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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

The Cronon Case: Part II
April 4, 2011 - 1:15pm

“Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Biddy Martin, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote this passage in an open message on academic freedom. This message comes in response to the Freedom of Information Act request for the emails of historian Professor William Cronon who holds an exalted position on that campus. On March 21 of this year, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Professor Cronon on the current events on-going in Wisconsin politics. In particular, Professor Cronon criticized Governor Walker for a lack of transparency in the unfolding of those events. That concept, transparency, seems to be in political ascendency these days, being deployed by both parties and virtually every position in between. So it is either in keeping with that thread in American politics, or just pure irony, that Professor Cronon has become the subject of a state Freedom of Information Act request.

The University of Wisconsin legal counsel, John C. Dowling, has honored that request. I recommend to any one interested in this case, and how legal counsel operates within institutions to protect our missions, the letter. It is a model of professionalism and honor.

In short, it explains the process by which the institution went about complying with the request, and in so doing separated protected categories of mail from that which was released. Educational records, intellectual property, professional correspondence and personal mail remained outside the scope. I would have intellectually enjoyed the sections of the letter where Mr. Dowling parses terms such as “union” and “recall” were the underlying matter not so serious.

That, my friends, is the law in action: A public statute that allows for the request, legal counsel’s response. Chancellor Martin’s message is institutional policy at its best. Here I am not talking about institutional policy in the sense of rules for the accounting of capital assets, but of the lofty articulation of academic freedom in service of our unique missions. In no other world-historical institution is the total and unremitting dedication to academic freedom as a concept, and surely its meaning of debate (even when fierce), discord (even if temporary) and discourse (always on-going), held to the highest levels of hope and expectation in the life-blood of the entity. In other institutions: religious, governmental, or corporate, inquiry and debate may occur, and in moments be welcomed, but pure freedom to think and speak will always in those venues take a seat to more distinct priorities such as adherence to belief, compromise or profit. Only in higher education is the means an end, and with a sound purpose. There is no other method to obtain knowledge than that which has no external bounds on inquiry and no intellectual filter on expression.

This moment, this issue, these communications are important. It is no coincidence that in his op-ed Professor Cronon spoke of the Wisconsin historical antecedent of Joseph McCarty. For those not familiar with any more than a passing acquaintance with that name, may I recommend David Oshinsky’s magisterial treatment in “A Conspiracy So Immense.” Historians have long regarded the phenomenon of “McCarthyism” as that which emerged out of a more far-reaching anxiety pervasive in American society of that time. The man -- politically ambitious, floundering and in search of an issue for re-election – gave expression to those feelings in a manner that resulted in one of the more unfortunate chapters of American history. For almost half a century, the sheer mention of his name has been enough to cause any number of would-be sons and daughters of his paranoiac techniques to skulk back into quarters devoid of public light.

There is no question in my mind that we are living in a period that is far more tolerant of ill-considered anxious, angry and sometime downright irrational modalities of thought and political discourse. Richard Hofstadter perfectly plowed this ground in among other fine works “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays” and “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” so I need not repeat its positions here. I conjure up these works and their keen commentary only to make us aware that we are again deep in the midst of a similar historical moment. Such times call upon intelligence, courage and affirmative action. We are in debt to Professor Cronon for educating us to this moment. I salute Wisconsin-Madison legal counsel for using the rule of law to define the boundaries of it. And my hat is off to Biddy Martin for reminding me why I am here.


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