK academics should check their contracts carefully before they assume that they are not vulnerable to the kind of maltreatment Prof. Croton is receiving.
Well, I’ve tried and failed many times.
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As this is a history blog, a little local history may be of interest.
In 1894 Oliver E. Wells,State Superintendent of Public Instruction,and ex offico member of the UW board of regents wrote an open letter to the Nation stating that “Professor Ely, director of the School of Economics, believes in strikes and boycotts, justifying and encouraging the one while practicing the other.”
The board of regents held a trial to investigate these complaints. They not only didn’t fire professor Ely, they issued a ringing endorsement of academic freedom.
The last phrase of their report
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found” are engraved on plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, the administrative heart of the UW.
Chancellor Martin’s statement is careful and politic. That fact that it neither mentioned the famous phrase emblazoned on the front of her building, nor embodied its spirit is disappointing.
 I drew this account from Herfurth 1949. Its worth a read both for its account of the original contremps and its ramifications in later years.
Thanks, (another) former academic. That explains all of the references to “sifting and winnowing” that I’ve been seeing everywhere but didn’t “get” until your comment!
I think Martin is in a difficult position. She needs to play this not just to acquit the uni honorably w/r/t Cronon, but also with an eye towards the potentially disasterous consequences for the uni if she fails. It’s not just Cronon’s peace of mind that’s at stake, it’s that of all of the faculty and students as well. (And the staff, too. Why leave them out, when they’ve been under systematic assault even longer than Cronon?)
I wonder how (hope that?) this experiences has serious consequences on his leadership of the AHA.
Colorado is looking pretty good right now compared to WI!
Regarding our chancellor’s statement, I think part of the issue is, as others have correctly pointed out, she must be careful. However, she could certainly have included some carefully worded statements about the unethical nature of FOIA requests as attempts to discredit or harass professors.
I think what else is going on here is that our chancellor is currently between a rock and a hard place. She has pushed hard for the New Badger Partnership (NBP). Walker agreed to it. It’s going to go through the legislative process and then to Walker’s desk, where he has line-item veto power. She cannot afford to alienate him at this point, given our extremely precarious position regarding the NBP. Many faculty are against it, especially after what happened with Cronon, so it’s unclear how this will proceed through the legislative process.
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