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Madison in the news again

Posted on March 28th, 2011 in Politics by Robert Miller

Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece earlier this week in the NYT is about Professor Cronon of Madison Wisconsin and the challenge he faces from the Republican Party: they want to examine his university emails, hoping to find a “gotcha” statement and recreate something like “climategate.” Cronon wrote an article in the NYT, pointing out that the Republican Party of Wisconsin probably got its marching orders from a national right wing group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The ALEC writes right wing legislation for each state and may explain why Republican-controlled state governments are all marching to the same tune–anti-labor union, anti-government, anti-tax and anti-Democrat. The Republican Party  quickly retaliated To Cronon’s op-ed piece by filing a freedom of information request, supported by the open records laws of Wisconsin, to examine his emails and hopefully discredit his suggestions by finding emails that reveal a political activist rather than a scholar. This is clearly a strategy is to publicly humiliate Cronon and silence him on his attempt to bring rational discussion on the radical Republicans to the table. As Krugman points out “climategate” was created in 2009 when emails from scientists at the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia were hacked and climate skeptics claimed they had evidence from the emails that global warming was a scam, citing information in the emails that proved scientists themselves didn’t actually believe in global climate change. However, these emails have been examined by five different organizations to date, summarized in an article last year in the NYT with the result that, while the climate scientists at East Anglia may have made some errors in judgment about handling some issues, such as chortling over the death of a global climate doubter, or not responding quickly to requests for emails about the veracity of their science, nothing was found to suggest that the science had been modified or misrepresented, leaving intact, the contemporary assessment that global climate change is real and won’t go away by sticking a “gate” at the end of the word “climate.” But, that incident gave fuel to the doubters who still broadcast “climategate” on Faux News. The emails of East Anglia seemed to reveal a group of scientists who were flummoxed, as are many others, about why society as a whole seems to increasingly doubt the validity and seriousness of global climate change. Maybe it’s the economy.

But, back to Cronon: Prior to Krugman’s posting, the NYT published an editorial last Friday “A Shabby Crusade in Wisconsin” in which they took a very dim view of the politics employed by the Republican Party against Professor Cronon. The article also reminds us that tenured university faculty are viewed in a special way by our court system. The courts have ruled that tenured faculty at universities are not “employees” but special “officers” of the institution and society flourishes best when special protections are afforded academics so they can optimize their professional responsibility of pursuing the process of open, free inquiry and scholarship without intimidation or repression. This can be a big tent, but the concept of “academic freedom,” is one of the hall marks of a successful university system. It is widely accepted that academic freedom benefits society and helps a maturing society maintain a balance between public, private and government interests (isn’t that slipping away). So the way a state builds a great public research institution is to provide the resources and allow the institution to attract quality faculty based on the environment and support created by those same investments. Good faculty are still mobile and suppression of academic freedom or the threat of intimidation can be corrosive to the institution. In the current era of deeply disturbing social and political polarization, it is not possible to sustain a high quality higher education system at the public level and the Republican Party of Wisconsin is taking a sledge hammer to the reputation of the university, through their requests for Professor Cronon’s emails, with a wide demand for anything political within the past several months. And, all of this is to punish him for his scholarship. Today, most public research universities have too few tenured and tenure-track faculty to provide the stability needed for the survival of “academic freedom” as a founding and sustaining concept. Corporatist and government demands are creeping into university life through the tried and true mechanism of budget cuts to institutions and fear among faculty for not going along. You can lose your university position even if you’re tenured, or the institution can make your life sufficiently miserable, that you will feel it necessary to move on. So, what we are witnessing with Professor Cronon’s situation is nothing less than the early signs of a destructive process which could spread to negatively influence the stability of one of the great public research universities in the United States. Once the erosion process begins, it escalates, because legislators and private donors see an institutional decline and refuse to contribute to the university as they did before, as the downward, self-reinforcing  spiral begins. This is how Reagan began the erosion of our government–he cut the budget, put incompetent people in charge of serious departments and regulatory agencies and created a self-fulfilling prophecy that “government was part of the problem.” As a result of his strategy, people lost faith in government, which they had previously come to celebrate through the equalizing forces of the New Deal. Erosion in the quality of a single public research university can follow a similar path to what Reagan did to the U.S. government,  beginning with seemingly benign trigger thresholds, such as the attack on Professor Cronon. I don’t expect that the University of Wisconsin is going to be negatively impacted by the Cronon event, because I assume that the chancellor of the university will strongly support the concept of academic freedom and denounce the Republican Party’s attempt to harass, intimidate and discredit Professor Cronon’s  attempts to bring fresh insights into the public discussion of our national hysteria.

