GOP smacked down on Wisconsin emails

University shields a portion of professor's communications, asserts no smoking gun in the rest

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 1, 2011 10:05PM (EDT)

William Cronon
William Cronon

The University of Wisconsin has released its response to the open records request from the Republican Party of Wisconsin seeking access to history professor William Cronon's emails. Readers may recall that the GOP, upset at some blog posts and New York Times opinion pieces written by Cronon that were critical of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's agenda, had launched a fishing expedition, hoping to find evidence of partisan political activity on university time that could be used to embarrass the professor.

Defenders of academic freedom against political thuggery might be disappointed to learn that the university decided that it had no choice but to release some emails. But it did so only after winnowing the database.

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under FERPA [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act]. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

It would have been very funny if at the end of this paragraph, the university's president, Biddy Martin, had announced that after processing the above exclusions, only one email remained that fit the test. But alas, Martin does not reveal exactly how many emails were ultimately handed over, although she does emphatically state that none of them contained any evidence of improper behavior by Cronon. As for the professor, he has pronounced himself well pleased with the university's response.

In her letter explaining the email release, Chancellor Martin concludes with a stirring call to intellectual arms, containing echoes of earlier academic responses to witch-hunting politicians:

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the "continual and fearless sifting and winnowing" of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

P.S. I am about 90 pages into Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West" and it is every bit as good as advertised. I particularly liked Cronon's quote from the 19th century French political scientist Emile Boutmy:

Their one primary and predominant object is to cultivate and settle these prairies, forests, and vast waste lands. The striking and peculiar characteristic of American society is, that it is not so much a democracy as a huge commercial company for the discovery, cultivation, and capitalization of its enormous territory.... The United States are primarily a commercial society ... and only secondarily a nation...

In that light, of course, the Republican project seems very true to American values. Hmmm.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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