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The big chill? UW’s Cronon sees ‘intimidation’ in GOP records request

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: April 07, 2011, 01:22:53 pm »

The big chill? UW’s Cronon sees ‘intimidation’ in GOP records request

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The big chill? UW’s Cronon sees ‘intimidation’ in GOP records request
TODD FINKELMEYER | The Capital Times | tfinkelmeyer@madison.com madison.com | (29) Comments | Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2011 5:00 am




Academic heavyweight William Cronon, a UW-Madison history professor, has been truly shaken by the GOP’s records request. MIKE DeVRIES - The Capital Times
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William Cronon still is struggling to make sense of the past few weeks.
“I feel like I went down a rabbit hole and I’m in Wonderland, or just a really strange world,” says the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor.
In the span of 10 days last month, Cronon started a blog, penned an op-ed for the New York Times and let the world know his emails were the target of an open records request from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, a move roundly criticized as an attempt to intimidate a professor for offering his perspective on political issues. Media outlets from across the country followed the story, with commentators, bloggers and readers debating everything from academic freedom to political pettiness.
“On several days of the past two weeks, my email inbox has pinged literally every 15 seconds with new mail,” says Cronon, UW-Madison’s Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies. “There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people writing to me. I can’t keep up. It feels like I’m not in my real life.”
Perhaps surprisingly, this academic heavyweight appears truly shaken by the developments. During an hour-long discussion at his home near campus, Cronon chooses his words carefully — occasionally choking up with emotion — while examining the events that have rattled his world. He’s trying to understand the response his recent writings have elicited and is deeply concerned about the “chilling effect” the open records request could have on academic freedom. He’s also wondering if it might be time to step away from a state and an institution that is dear to him.
“I think seriously about whether I can stay at this university,” says Cronon, 56, who spent most of his childhood in Madison and returned to town in 1992 after a decade as a faculty member at Yale University. “I’m not exaggerating. I really never had to worry about information requests or which email to use at a private university. I hate that I’m saying this, but that’s how I feel.”
The president-elect of the American Historical Association stresses he believes that open records requests are a “foundation of our democracy,” but he views the one targeted at his email account as a blatant case of “intellectual intimidation.”
The story begins on March 15, when Cronon started a new blog called Scholar as Citizen. His very first post, which reads like a history lecture, examines “who’s really behind” Republican efforts in Wisconsin and the rest of the country to attack public employee unions, require identification to vote, and scale back environmental laws among other measures. The post gives interested readers a framework to dig deeper on this topic if they so choose by including background, links and reading lists that shed light on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization funded largely by business interests whose main work has been to create model legislation for state governments nationwide.
Within a week, the blog had more than 60,000 page views. “Never expected that,” he says matter-of-factly.
On March 22, a Cronon-penned op-ed ran in the New York Times headlined “Wisconsin’s Radical Break.” In it, he argued that Gov. Scott Walker has trampled traditions of bipartisan collaboration and open governance in Wisconsin politics, drawing a parallel between the new governor’s actions and those of reviled U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy from more than half a century ago.
It wasn’t until March 24 that all hell broke loose. That’s when Cronon blogged that the “Wisconsin Republican Party has issued an Open Records Law request for access to my emails since January 1 in response to a blog entry I posted on March 15 concerning the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in influencing recent legislation in this state and across the country.” Stephan Thompson, a former aide to Walker who now works as deputy executive director of the state’s Republican Party, made the request. The story quickly spread across the country; by the end of March, Cronon’s blog had more than 500,000 page views.
From the start, Cronon stressed he had nothing to hide. “I’m defending the principle of academic freedom or intellectual inquiry by defending emails that actually have essentially nothing in them that’s going to embarrass me,” he says. “I think this shouldn’t have happened. I think they should not have done this and I’m working as hard as I can to shine a very bright spotlight on it.”
He remains troubled that a political party would use the open records law to take a publicly employed person to task for expressing his views on matters of public concern.
