Noted environmental historian William Cronon is facing retaliation by politicians in Wisconsin who are using an Open Records Act request in an attempt to view Cronon’s personal and professional e-mails. This effort is a gross abuse of the freedom of information laws and of the principle of open governmental records. Politicians in Wisconsin made this request in direct response to Cronon’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, which provided historical contextualization of the recent attempts to strip Wisconsin state workers’ collective bargaining rights and criticized those efforts. This freedom of information request represents a blatant attack on a single professor’s academic freedom in an attempt to silence him.
Faculty and teachers everywhere should be concerned about this assault on academic freedom and the possibility that it could set a precedent for intimidating professors elsewhere in the United States and around the world. William Cronon is a tenured full professor of history with an international reputation that will offer him considerable support in this legal situation. Many other professors and teachers have no tenure protections and limited access to legal support. As Cronon’s academic freedom is attacked, so is that of all of these more vulnerable educators.
Universities across the country are asking professors to get more involved in “service learning” and “engaged learning,” which involves professors acting as public figures in the media. Universities trumpet their professors’ engagement in the media in order to recruit more students, win more funding, and market their institutions. The University of Wisconsin at Madison thus proudly announced William Cronon’s op-ed in the New York Times. University of Wisconsin at Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin’s response to the open records request in this case is very disappointing. Universities across the United States should offer a clear and unambiguous defense of professor Cronon’s academic freedom.
William Cronon’s own blog discusses this case in detail.
News services across the internet are picking up this important story. The New York Times ran this story about the attack on Cronon. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran this story on the case and the University of Wisconsin’s immediate response. Paul Krugman’s blog commented on the story. Salon ran this story. The Nation offered this assessment.
As far as I can tell, there has still been no response by the American Association of University Professors. Professors and teachers lack a strong professional association to protect their interests, as the AMA does for medical doctors and the ABA does for lawyers.
Ruthann Robson, a constitutional law professor at CUNY, offers this assessment of the legal issues in this case at her blog.