Now, if you want to know about the nature and specifics of “academic freedom,” you need to visit the AAUP website and read through “The 1940 Statement On Academic Freedom” (which has been updated many times), where you can download a pdf of the document. I might add that very few people do this and consequently very few even within the academic community understand academic freedom and its history. When we had our famous tenure battle here at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1990s, the Board of Regents, who were in favor of gutting tenure, thought that academic freedom was the freedom to publish in journals of your choice. The very people who are willing to destroy tenure, are always completely uninformed about why it’s there in the first place. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, the leading  tenure-gutting Regent resigned and we got post-tenure review instead. But, academic freedom is like a muscle, if you don’t use it, you will lose it. As an atheist, I thank God for the existence of the AAUP and have been proud to serve on one of it’s committees and a past president of our local AAUP chapter at the University of Minnesota. One feature of the AAUP as an organization is that they do investigate institutions for academic misconduct and if the institution is guilty of violations of academic freedom they are placed on a list of “sanctioned institutions.” The AAUP lacks a legal enforcement arm for its sanctions, but for the future health of the institution, landing on the sanctioned list can be a slippery slope and can result in hugely disruptive internal disarray.


McCarthyism in Madison

Posted on March 26th, 2011 in Politics by Robert Miller

Madison Demonstration March 12 2011

On March 15, 2011, William Cronon, history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison,  posted a blog to address some of the historical facts about the national organizations that are setting the new conservative legislative agenda, not just in  Wisconsin, but throughout the country, in Republican-controlled states where the same conversations and set of legislative actions are taking place, as if someone else was pulling the strings. In his blog, Cronon cautioned that he couldn’t name the “string-pulling” conservative groups with certainty, though his strong suggestion was that the conservative legislative agenda sweeping the country this year, has been organized and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); this group was formed in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and Paul Weyrich. Their objective is to draft legislative bills that can be used to promote a conservative agenda. This year Republican-controlled states have offered a disarming array of legislative initiatives, one target of which is to emasculate public employee unions, including teachers and their unions, coupled with draconian cuts in funding, whether justified or not. The Republican legislative assault on unions, whose membership has been seriously eroded over the past three decades, is an assault on the Democratic Party and Democracy itself in the United States. Cronon’s point is, that while the Koch brothers may be providing some financing to this Republican legislative agenda and the candidates who implement it, the ALEC is providing the legislative tools and coordinating the action. ALEC for example wrote the Arizona law against illegal immigrants. You can find out more about ALEC here, though you would find it difficult to join the organization, as membership is restricted to either elected Republican legislators, or, for a few thousand dollars, you can sign up, depending on the legislative area that interests you. A brochure describing membership in ALEC is available here.

During the weekend before Cronon’s first blog appeared, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” which was published on March 22, 2011. What follows has been taken from his NYT article and his blog postings. The Times article places the new radical Republicans, led by Governor Scott Walker,  in a historical context with the history of the state of Wisconsin, which initiated so much of the progressive agenda under the Republican Party banner. As Cronon points out, Wisconsin played a major role in developing the concepts of progressivism in the early part of the 20th Century, such that Governor Robert M. La Follette prompted fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt to refer to Wisconsin a “laboratory of democracy.” The state of Wisconsin pioneered many social reforms and was the first to introduce workers’ compensation in 1911, unemployment insurance in 1932 and public employee bargaining in 1959. The University of Wisconsin played a role in designing Social Security and founded the union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.  Historically, the state of Wisconsin was run by Republicans for the first hundred years after the Civil War. Debates in that period were largely carried out between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party. But, what helped to improve the lot of the Democratic Party, and expand its membership in Wisconsin, was created when Republicans left their party in the 1950s to break away from the hateful policies and destructive rhetoric of Joseph McCarthy (yes, a Wisconsin Senator). When Democratic governor Gaylord Nelson wanted to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a legislature in which one house was controlled by Republicans. At that time, both sides believed that the normalization of labor-management relations would increase public employee efficiency and avoid crippling strikes, such as those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s.