“You can tell the emotion in my voice, but this event has changed me fundamentally,” says Cronon. “My life has changed and my life in this state has changed, and that bothers me. I can feel the chilling effect on the part of me that believes in putting academic ideas into the world for public discussion. I just feel like the Wisconsin Idea is at risk in this space.” Attributed to UW President Charles Van Hise more than a century ago, the Wisconsin Idea is the principle that education should influence and improve people’s lives beyond the university classroom.
To be clear, not everyone agrees that the open records request is draconian or has such far-reaching implications.
“I don’t see this as a threat to academic freedom,” says Timothy Smith, a journalism professor and media lawyer at Kent State University who also chairs the Ohio school’s Media Law Center. “That relates to my ability to teach what I believe is relevant in the classroom and research topics related to my field. Asking to read my email, while annoying, doesn’t threaten my ability to teach or do research. If I am foolish enough to put intemperate remarks into email that is available to the public, I’ve no one to blame but myself. I think what the Republican legislators are doing in trying to intimidate the professor is despicable, but hardly surprising. Politics isn’t beanbag.”
On April 1, the university released some of Cronon’s emails, totaling 173 pages, to the state’s Republican Party. UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin said in a letter to the campus community that the university used the “kind of balancing test that the law allows, taking such things as the rights to privacy and free expression into account.” UW-Madison excluded records involving students, because they are protected under federal privacy law, and emails that could be considered personal. Martin said the university also “held back exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it.”
Martin added that the university reviewed Cronon’s emails for any legal or policy violations — such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity — and found none.
“I really think the university threaded the needle pretty beautifully on this one,” Cronon says of its handling of the email request. “I think it may not be obvious to outsiders, but the chancellor made it very clear that academic freedom and private, scholarly communications are very important values to include in any balancing test about the release of public records. I think the university has done that all along, but this is a very explicit statement of that and that’s part of what I was seeking.”
Republican Party of Wisconsin communications director Katie McCallum said Tuesday that the organization would have no further comment on the situation beyond a statement released last week from executive director Mark Jefferson that thanked UW-Madison and Martin for complying with the request. He added: “Like other organizations from across the political spectrum, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has a long history of making open records requests, and we will continue to exercise our right to do so in the future.”
• • • •
Cronon, who holds degrees from UW-Madison, Yale and Oxford, maintains he’s the opposite of an activist professor. The former Rhodes Scholar and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant considers himself a centrist and notes he has never belonged to a political party.
But like any good academic, he is inquisitive.
“I had been intrigued for a long time about why is all this similar legislation happening all over the country at the same time? It’s an interesting historical phenomenon that I didn’t quite understand. I also frankly have never been able to believe the narrative that the Koch brothers were behind it all — sort of this conspiracy theory,” says Cronon, referring to the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, whose ties to Republican politics and Walker in particular have been a hot topic recently. “Historians don’t tend to believe those kinds of stories. So I just began looking around and found material about the American Legislative Exchange Council, which seemed interesting and important. So I wanted to share it.”
He insists the blog was a scholarly endeavor, and not a tool to stir the political pot.
“I have always been a scholar who believes that academic work should be in the public realm,” says Cronon. “That’s the Wisconsin Idea at its core. So getting stuff out on the Internet, in whatever form, I think now is as important as writing articles or writing books as a way of communicating.”
His first blog post was the result of research he was conducting for his New York Times op-ed. He stresses he’s “no expert on ALEC,” but as a historian he hunts for documents about a particular topic, and then interprets what they mean. In this case, he came across a trove of information related to ALEC, “which seemed to be playing a pretty important role in Wisconsin politics and in politics in the United States.”
“I was surprised I had never heard of it,” Cronon continues. “And I talked to a number of political historians and a number of senior political journalists, and they hadn’t heard of it. It’s not that nobody knew about ALEC, but almost all the attention given to it had been out in fairly strong ideological zones of political inquiry. So not much attention has been paid to ALEC in the center of the political spectrum, which is where I tend to live.”
Cronon decided ALEC was doing “important political work the public should be paying attention to,” and posted what amounts to study guide materials about the group for those interested in learning more.
