Wisconsin Stands Up for Professor

In response to politician's request for faculty member's e-mails, university releases some but strongly backs academic freedom.
April 4, 2011

If the Wisconsin Republican Party's perceived attack on the academic freedom of a prominent faculty member at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was seen as a test for Chancellor Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin -- with some wondering whether Governor Scott Walker's backing of the university's push for autonomy would compel her to hold her tongue -- she appears to have passed.

Martin and the university on Friday partially complied with the state open records request that a staff member of the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed last month seeking e-mails sent and received by William Cronon, a historian at Madison whose high-profile writings about Walker's crackdown on public employee unions had drawn scrutiny from the governor's allies.

The public records request sought e-mail messages related to terms like "Walker" and "union" and "recall" (as in efforts to turn Walker and other politicians out of office), seemingly in an attempt to show that Cronon had used his university e-mail account in violation of a prohibition against use of state resources for partisan political purposes. The information request generated enormous national publicity, largely because Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies, is a well-known scholar (though some conservative bloggers who supported the information request attributed the attention to bias from liberal news media).

And some of the many calls from free speech activists, faculty members, and scholarly associations for the Wisconsin-Madison officials to strongly defend Cronon's rights seemed to suggest that the university should rebuff the information request.

While some commentators noted that the university was obliged to take the records request seriously -- and that flouting open records requests would be anti-democratic -- the public outcry over Cronon's e-mail messages inevitably put Martin in the spotlight. At a time when some of her own faculty members are uncomfortable about her alliance with Walker over governance issues, a perceived failure to defend Cronon could make her susceptible to accusations of selling out the academy. But failure to respond adequately to the records request could undercut her with Walker and his backers, at a time when the university is counting on the governor to advocate for its independence.

On Friday, Wisconsin officials sought to balance those competing interests, releasing a selection of Walker's e-mails but explaining, in a legalistic analysis by Madison's general counsel and a more philosophical statement by Martin, how it split the difference.

The legal explanation by John C. Dowling, the senior university legal counsel, described the process Madison used to decide "which [e-mails] must be made available to you pursuant to the Wisconsin public records law" and the decisions it had reached.

Some of the factors the university considered were practical (explaining that the university had assumed the request sought information related to labor unions, for instance, Dowling wrote, "We ... are not producing the numerous e-mails that contain such unrelated terms as 'Memorial Union' or 'European Union' "). Others leaned to the more analytical, with Dowling noting that the university had excluded not only all e-mails that involved personal communications and those about personnel matters, but also those reflecting "intellectual communications among scholars."

Faculty members like Professor Cronon "often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another," Dowling wrote, noting as well that the review had found Cronon's conduct to have been "beyond reproach in every respect." "The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

"The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia. For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications."

Martin's own statement to the campus on the matter, while acknowledging the need for professors and the university to obey the law, went further in declaring the extent to which academic freedom is at stake in the case.

"When faculty members use e-mail or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy," Martin wrote. "Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions."

She continued: "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."

The university's statements appeared to satisfy many of the involved parties, at least at first blush. Cronon expressed deep appreciation for "the thought and care that Biddy Martin and UW-Madison attorneys have put into crafting these responses -- and I am very proud of this university for continuing to defend the great traditions of the Wisconsin Idea."

Stephan Thompson, the state Republican official who requested the records, said in a statement that "[i]t is our belief that they handled our records request just like they handle all records requests and unless we learn of evidence to the contrary, we don't plan to appeal" the partial denial of its request.


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