Friday, March 25, 2011

William Cronon's Partisan Bloviation

William Cronon is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin who has publicly involved himself in the controversy concerning Wisconsin public employee bargaining. He wrote an op ed for The New York Times and started a blog that, in short order, received more than 500,000 hits. Soon after Cronon's first blog post, Stephan Thompson of the Wisconsin GOP sent the University of Wisconsin an e-mail, and I have verified the e-mail's authenticity. The e-mail requests, "copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 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."

The Wisconsin GOP's request was made under the Wisconsin open records law. Professor Cronon asserts, correctly in my view, that the Wisconsin GOP's request was intended as political retaliation. Cronon also claims that the GOP's aim was to silence Cronon, but I do not agree with the second claim. Political retaliation is part of the political process and it has not slowed political debate yet.

If there has been silencing at the University of Wisconsin, it is Cronon's and his partisan allies' silencing of Republicans. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans at universities around the country is six to one, and at a left wing-biased place like the University of Wisconsin I'll bet the bias is more extreme. The bias comes about because leftists exclude anyone who does not agree with their ideology, an ideology which has repeatedly failed and whose advocacy shears university social science departments of any claim of providing science rather than ideology. In other words, Cronon's left-wing allies have silenced Republicans within the University of Wisconsin and now object to Republicans' debating them from without.

Cronon has chosen to involve himself in the political process . He states that he has been careful to separate his personal e-mails from his university computer, and makes the spurious argument that communications with students constitute records under the Buckley Law (perhaps Cronon has not heard of redaction). Cronon had already made his views public, and any GOP attempt to silence him would be irrational and counter-productive to the GOP's aims. Rather, as a public official with a partisan affiliation Cronon has entered the political fray. He ought to expect that he be treated as a political player subject to the same tactics to which Cronon and his allies would subject GOP-affiliated officials. Even in his self-serving bloviation about the GOP's request Cronon cannot refrain from partisan rhetoric. He writes:

"My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended by this not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894."

Rather than silence Cronon, the Wisconsin GOP seems to be aiming to obtain information that would be consistent with a long standing pattern around the country: the nation's university professors often use tax exempt and public resources meant for education for partisan advocacy. Outrageously, Cronon claims that his partisan activities ought to receive special consideration and be exempt from Wisconsin's open records law. He claims that college professors ought to be publicly funded, that their partisan advocacy ought to be treated to special protection, and that their partisan opponents be prevented from asking whether professors are illegally using public money to participate in partisan advocacy.

My sincere hope is that Cronon's hypocritical bloviation will not deter the Wisconsin GOP. Perhaps Cronon would like to see repeal of the Wisconsin Open Records law, or better yet, a provision that it ought to apply to Democrats but not Republicans, which is his ultimate message, undoubtedly based on value-free social science.


Grant said...

If there has been silencing at the University of Wisconsin, it is Cronon's and his partisan allies' silencing of Republicans. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans at universities around the country is six to one

One of the first things one learns in college is that correlation does not mean causation.

Mitchell Langbert said...

Correlation does not mean causation. But in this case it confirms what I have repeatedly witnessed. There is systematic exclusion of anyone who does not buy into the religion of Marx, Croly and de Man.

The Democratic faculty's counter-arguments, like their ideology, are vacuous: "Republicans are dumb; we're smart. Republicans are interested in money. We're altruists."

Give me a break.

Grant said...

that I have repeatedly witnessed

Now that's convincing social science!

Mitchell Langbert said...

I guess your point is that you're addressing me anonymously on my blog because of your love of truth (anonymously expressed, of course) and of social science. Your interest has little to do with strongly held ideological or political opinion. And, of course, like Professor Cronon, in hiring you are completely open to hiring libertarians and Goldwater Republicans.

I hope you're not referring to Neil Gross et al.'s laughable, ideologically motivated studies (Gross and his colleagues are so used to ideological advocacy that their research causes me to laugh aloud) discussed at

Maybe you're unfamiliar with Popper's "Logic of Scientific Discovery." Why don't you scurry home, little fellow, order it on, and after you read it we can discuss your cowardly anonymous opinions.

You're disappointed that I did not publish a refereed article here in my comments section. And, of course, the little fellow would want to be the referee.

Anonymous said...

I would question the assumption that this professor must be partisan and have a "political affiliation" merely because he questioned the tone of recent political discourse in Wisconsin -- does merely stating an opinion that is critical of the Governor mean that this professor should necessarily be the subject of political retaliation?

