What if Bill Cronon had done something “wrong?”

4 04 2011

I may be the only person with a Ph.D. in history from Wisconsin that’s less than fifteen years old who doesn’t know Bill Cronon personally. I do, however, know a lot about him secondhand. I’ve also read Nature’s Metropolis twice (which is the number of times you need to read it to properly appreciate it) if that counts for anything. So while hardly an expert in all things Cronon, I was surprised to learn by reading his blog that he’s been a registered independent all these years. After all, for a long as I can remember, most voters who are interested in protecting the environment have been Democrats.

Apparently though, it’s his independence which has saved him from a lot more hassle. The administration at Madison has read his e-mail, pronounced him clean, and issued a pretty nice statement in support of academic freedom in the process. Therefore, everything is tea and crumpets, right?

I doubt it. The fact that the entire professoriate (rightfully) freaked out at that FOIA request will alone be enough to guarantee that it will happen again. Next time, I bet they won’t pick on a paragon of independence and scholarly virtue. Indeed, that next time has already happened.

You’ve probably already seen this by now, but it deserves repetition in light of the Cronon story apparently blowing over:

A Midland-based think tank’s demands for Michigan professors’ e-mails about Wisconsin’s public employee labor strife is causing an uproar among some who suggest the Freedom of Information Act requests aim to intimidate pro-labor dissenters and stifle academic freedom.

The requests were submitted last week by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to labor studies departments at Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is probably the biggest industrial relations story since the PATCO strike. Therefore, if the labor studies departments at these places weren’t talking about the struggle in Wisconsin they aren’t doing their jobs. While that article suggests that the think tank’s reasons for making the request is somehow mysterious, their reasons for asking for it are obvious when you think about it: They want to paint labor studies as a partisan discipline (unlike….say…business schools) so that those departments can be completely de-funded. Had Cronon been “guilty” of sending partisan e-mails, he would have gotten a slap on the wrist and sent back to work. If these labor studies professors are found “guilty,” their departments (like so many other labor studies departments around the country), face the death penalty.

You should be able to tell by my quotations around the words “guilty” and “wrong” that I’m not convinced that people who are less scrupulous than Cronon about keeping their private messages off their university e-mail accounts are doing anything wrong. That’s not because I’m using state resources to plot revolution during working hours. It’s because I agree with Tim Burke, who wrote last week:

Speaking as an intellectual is not always speaking as an expert, and we should want our public university faculty to do both: to be educated, thoughtful and independent participants in the public affairs of their day and to provide authoritative insight into the subjects they know best. That’s not just practically useful, it is one of the aspirations of a better, freer society.

That think tank in Michigan wants to paint professors doing their jobs as prima facie unacceptable. That’s scary by itself, but it’s also based on an awfully narrow reading of what their jobs are. In fact, I wish Cronon had been commenting upon the affairs of the day more aggressively than he apparently did because then one of the best historians in America would have defended commenting on current affairs as our profession’s right because that’s what public intellectuals do. Instead the right will just learn to demand the e-mails of the lower hanging academic fruit and the harassment of the professoriate will likely continue.




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