Academic Freedom and Open Records

by Harry on April 2, 2011

For those interested, here is our Chancellor’s statement on the Cronon affair:

Members of the campus community,

Two weeks ago UW-Madison received an open records request from Stephan Thompson, deputy executive director of the state’s Republican Party, for email records of Professor Bill Cronon.

Professor Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. He is one of the university’s most celebrated and respected scholars, teachers, mentors and citizens. I am proud to call him a colleague.

The implications of this case go beyond Bill Cronon. When Mr. Thompson made his request, he was exercising his right under Wisconsin’s public records law both to make such a request and to make it without stating his motive. Neither the request nor the absence of a stated motive seemed particularly unusual. We frequently receive public records requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the right, and every position in between. I announced that the university would comply with the law and, as we do in all cases, apply the kind of balancing test that the law allows, taking such things as the rights to privacy and free expression into account. We have done that analysis and will release the records later today that we believe are in compliance with state law.

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under FERPA. 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.

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.

This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. 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.

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing” of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

Chancellor Biddy Martin



Barry 04.02.11 at 11:20 am

A nice response.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.02.11 at 11:28 am

Guilds are internally accountable to their own standards, and externally accountable to rule of law. These accountabilities sometimes conflict. Chancellor Martin did a very nice balancing job, all the while avoiding the bureaucratic language frequently used to obfuscate conflict. I agree with Barry–very nice job indeed.


Andrew 04.02.11 at 12:12 pm

Exactly right, and unlikely to be successfully challenged.


Tom M 04.02.11 at 12:34 pm

unlikely to be successfully challenged
The Republican Party of Wisc. may not let that stop them, though. It would be childish, intemperate and arrogant to try and take the issue any further but that is what they were in the first place.


Harry 04.02.11 at 1:11 pm

I doubt they’ll challenge it, but we’ll see. I am not at all confident that they will stop doing this, though, and am aware that I am a likely suspect now, and will be more so fairly soon.

She was criticized for her apparently lukewarm statement when this broke. One of my colleagues wrote her an outraged and well reasoned letter. To her credit she wrote a long and carefully thought out response. More to her credit, though, the current statement, made in full knowledge of the fact, good as it is, is even more powerful in the light of her first statement. I’m quite impressed with how she has handled this. A good reminder of the skills it takes to do that job well.


Harry 04.02.11 at 1:12 pm

Rereading that, the praise looks faint. Its not meant to be at all.


Jeffrey C. Goldfarb 04.02.11 at 1:21 pm

This is an admirable statement for what it settles and what it leaves unaddressed. It supports the rule of law, in this case compliance to state law of public access, and it supports academic freedom, i.e. the privacy of scholarly correspondence here. It leaves unsettled where the compliance ends and freedom begins, although the university will assert a position. The detailed outcome in all likelihood will be settled bythe courts. My concern in a world that increasingly doesn’t recognize a clear distinction between public and private, is that academic freedom will be compromised. Defending the principle requires not only litigation but also political action.


Sherman Dorn 04.02.11 at 2:36 pm

Martin’s clearly learned from the response to her first tepid reaction, much to the good. When we had a crisis at USF, I explained to my colleagues on the faculty senate that it’s possible to say no to intimidators, forcefully, and get away with it: Robert Hutchins’s actions in the McCarthy Era stand out as a useful counterpoint to the weasels and chickens that often populated presidential offices in the postwar era.


Barry Freed 04.02.11 at 4:21 pm

Hopefully that will leave just the spam that got past the filters.


SusanC 04.02.11 at 7:13 pm

I’m currently an academic, but in the past I’ve worked for a company that was sometimes the target of litigation, so I tend to organize my email with that possibility in mind.

Still, this is (a) outrageous harrassment of the academic concerned (in that no wrong-doing was revealed, or was ever likely to be revealed); (b) a reminder of just how much confidential material, of various kinds, goes through academic inboxes.

Of course, it’s confidential I can’t post it here, but the kinds of confidential material going through an academic’s inbox often includes…

– Attorney-client privileged communications, e.g. when you’re negotiating the terms of a contract (just about every research grant generates a certain amount of this stuff.)

– For projects with commercial partners, information about the partners’ business plans that they consider confidential.

– Patents that haven’t been filed yet, and the discussion that led up to them. Some of this might be attorney-client privileged, but the critical email is usually between two researchers, along the lines of “Hey, I’ve got a great idea on how we can do X”.

– In projects with a ethnographic/psychological component, you can have responses from study participants in which the participant is identifiable. (e.g. if they fill in a questionaire and return it by email). You might well have a special email address for this, but it still goes through the email system.

– Evaluations of job applications: “I don’t think we should hire Dr X because…”

– Referee’s reports on journal articles “I recommend you reject Dr X’s paper on Y because…”

– Student welfare (e.g. if a student appears to be in need of referral to a counsellor/psychiatrist; e.g. #2 if you’re writing to the examiners to claim your student has some kind of special difficulty)



StevenAttewell 04.02.11 at 8:14 pm

While I’m in complete agreement on the subject at hand, it’s interesting how complicated universities’ position on emails is. For example, grad student union activists like myself have avoided using our university emails for years because they are technically the property of the university, and can be read by university officials without our permission.

Legal questions aside, it’s good practice for political activists to use an email independent of their current position/employment just in case. It’s not a perfect protection (someone can always hack your email), but it’s better than nothing.


monboddo 04.03.11 at 2:16 am

The Chancellor’s comments are fine, I guess, but there is one part that should worry everyone: “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.” So, any time a political operative wants to harass a Wisconsin faculty member, he just files a FOIA request, and the University will search the faculty member’s email to see if there were any legal or policy violations? No probable cause? Sounds like an invitation to a lot of fishing expeditions.


simple mind 04.03.11 at 3:33 pm

War on eggheads, as usual. We never get a break and profs don’t get the respect they deserve.


simple mind 04.03.11 at 3:33 pm

Forgot to add, another damn fishing expedition.


Robert F. Jaffe 04.04.11 at 9:14 pm

Chancellor Biddy Martin’s reply was superb and she should be quite proud of it. She took the only defensible position and expressed it with grace and force. The faculty should be glad they have such a person as chancellor. There are all too many very weak people in such positions and she is not one of them. So far, the position the university has taken with regard to Professor Cronon’s emails has been in line with the best academic precedents. Let’s hope it remains so in the future.


Erik 04.05.11 at 10:40 pm

To be slightly grumpy, and in line with what Steven Attewell said above, and as somebody who works for a university, it seems dangerous for academic freedom to begin crossing into what feels like extra rights for faculty. What would change about the way this issue were debated if the target was a staff member at the university, or an employee of the state itself?


Tom 04.06.11 at 4:37 pm

This passage strikes me:

“We frequently receive public records requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the right, and every position in between.”

Does anyone know of other such cases? She explicitly mentions that these requests are for political motives. It seems that the problem is not confined to Cronon’s case, especially if one thinks that this is just one public university and similar things probably happen to other public universities as well.

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