Some faculty interpret ‘academic freedom’ to be a right that allows them to say and teach what they want in their classes. A new story coming from Wisconsin reminds us of this protection’s original intent.</p>
In Wisconsin, it appears that the Republican Party is using Wisconsin’s equivalent of a ‘Freedom of Information Act’ (FOIA) request to pressure Dr. William Cronon, an historian of modern American politics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to surrender all emails that might relate to the Madison rallies, the Republican Senators who are targets for recall efforts, and three Republican leaders that appear to be at the heart of the political conflict. And thus we have a genuine conflict between political interests of the day and the work of an academic.
‘Academic freedom’ would protect Dr. Cronon from this request by Republicans, but he works at a public University that appears to be subject to the FOIA-like rule in Wisconsin. This will be interesting.
I’ll unpack this a bit, but I highly recommend Cronon’s original posts. They are will written, informative, and will be historical.
On March 21st, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Dr. William Cronon. In the essay, he describes Wisconsin’s history of openness and politics in the service to the public good. He concludes by drawing parallels between Wisconsin’s current Governor and Wisconsin’s late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Research for this essay led him to do some background research on the connections between today’s political controversies in Wisconsin and similar dynamics elsewhere in the country. He shared a summary of what he learned on a new public ‘Scholar as Citizen’ blog of his.
This post led the Wisconsin Republican Party to demand that the University produce copies of Cronon’s emails
which reference any of the following terms: 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.
That request was made on 17 March. On 24 March, Cronon described the situation in detail on his blog. In that post, he writes about the history of ‘academic freedom,’ what it was designed to do, and how that relates to his current situation.
It’s all quite fascinating reading. So I’ll stop now so you can read it for yourself.
Here they are for easy linking:
Cronon’s Op-Ed for the NYTimes.com: “Wisconsin’s Radical Break”
Cronon’s pre-Op Ed blog post:“Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here)”
Cronon’s follow up post, “Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom”
Update 1: A couple more articles out there that add information to the mix:
A NYTimes Editorial on the fracas: “A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin”
Chancellor Biddy Martin’s official statement on this issue, dated 3/25/2011. [Note: some of Martin’s language echos that of Cronon’s blog pieces in which he addresses the conflict between FOIA and academic freedom.]
Update 2: The UW-Madison Chancellor has complied with the FOIA-like request. Read Cronon’s take on this development; his post includes Chancellor Martin’s letter to the campus along with the UW-Madison counsel’s letter to the leader of the Wisconsin Republican Party.