Obviously, the big academic news of the today is the Wisconsin Republican Party’s desire to read Bill Cronon’s e-mail. I’ve been in an archive all day, otherwise I would have written about it sooner than this. If you still haven’t seen the story yet, Josh Marshall’s summary of the story is a very good one (complete with historiographic references) and all relevant links.
If anything though, the Republicans’ response to all the outrage over what they’re trying to do to Cronon is even more disturbing than the original request:
“[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.”
Professors are public officials? Really? I guess I better go out and abuse my numerous powers now before I get thrown out of office.
Seriously though, I’ve never seen a better comment to explain why professors are under attack these days since it clearly demonstrates that our New Tea Party Overlords are simply incapable of distinguishing between a public employee and a public charge. They think they have a right to see everything Cronon does all day because their taxes pay his salary. Furthermore, there is no difference in their mind between a professor and a public school teacher. They’d like to get the government out of education entirely if they could as we all have a disturbing tendency to vote for Democrats.
Towards the end of the his long post on the subject of their call for his e-mail, Cronon brings up the history of academic freedom in Wisconsin:
In fact, one of the most celebrated moments in the history of American academic freedom happened right here at the University of Wisconsin in 1894. In July of that year, a member of the UW Board of Regents named Oliver E. Wells wrote a letter to The Nation magazine entitled “The College Anarchist.” In it, he accused UW Professor Richard Ely, one of the nation’s leading economists, of being an anarchist and socialist for his work exploring the positive roles that labor unions could play in the American economy. Wells sought to have Ely fired from his UW faculty position, and this prompted the appointment of a special committee of the Board of Regents to investigate Wells’ allegations. The result was a report that ended with one of the most ringing endorsements of academic freedom ever made in the United States, now emblazoned on a bronze tablet by the front door of UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall:
Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.
Imagine any Board of Regents coming to the same conclusion today. At the very least, I think you have to agree that it would be a stretch.
That’s what so scary about this incident to me. Academic freedom doesn’t come from our a professor’s rights as a citizen: It comes from the good that academic freedom does for society at large, and is only protected by precedent. Unfortunately, today’s Republican Party doesn’t respect precedent. Heck, Glenn Beck thinks that the Progressives were dangerous radicals. “Serious” Republican elected officials argue that our ban on child labor is unconstitutional.
Is it any wonder then that they’d want to go after academic freedom? Today’s Republican Party doesn’t see it as having any value to for society at large. They don’t even see any value coming from state universities to society at large. They just see a lot of whiny liberals living on the public dole.
Bill Cronon’s scholarship has always been on the cutting edge. I’m afraid his perfectly justifiable, moderate politics just made it there too. Hopefully, this abuse of power is just appalling enough to elicit a mass response from academia and society alike.