The University of Wisconsin at Madison has taken a weak stance regarding the politically-motivated open records request on Professor William Cronon’s e-mails.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the University of Wisconsin at Madison will comply with the request, releasing some of Professor Cronon’s e-mails when they are not of a personal nature.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison has failed to defend the principle of academic freedom and has refused to consider the status of professors. Wisconsin’s open records legislation appears to define professors as individuals who would not be considered as government personnel for the purposes of open records requests (see previous post). However, the University of Wisconsin lawyers apparently do not want invoke the legislation to challenge the request. See a commentary in the Wisconsin State Journal by two political science professors on the distinction between a government official (who holds power and therefore must be held accountable to the public by open records laws) and a government employee (who holds no official power and therefore is no subject to open records laws). Faculty members at public universities (as state government employees) are subject to having their e-mails checked by their employers, but should not be legally subject to open records requests.
The university’s weak stance in this case sets a terrible precedent for other universities to use in future cases of FOIA requests. The result damages the principle of academic freedom and weakens American higher education.