Out of curiosity, as an employee of a public university, would you approve of a politically-motivated freedom of information request for release of your professional email history? It sounds as though you may support this action for an academic who enters into the "political process" by commenting on current political issues.

Mitchell Langbert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

But you still work at CUNY do you not? So your rights have been protected.

The question raised by the Cronan case is: Can the emails of a Professor of a State University be the subject of a FOIA request? You have not stated your opinion on this question.

Mitchell Langbert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitchell Langbert said...

Your questions are a little too personal for the blog. If you want to discuss the issues you're raising feel free to call or e-mail.

Mitchell Langbert said...

As far as Cronon's e-mail. I don't know about the Wisconsin open records law, but I don't see why one category of state employees (professors) should be exempt if other categories (legislative aides) are not exempt.

Anonymous said...

"but I don't see why one category of state employees (professors) should be exempt if other categories (legislative aides) are not exempt."

He is arguing that the mission of the university (unlike, say, the IRS) is in part to promote the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. Requests which are aimed at intimidating its members call into question the ability of the university to do this. There is therefore a conflict between certain uses of FOIA and the mission of the university, and he thinks the mission of the university is more important than political fishing.

One can hold that the university is an imperfect conduit of ideas and knowledge, hedged in with biases, etc, but why would that call into question his point? The way to making the university more about free ideas is in part to protect the ability of faculty to engage in the exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal.

Mitchell Langbert said...

"He is arguing that the mission of the university (unlike, say, the IRS) is in part to promote the free exchange of ideas and knowledge."

Cronon's point is based on lies. If Cronon is not involved in the political process, then why is he attacking Republicans in a Democratic Party-based newspaper? Having done that, he and you claim that he should be protected because he is seeking knowledge. But Democrats can attack Republicans without Cronon, and he is not seeking knowledge. He is engaging in partisan politics and deserves to be treated as such.

Actually, what he is doing is worse because it is unethical and illegal to use public resources for partisan purposes, and it seems to be that Cronon is doing just that.

Universities have utterly failed in their mission. Their claiming to be legitimately encouraging value free knowledge is the kind of ugly, disingenuous lie that terrorists use when they hide in a mosque and then protest when that the police attack the mosque.

Cronon's ugly use of the failures of universities in this way is the meanest piece of propaganda I have seen in a while.

American universities routinely use public and tax exempt money illegally for partisan purposes. They fraudulently claim to be educational institutions when, in fact, they are propaganda institutions. This needs to be investigated, and I'm delighted that the GOP has finally developed some stones to do so instead of going along with the scam as it has for so many decades.

Cronon's dishonest, distorted history that appeared in the Times isn't legitimate academic work any more than the Republicans who asked for his e-mails are engaging in legitimate academic work.

Luther Blissett said...

Professor Langbert, you are begging the question to an awful extent here. There is no evidence that Cronon used public resources to engage in political advocacy. His blog is on a private server, and his op-ed piece was not published in a public peer-reviewed journal. The most the FOIA request can prove is that Cronon might have discussed his political views with others via email. And even that is not necessarily a violation of the UW policy against trying to affect election results using university servers. (Even if it is, it is the university that must investigate, not the Republican officials who requested Cronon's emails.) Finally, a breach of this university policy will at most result in a wrist-slapping. It would be the equivalent of stealing a packet of post-its from the office for your son's school project.

You are also using a red herring argument. Whether or not conservatives are excluded from the academy has nothing to do with Cronon and the FOIA request, its legality, its ethicality.

You then act as if Cronon never heard of redaction, but you miss the clear problem: who will redact? Cronon of course cannot be expected to redact his own information. But it is a breach of FERPA to release student information to anyone besides a few select other people. A judge or legal clerk is not necessarily allowed to see student information. Nor are many university administrators. Then there is the legality of the situation. The state of Wisconsin's judges have recently decided that a public high school teacher's private emails are not subject to an Open Records request, even if they were sent over a public server. (See the FIRE response to this situation for more on that.)

Finally, let's not pretend there's an equivalency between a politician or government bureaucrat and a professor. The UW system receives around 20% of its operating budget from public money. By your logic, only 20% of Cronon's work is even open to the public.

George Eliot said...

Dear Luther: You can call me George Eliot.

I have no evidence and neither do you. The idea of an adversarial system like politics or legal litigation is that the two sides hammer at each other until the truth comes out. But you favor one side's, Cronon's, hammering at Republicans, but you oppose the Republicans hammering back. I don't see your logic.

