One of the students in my department suggested I blog about the issue in the following NY Times article: William Cronon and the American Thought Police. It refers to the abuse of open record laws by the Republican party to attack academic freedom, asking for copies all the e-mails sent by Prof. William Cronon that mention the word “Republican” from his University of Wisconsin mailbox.
They’re not likely to find much, as Prof. Cronon has been much more scrupulous about not using his university e-mail account for personal e-mail. (I, on the other hand, have used my University of California e-mail for all my e-mail correspondence. I’m sure that if someone wanted to attack me, they could find something in my e-mail that could be misinterpreted or taken out of context.) This NY Times article is not the first I heard of this issue—I saw a blog post earlier on Remaking the University: Wisconsin Republican Party Attacks Academic Freedom, which gives more details of the case.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has picked up the case as one of the most obvious assaults on academic freedom in the past 50 years, and there is a Facebook page for supporting Prof. Cronon.
There is a difficult problem for public universities with respect to freedom of information laws. We want the administrators held to the same rules as other state officials, to check the sort of waste and corruption that bureaucracies everywhere are prone to. But we don’t want arbitrary harassment of faculty or students for political reasons (as in the Cronon case). I don’t mind that my salary is in a public database on the website of the local paper—that is the sort of information that tax-payers have a right to if they pay me, but I would object to someone with a vendetta against me going on a fishing expedition asking for every copy of my e-mail that mentioned any of several common key words, so that they could find something they could twist into a smear.
How can freedom of information laws be properly crafted to provide reasonable oversight of university bureaucracies without enabling witch hunts and destroying academic freedom? Are any of the current laws properly constructed? For Cronon, is Wisconsin’s? And, for me, is California’s?
Disclaimer: I’m a member of AAUP, as is any faculty member who joins the Faculty Association on our campus. Our local “union” has been toothless and useless (for years I referred to them as the Parking Association, since car parking was all the then-leadership cared about), but AAUP has been doing good work in protecting the rights of faculty in other parts of the country, and so I have kept my membership in the Faculty Association.