“I think anybody in the middle would recognize that I was just saying this is an important group that the public should be aware of,” he says. “That’s all.”
Not everyone agrees. Bloggers elsewhere and some readers of Cronon’s post slammed the professor for leaning too far to the left. “All of your accusations are based in groundless scare mongering used so often by liberals, who assume that if it is conservative and secret then it must be sinister,” someone with the screen name “Buckley” commented on Cronon’s blog.
The professor’s op-ed in the New York Times, which aimed to put Walker’s actions in a historical perspective, drew an even fiercer backlash from critics after Cronon wrote that while Wisconsin’s governor is not Joe McCarthy, “there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered.”
Although Cronon believes the piece was well-reasoned and carefully worded, the op-ed nonetheless led many bloggers and commentators to conclude it was nothing more than a partisan attack from a lefty UW-Madison professor.
Cronon says he’s more than willing to listen to those who persuasively argue why the connection between Walker and McCarthy should never have been made.
“Some have written critically, but very thoughtfully, that it’s deeply unfair to invoke the name of McCarthy and that I was painting with a very partisan brush,” says Cronon. “And it’s a fair criticism.”
However, the professor finds it ironic that even before the op-ed ran, he learned about the open records request made by the state’s Republican Party on March 17.
“I had published an op-ed about McCarthyite tactics, and here was a McCarthyite tactic,” says Cronon. “I am not saying that Scott Walker or any current Republican in the state of Wisconsin has Joe McCarthy’s politics. But there are certain techniques that McCarthy used that I think abuse good, benign, invaluable tools of government for the purpose of intimidating critics. Joe McCarthy was a master of that by using the subpoena. This open records request, I believe, is that kind of technique.”
• • • •
Cronon was sitting in a board meeting for the Organization of American Historians in Houston on March 17 when he received an email from a UW-Madison official notifying him that an open records request had been made and that he needed to get in touch with the university’s legal team.
“And I headed down another rabbit hole at that moment,” says Cronon, who recalls an initial sense of “surprise” and “fear.”
The Republican Party of Wisconsin’s open records request, which was filed two days after Cronon’s initial March 15 post, asked for “copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from Jan. 1, 2011, to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.”
All the people named on the list — with the exception of the last two, who are major public employee union leaders — are Republican legislators.
Cronon — who didn’t blog about the open records request until March 24 — asked the GOP in that post to withdraw its request.
Many view the GOP’s request to be perfectly legitimate — a trio of veteran UW-Madison professors, speaking about the issue on background, admitted they were surprised Cronon became so agitated. However, most commentators, including some conservative bloggers, perceived the Republican Party’s move as “political retaliation.”
On March 25, the Republican Party responded by ripping Cronon and denying his request. Jefferson, GOP executive director, said in a statement: “I find it appalling that Professor Cronon has 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.”
Cronon stresses that he believes strongly that “freedom of information is a foundation of our democracy. It’s precious.” But he adds: “I don’t think the law was written to provide a tool of intimidation or as a tool for punishing free speech or punishing awkward inquiries for people asking uncomfortable questions. I believe this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom.”
Indeed, more than a few around the country jumped on the “chilling effect” bandwagon, with the New York Times, New Yorker, Huffington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among many others, tackling the topic.
Gregory Scholtz, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, sent a letter to Biddy Martin arguing that disclosure of Cronon’s emails “will inevitably produce a chilling effect not only on Professor Cronon’s academic freedom but also on the academic freedom of his faculty colleagues and of faculty members throughout the University of Wisconsin System, with potentially deleterious effects on the quality of research and teaching.”
Not everyone, however, was so outraged. While no one contacted for this article backed the Republican Party’s fishing expedition through Cronon’s emails, many also shrugged their shoulders at the tactic and questioned if it would truly dampen scholarly inquiry.
Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, concedes that “nobody likes being the focus of an open records request. But they are simply a reality of working at a public institution.”
