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.


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