Though there are similarities between Governor Walker and Joseph McCarthy, Cronon is quick to point out that Walker is not another iteration of Joseph McCarthy, despite outwardly similar appearances and similar methods in which transparency and other democratic traits are completely lacking. Cronon concludes his NYT article by suggesting that Governor Walker has generated a level of bitter partisan hostility, the likes of which have not been seen since the Vietnam War. Republicans, he argues have infuriated and divided Wisconsinites and generated a sense of hostility by the lack of transparency (trick everyone before they know what’s going on) and the complete absence of openness. He closes his article by saying “Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.”
What happened next was a surprise even to Professor Cronon. After completing his first ever blog on a guide to ALEC (well worth reading), he thought enough of it that he posted the link to it on Facebook and Twitter and sat back to watch in astonishment, as the public reaction unfolded. As he states in a subsequent blog “My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Within two days, the blog had received over half a million hits, had been read by tens of thousands of people, had been linked by newspapers all over the United States, and had been visited by people from more than two dozen foreign countries. Many readers expressed considerable interest in the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and said they were grateful for the guidance I had tried to provide for people wishing to learn more about it. (A smaller number of readers were much more hostile, and you can read their comments on the blog.)
What happened after his blog went viral was unexpected, even for the reactionary, conservative Wisconsin Republican Party: the Republican Party of Wisconsin wrote a letter to the University of Wisconsin’s legal office demanding that the university turn over all of Professor Cronon’s emails that had something to do with politics. Here is a copy of the letter that they justified as a “freedom of information” issue in accordance with the open records laws of the state (which are among the most liberal policies in the country).

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:SThompson@wisgop.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

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.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.


Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin



Both the open records laws of the state of Wisconsin and the Freedom of Information Act, could, in principal, be used to obtain Professor Cronon’s emails. One could imagine that they posed some sort of national security threat or may relate to historical inquiry. But using such laws to clearly intimidate someone who was trying to shed a little light on the Republican Party’s organization is way beyond the conceptual justification of such laws and does indeed smack of McCarthyism. Nevertheless, the university has policies against the use of their email system: “University employees may not use these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.” (You can read these policies for yourself at http://www.cio.wisc.edu/policies/appropriateuse.aspx). So the Republican Party is hoping to capture emails from Cronon that would violate the university’s rules and paint him as a typical liberal trying to undermine the government’s efforts (for the record, Cronon is neither a Democratic nor a Republican). In addition, many of the Republicans named in the letter from the Republican Party are those for whom a recall effort has been initiated and the Republican Party would like nothing more than to pin the charge of politicization of his privileges as a faculty member in a public university and thus neutralize Cronon’s impact on the Republican Party’s long-term future.

What the Republican Party is now demanding of Professor Cronon is a violation of his academic freedom, the ground rules for which were aided in their creation in 1894 at the University of Wisconsin. The heart of this issue has now become one of asking a simple question: can a political party use state laws to threaten and still the voices of criticism? This issue goes to the heart of government transparency and the rights of citizens to criticize their political system. What Professor Cronon produced was nothing less than a historical document. What the Republican Party of Wisconsin is reacting to is the widespread negative response that his blog provoked throughout the country and even apparently into the borders of other nations. Good news travels fast.

The University of Wisconsin and their legal office face what should be a trivially easy question to answer by denying a politically motivated group access to a professor’s emails. This should be an easy decision for several reasons. Faculty, students and all members of our society should be free to comment on public events, motivations and history and this should be an especially vital form of liberty given to our tenured faculty, to give them freedom from such hostility and suppression, so that they can pursue what they perceive to be in the best interests of the public. But the issues go far deeper than academic freedom and free inquiry. For example, as Cronon writes, he communicates frequently with students and revealing any personal information about them would violate the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) by revealing private matters concerning students. In addition, by making Cronon’s emails public, any future correspondence Cronon has with others, including his colleagues, would now be suspect by others outside or within the University of Wisconsin and it is not hard to project that a University existing under a cloud of such suspicion and hostility, would find it difficult to recruit top faculty candidates. I myself have noted that when the University of Minnesota underwent the threat of loss of tenure in the 1990s, travels which took me to other universities gave me a first hand introduction to faculty who had taken other positions because tenure at the University of Minnesota was under threat of elimination. During the peak of the tenure crisis at the University of Minnesota, the institutions became nationally known for all the wrong reasons and something similar could happen to the University of Wisconsin. These negative issues do not go away overnight, but tend to fester like a untended open wound. Indeed the attitude of the faculty towards the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota, has remained a source of deep suspicion and mistrust very since the tenure crisis of fifteen years ago. These kinds of issues, when settled in a political manner, such as the threat against Professor Cronon’s right to privacy, create a pall within the university community that can and will seriously degrade the ability of the institute to attract and retain high quality faculty, as well as students in undergraduate and graduate programs. The Republican Party of Wisconsin is playing a very destructive hand. Hopefully an acceptable resolution will be achieved before a more serious impasse takes place.