Cronon was functioning as a political advocate when he wrote the Times article. The Republicans are treating him like a political advocate.

In fact, academic freedom was not intended to extend to fields outside an academic's area of expertise. I don't have the time right now, but if you look up the early statements of the AAUP there were limitations on the degree to which academic freedom applied in areas outside an academic's field of competence.

Since you and I don't have the facts about Cronon, but if Cronon was indeed using the facilities at Wisconsin for improper political advocacy, that ought to be settled through a civil process.

Is Cronon an expert on public sector unionism? If not, I am having trouble understanding what makes his interest academic but an IRS agent's interest not academic. What exactly would make my opinions about the Iraqi War academic if I went around protesting the Iraqi War?

Cronon is paid an ample salary and given considerable free time to conduct research. He writes partisan articles in the Democratic news media. When the Republicans respond to the partisan articles, he cries "academic freedom." Who are you and he kidding?

As far as his imponderable problems concerning redaction, perhaps you might consider that Wisconsin has a legal department. The inquiry was likely to the university, not to the faculty member, and even if to him directly he would need to work with the legal department. These questions are resolved in a legal negotiation.

He needs to grow up. If he wants to play politics, I have no problem with that.

But don't go around saying he's exercising academic freedom in behaving as a citizen and exercising First Amendment rights. That diminishes the relevance of academic freedom.

Luther Blissett said...

Wow, George Eliot, you argue much like Mitchell Langbert, meaning lots of red herrings.

So, you admit that neither of us has evidence that Cronon did or did not use the UW email server for forbidden purposes. In most situations, that would mean there would be no investigation, and this is precisely why the UW is refusing to investigate the situation.

Cronon admits that the Republicans are free to request material through FOIA. He has only delayed because the legal status of some of the documents is unclear (student info, private emails, "trade secrets," all are protected under most Open Records Laws). However, the Republican operatives behind the FOIA request act as if he should have zipped those documents over to them in a few days and then accused Cronon of intimidating them by making a public scene about the situation (see, Republicans also whinge about common political strategies).

But I wrote nothing about academic freedom, so stop bringing that red herring up. Deal with the arguments in front of you. The legal department at the school is still not allowed to see student information. It's protected by FERPA. And any private emails sent by Cronon are protected by the recent court judgment in the case cited by FIRE. Then there's the fact that trade secrets and inter- and intra-agency memoranda are exempt from FOIA requests unless there is litigation against a given agency.

Anonymous said...

I am posting this as anonymous as a matter of convenience, not as a means of hiding myself.

I find the discussion about Prof Cronon's desire to hide his emails to be nothing more than vacuous twaddle.

In the real world where real people earn their livings we've all come to recognize the simple fact that we have no right to "privacy" on the company's PC's. If I write an email on my company ID my company has every right to read it and do with it as the company choses.

Prof. Cronon's academic standing is of no consequence, ultimately he is an employee and his employer owns the means by which the man sends and recieves email on the university account. Those emails belong to the university NOT to Prof Cronon.

the parallel here is the University of east anglia CRU scam. The emails sent on that schools systems belong to the school and ultimately to the taxpayers who fund that school.

To move this from the specific to the general, it is clear that, as always, liberals want it all. Prof Cronon wants to snipe at those with whom he disagrees but wants to hide behind the ramparts of some nonsensical claim of academic freedom when he starts taking counter fire. Too bad for him.

Care for another example of liberal rule number one? (Do as liberals say, not as liberals do).

Just look at the way the left in America seeks to demonize the Koch Brothers, often using front firms funded by Soros. They just want it all and they won't stop unless the stakes get personal.

so let's get personal. The unions ratcheted up the rhetoric in Madison. I'm ready for that, and so are many other angry taxpayers. It is time to take a stand. Death threats cannot deter us, nor can vacuous twaddle from so called academics.

Oh while I'm venting here's two more words for Prof Cronon: Ward Churchill.

George Eliot said...

Dear Luther: We'll have to put our discussion on hold because 45 students just handed me their term papers. Good luck in your endeavors.



Anonymous said...

The timeline seems misleading here. I was under the impression that the open records request happened before the times article was published.

Yes, Cronon was involved in the political process when he publishes an opinion piece in the Times, but this happened after the open records request.

Mitchell Langbert said...

Dear Anonymous: I had the impression from his blog that the Times article came first, but either way doesn't change what I'm saying.