“This stuff happens all over the political spectrum,” adds Vedder, who was the focus of an open records request about five years ago. “I very much appreciate the academic freedom that’s generally afforded within the academy. It’s the greatest job in the world in that we can more or less say what we want without huge consequences. So it is disturbing when something like this happens. But it’s not unique.”
Nor are such actions only carried out by one side of the political spectrum.
It was a little more than a year ago, for example, that the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now used information gleaned through an open records request to question the credibility of a polling project led by UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein.
Donald Downs, a UW-Madison political science professor, echoes the thought that such requests are far from an isolated matter.
“Open records requests appear to have been taken to a new level, making some of them tools of partisan political combat,” Downs says. “Over the past year, there have been other cases beyond Cronon’s …. And some liberal bloggers are now calling for open records requests against (UW-Madison Law School professor and conservative blogger) Ann Althouse in retaliation for Cronon. So Cronon’s situation is sadly not alone.”
Indeed, just last week a conservative research group in Michigan issued a public records request to the labor studies departments at three public universities in that state. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is seeking any emails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil from professors at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University. This request also is being roundly criticized as an attempt to intimidate academics who may be sympathetic to organized labor.
Such an atmosphere is not healthy for public institutions, Chancellor Martin wrote to the campus community April 1.
“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,” Martin writes. “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.”
• • • •
It’s fair to say that Cronon has higher standards for civility than many when it comes to political discourse. He has no time for the near incessant, ill-tempered bickering common to reader message boards when virtually any political topic is debated.
“I believe in core values of thoughtfulness, fairness and decency — which I think of as scholarly values and citizenly values,” he says. “I am, I guess, disturbed by the white-hot invective — the really ad hominem, nasty invective — that characterizes particularly those comments that are critical of a given position. The ones that are essentially making dispersions on my mother or making various kinds of comments that are essentially irrelevant to the argument or actually haven’t even engaged the argument, those I find troubling. They’re essentially a way of not listening, not thinking and not paying attention, and those are completely contrary to my values, I would say.”
So Cronon was pleasantly surprised when he received a letter from a person purporting to be a Republican who supports much of what Walker is doing — but who also finds the open records request to be an inappropriate intimidation tactic. On March 29, Cronon posted the letter on his blog.
“It actually brought tears to my eyes,” Cronon says of the note. “I have no doubt at all the person who wrote the letter is who he says he is, and the letter came from the heart. And any fair-minded person reading that, whatever their politics, would recognize that. But the first comments posted on it were essentially, ‘Cronon made this up. This is a fake.’ ”
Cronon pauses before continuing, “People were essentially dismissing even the possibility that this could be an authentic voice. And we need to get out of that state. I don’t know how you do democracy if you can’t find that point of intersection.”
And without more civility, Cronon isn’t sure he can stay at UW-Madison.
“Were these inquiries to become the norm at a place like Wisconsin I think it will make it very hard to get people like me ever to want to be here,” he says. “I could go to a lot of places tomorrow if I want to and I could make a lot more money doing it.”
But Cronon’s ties to the university and this state are strong. He grew up in Madison. His father, E. David Cronon, was a highly regarded scholar here in his own right, leading UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science from 1974 to 1988.
“I believe deeply in pubic universities,” Bill Cronon says. “The Wisconsin Idea, that universities exist to serve the public good, is one of my ruling passions. The idea that scholarship and science should be seeking to improve the life of people in Wisconsin and around the world, I cherish that value. We need places like this university, and that’s why I’m here.”
For the time being.
“It was my father who told me the story of Richard Ely and the “sifting and winnowing” plaque, which has been one of the most powerful stories in my intellectual life for a very long time,” says Cronon.
Ely was an economics professor in the late 19th century accused of fostering dangerous pro-union doctrines. His eventual exoneration led to the installation of a plaque outside Bascom Hall that says the university “should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
“I hope this doesn’t sound exaggerated, but in a really deeply personal way, I kind of see myself right now standing next to that plaque with my dad. Honest to God, that’s how I feel about this,” Cronon says. “This is one of my deepest values that we’re talking about right here.”
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