The Republican Party in Wisconsin appears to have lost its compass on the kinds of issues raised by Professor Cronon and is narrowly focused on achieving an outcome that is radically opposed to the history of Wisconsin and the country in which it resides. The University of Wisconsin is one of the great public research universities of the United States. All citizens should be alarmed at any unwarranted threats against academic freedom and the destruction of academic integrity directed towards its faculty. We may not share Professor Cronon’s views on politics or any other issue, but we should all share in our concern over his right to project his views as an academic and as a citizen interested in revealing knowledge that will benefit our entire society through a brain process known as “education” achieved through learning something new. This issue is not dead and it would appear that the University of Wisconsin Chancellor, Biddy Martin, will have to make a far reaching decision on the open records request for access to Professor Cronon’s emails. We hope she gets it right. It should be a no brainer.


A world turned upside down with war thrown in for dessert

Posted on March 20th, 2011 in War by Robert Miller

Turn left at the next light and save yourself from falling off the edge of the world! As if planet earth and its human inhabitants were not already reeling from economic disasters, flooding, starvation and revolution, Japan suffered the most horrendous catastrophe imaginable, even though the effects of the devastating Tsumani, which resulted in thousands of lives lost, have been buried in the news and completely overshadowed by the destruction of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima and the fear that serious radiation problems could yet devastate a wide area of Japan and entomb it as uninhabitable. This is potentially another Chernobyl-type explosion of radiation and human exposure. While the Fukushima reactors are vast improvements over the Chernobyl design, the disaster at Chernobyl was created by the huge explosion that sent a radio-active cloud into the upper atmosphere, where it got distributed broadly to nearby countries. I can recall that one of the issues that helped to bring down the regime in Poland, was the fact that the Polish government knew two days before they alerted their citizens, that harmful radio-active dust was falling on the country. If there had been a more appropriate warning, those exposed could have protected themselves with frequent showers and remaining indoors. The best site I have seen for comparing the before and after Tsunami coastal images, including the reactor at Fukushima is that hosted by ABC.
But events don’t stop with Japan, because the Arab world remains on fire and the United States has now effectively declared war on the Qaddafi regime, with France and Great Britain serving as the initiators of a new United Nations resolution to protect the citizens of Libya against the murderous onslaught of Muammar Qaddafi’s revenge; Oddly, Qaddafi does not trust his own army, who are underpaid, many of whom live on subsistence wages. Instead, he relies more on tribal mercenaries who get paid handsomely for their effort. Writer Nichol Pelham writes in The New York Review of Books (April 7, 2011) that a captured Qaddafi mercenary told his captors that he would receive $100,000 to fight the rebels. Apparently, the rebels are killing the black mercenaries, since reporters find detention centers near rebel strongholds to be filled with Libyans, but very few black fighters. Last night the first wave of French jets and cruise missiles from British and American ships were launched and aimed at “strategic targets,” hoping that Qaddafi will cave in before other military resources are required. Obama maintains that American troops will not be on the ground in Libya.  No one seems to acknowledge the real reason we have declared war on Qaddafi is because Libya is a net exporter of oil.  One hopes that there is a humanitarian thread in our motivations for going in, but Libya is the closest oil producing country to Europe and significant declines or at least the threat of declines in Libyan oil production have been partially responsible for the high price of oil, which, a few weeks ago reached $113 a barrel.  Libyan oil fields are capable of about 1.5-2 million barrels per day: it is one of the ten richest oil producing countries in the world;  several reports indicate that the Saudis have increased their oil production in compensation for lost production, but it isn’t clear how much oil production in Libya has been impacted by the war. Whether Qaddafi knows it or not, he is finished. His best hope is a negotiated capitulation that will allow him to leave the country and enjoy the financial stashes he has no doubt placed throughout the Western world. That outcome will not be satisfactory to the rebels who want him to hang and one can make a case that someday Muammar Qaddafi should stand in a courtroom at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands for crimes against his own people. He has been a brutal dictator since he assumed leadership of Libya in 1969, at which time he nationalized the Libyan oil companies and thus opened the door to his huge personal wealth.


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