Just when it seemed that the political conflict and intrigue over public higher education in Wisconsin could not get any more intense or convoluted, it did. Thrust into the tangled mix of controversy over employee union policies  and potential governance restructuring  that roiled the University of Wisconsin System this winter came word late Thursday  of a Republican operative's perceived attack on academic freedom and on one of the university's most visible scholars, which promises to complicate an already combustible situation.
To recap briefly what the last three months had already wrought in Wisconsin: Governor Scott Walker has become a national icon (positively or negatively depends on one's views on the role of the labor movement) for his attack on collective bargaining for public employee unions, including those for professors and graduate students.
And as that drama (which included a virtual shutdown of Wisconsin's legislative process and efforts, still under way, to recall politicians on both sides of the aisle) was unfolding, Walker endorsed a move by the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus at Madison for greater independence, not only from state regulation but, to the dismay of Wisconsin's other public institutions, from the rest of the university system.
Those developments have created a complicated political dynamic in which the chancellor of Madison's historically liberal campus, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, has linked her campus's interests with those of a Republican governor whose anti-union agenda has made him a villain to many of her own employees and students.
William Cronon,  the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at Madison, is among the university's most visible and highly respected scholars. Like many of his colleagues, he has been greatly disturbed by Walker's approach to public employee unions, and he has made use of his prominence to take his critique public, in high-profile ways.
Most visibly, he published an op-ed last week  in The New York Times in which he sought to show that the Republican governor's "assault on collective bargaining rights" represents a break with his state's (and the GOP's own) history, and drew a parallel between Walker and one of his forebears in Wisconsin's Republican Party, Joseph McCarthy.
But some of Cronon's other writings are less historical. He began a blog this month, called Scholar as Citizen, and its first post,  on March 15, sought to lay out "who’s really behind" the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The blog post discusses the role that national groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council play in spreading conservative ideas and seeding conservative policies at the state and local level, and suggests -- while acknowledging that direct evidence is hard to find -- that the groups have helped engineer Walker's agenda.
"One conclusion seems clear: what we’ve witnessed in Wisconsin during the opening months of 2011 did not originate in this state, even though we’ve been at the center of the political storm in terms of how it’s being implemented," Cronon wrote. "This is a well-planned and well-coordinated national campaign, and it would be helpful to know a lot more about it."
Apparently not everyone thinks so. Two days after that blog post, Cronon revealed in another blog entry  that an employee of the state Republican party, Stephan Thompson, filed an open-records request asking lawyers at Wisconsin-Madison for all e-mail messages into and out of Cronon's university e-mail account that mentioned Walker and other Republican legislative leaders or used the terms "Republican," "collective bargaining," and "recall," among others.
"The timing of Mr. Thompson’s request surely means that it is a response to my blog posting about the American Legislative Exchange Council, since I have never before been the subject of an Open Records request, and nothing in my prior professional life has ever attracted this kind of attention from the Republican Party," wrote Cronon, who surmised that the open-records request was designed with the goal of finding evidence that he had violated Wisconsin's prohibition on use of state resources for "partisan political purposes." He called on the party to withdraw its request.
"Mr. Thompson obviously read my blog post as an all-out attack on the interests of his party, and his open records request seems designed to give him what he hopes will be ammunition he can use to embarrass, undermine, and ultimately silence me," he continued. "I’d be willing to bet quite a lot of money that Mr. Thompson and the State Republican Party are hoping that I’ve been violating this policy so they can use my own emails to prove that I’m a liberal activist who is using my state email account to engage in illegal lobbying and efforts to influence elections. By releasing emails to demonstrate this, they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic."
The perceived effort to use state law to crack down on a high-profile and well-connected scholar's criticism of a Republican governor's policies quickly lit up the liberal blogosphere on Friday, followed promptly by a blizzard of news articles .
It also spurred many calls for Wisconsin Republicans to drop their open records request. The American Historical Association,  for instance, said its members support the use of freedom of information laws to "promote informed conversation." But in Cronon's case, the group said, "the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings."
The barrage of requests (including from Inside Higher Ed) for comment from Wisconsin's Republican Party prompted a response in which the group criticized Cronon's "deplorable tactics" in trying to force it to withdraw "a routine open records request" and questioned why Cronon (whose name the statement spells as Cronin) "seems to have plenty of time to round up reporters from around the nation to push the Republican Party of Wisconsin into explaining its motives behind a lawful open records request, but has apparently not found time to provide any of the requested information.
“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government," said the party's executive director, Mark Jefferson. “[I]t is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The Left is far more aggressive in this state than the Right in its use of open records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media."
The statement also urged administrators at Wisconsin-Madison to comply with the request. In a statement late Friday, Martin, the chancellor, said the university would comply with state law -- but only after balancing the need between the public's right to know and a potential "chilling" of academic discourse.
"Academic freedom is one of the university’s greatest contributions to a democratic society," Martin said. "No other institution is charged specifically with protecting the pursuit of knowledge, wherever it may lead. Individual faculty, staff and students inevitably consider and advocate positions that will be at odds with one another’s views and the views of people outside of the university. It is the university’s responsibility both to comply with state law and to protect our community’s right to explore freely and freely express their points of view."
The fight between Cronon and state Republicans over Walker's union policies and now the open records request seems sure to complicate the parallel debate over Walker's proposal to spin the Madison campus off from the rest of the University of Wisconsin System. Cronon wrote a strongly worded letter supporting Martin last month at a time when it seemed that her job might be in jeopardy. (He also backed the university's New Badger Partnership,  though his views on Walker's and Martin's plan for Madison's full independence from the system are not clear.)
Many backers of more autonomy for Madison (including a new advocacy group) are closely allied with Walker and the state Republican Party. And Martin -- whose alliance with Walker over his budget proposal has put her at odds with many of her UW System colleagues and some of her own faculty and staff who are mad at the governor's union proposals -- could have to walk a tightrope in this situation.
She and the university could alienate Walker and his political supporters if Madison complies inadequately with the open records request. Alternatively, if she were to be perceived by Cronon's supporters as going too far in acceding to the open records request, she could undermine her position with many rank and file faculty and staff members.