A Defense of Academic Freedom in Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin has responded to the state GOP's request for the e-mails of Professor William Cronon relating to the clash over collective bargaining in that state. This was the opening salvo in a series of such requests to bully and intimidate university professors.

Talking Points Memo reports that the University has complied with the request, paying due respect to protecting academic freedom, among other values:

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under [federal law]. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Chancellor Biddy Martin also posted a message to the campus community to help ensure that academic freedom would not be chilled by the Republicans' assault:

Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email 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. 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.

To the extent that the GOP hoped to find evidence that Professor Cronon was using state computers to engage in partisan political activities, they're out of luck:

We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

But this should not be the end of the story. As we have noted previously, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. If the party officials involved with this are not held accountable for their overreach, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

PFAW