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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Professors like Bill Cronon should be held to different public records standards

Cronon is brilliant as he is calm, and he is as prominent as they come among true academic historians.
Cronon is brilliant as he is calm, and he is as prominent as they come among true academic historians.
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Bill Cronon is definitely one of the last historians at UW-Madison (where I went to grad school) that I would think of as a radical or even as very political. Even his masterwork, Nature's Metropolis, which I happen to be assigning this semester in my 19th century America class, is marred by an inattention to politics (though still a very fine book, a real model of the craft in many other respects).

I thought Cronon's op-ed in The New York Times on March 21 was actually quite moderate and reasoned, it sounded exactly like him.

But he has gone and launched a shit-storm by simply being a reasonable fellow in an increasingly unreasonable state in a crazied time. The Republican Party in Wisconsin is now seeking his emails through the open records law. What triggered the attempt to intimidate Cronon came from his excellent report on the right-wing conspiracy behind the recent anti-union push (which is essential reading, here).

He concludes:

What you'll quickly learn even from reading these few documents is that ALEC is an organization that has been doing very important political work in the United States for the past forty years with remarkably little public or journalistic scrutiny. I'm posting this long note in the conviction that it's time to start paying more attention. History is being made here, and future historians need people today to assemble the documents they'll eventually need to write this story. Much more important, citizens today may wish to access these same documents to be well informed about important political decisions being made in our own time during the frequent meetings that ALEC organizes between Republican legislators and representatives of many of the wealthiest corporations in the United States.

I want to add a word of caution here at the end. In posting this study guide, I do not want to suggest that I think it is illegitimate in a democracy for citizens who share political convictions to gather for the purpose of sharing ideas or creating strategies to pursue their shared goals. The right to assemble, form alliances, share resources, and pursue common ends is crucial to any vision of democracy I know. (That's one reason I'm appalled at Governor Walker's ALEC-supported efforts to shut down public employee unions in Wisconsin, even though I have never belonged to one of those unions, probably never will, and have sometimes been quite critical of their tactics and strategies.) I'm not suggesting that ALEC, its members, or its allies are illegitimate, corrupt, or illegal. If money were changing hands to buy votes, that would be a different thing, but I don't believe that's mainly what's going on here. Americans who belong to ALEC do so because they genuinely believe in the causes it promotes, not because they're buying or selling votes.

This is yet another example, in other words, of the impressive and highly skillful ways that conservatives have built very carefully thought-out institutions to advocate for their interests over the past half century. Although there may be analogous structures at the other end of the political spectrum, they're frequently not nearly so well coordinated or so disciplined in the ways they pursue their goals.

I actually think that all public records should be accessible (agreeing with Jack Shafer in this regard) but I also think that going after a college professor is clearly the kind of assault on free thinking that it is a Republican hallmark.

Sure, professors at public universities are public employees, which is why it is so easy to find out their pay. (Oddly, I searched for a young historian recently on Google and the very first thing that came up about her, before even her faculty page, was a web page detailing her salary at a public university).

But anyone who thinks that public university professors are to be treated the same as politicians or as employees like civil servants is, frankly, an idiot and a danger.

Politicians are servants, and there is nothing they do that should be kept from public view. They should have nothing to hide since they serve entirely at our pleasure and to reflect our interests. Yes, this is in theory. The reality is they are self-interested, vainglorious and very often corrupt. Since they in fact have plenty they wish to hide, we need robust open records laws to compel their attentiveness to the public good.

Clearly too, state bureaucrats can't be allowed to abuse their positions by taking state time for private or political acts. If they are clocked in, they should be doing the public's work, and if not they they can of course do whatever they want.

I was once a civil servant in the great state of Wisconsin (Technical Services Assistant-Senior was my title) and I can say that every single second of every single day I was on the clock I had no thought but public service. Or something like that.

But professors are different and have to be held to different standards. Most importantly, there is the idea of academic freedom. It is absolute and must not be endangered because of current politics. Academics should be able to say, think and communicate whatever they want and not have the newly elected crooks go on a crusade (or in the case of Cronon, the state party hacks).

Furthermore, this position cannot be said to be a regular workplace concept. When does a professor's workday end, for example, and where does the work take place? (And yes, I am well aware that university professors who teach 2 classes max and have TAs to do all the real work can't actually be said to be working, but that is a different issue).

If a professor is constantly grappling with issues and ideas and communicating same, then the limits on their workplace and their use of essentially free resources like email should not be subject to the same scrutiny as the workaday accounts of Jane Q. Publicemployee.

I am glad, though, that the Republicans picked a fight with Cronon. He ain't no Bill Ayers-like target. Cronon is brilliant as he is calm, and he is as prominent as they come among true academic historians. He is Jimmy Stewart, and he'll be hard to demonize and harder to silence.


Dr. Dan Margolies is a Professor of History at Virginia Wesleyan College with a doctorate from UW-Madison. This piece originally appeared on his blog.

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