The recent $hitsorm that has arisen over University of Wisconsin professor Bill Cronon's blog post about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) reminds me of one thing I do miss about being a formally participating member of an academic community: I miss the central role in my daily life -- as teacher, researcher, and writer -- given to paying close and careful attention to the nuances of language, both to what is said and what is left unsaid.
Cronon's analysis of the Republican Party's attack on his motives and integrity, which you can read about on his blog Scholar as Citizen, illustrates why critical thinking and the language skills that make it possible are so crucial to a well-functioning democracy -- the very thinking and skills that are themselves under attack in many current educational "reform" plans that would replace the liberal arts core (and all it entails) of a traditional university education with vocational training, online classrooms, for-profit institutions, and standardized testing.
If you haven't been following the Cronon story, the gist of it is this: Cronon, who is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin (where he migrated from Yale in the 1990s), was invited to write an op-ed for the New York Times on the current political situation in his state. You can (and should) read the op-ed here. Cronon, a self-described political centrist and independent who has never been a member of any political party (and has in the past written favorably about both Republican and Democratic policies), insightfully discusses how the current Wisconsin Republican Party represents a radical departure from its own historical and genuinely conservative roots.
However, the op-ed itself is not the subject of the controversy surrounding Cronon. Rather, it is the research he did in preparing to write it -- and the publication of that research on his blog -- that has led to Republican attacks and FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) demands for the surrender of his university email.
Go read the entire lengthy story on Scholar as Citizen. It will take you some time, but it's worth it. In a nutshell, though, in the course of researching his op-ed, Cronon wanted to find out more about who is currently influencing Republicans in his state and what their goals are. In a blog post dated March 15, one week before the op-ed was published, he discusses several influences, including ALEC:
The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)Cronon doesn't say anything untrue or controversial about ALEC. He just provides factual information and links to their own site. His purpose, clearly, is to make readers aware of who is influencing their legislators and to allow them to decide for themselves what to make of that influence. There is nothing in either the blog post or the subsequent op-ed that suggests he was using his publicly funded role as a professor to motivate partisan political action.
If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills it seeks to promote.
You can start by studying ALEC’s own website.
Yet, just two days after this blog post went up, the university's legal office received a FOIA request from the Republican Party of Wisconsin to turn over Cronon's emails.
Now, much of great interest exists in this unfolding story, but what interests me most is how Cronon has responded to the request. A true scholar as citizen, he fearlessly confronts complexity in a public forum -- and asks readers to do so, as well. In a post entitled "Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom," he at once praises FOIA as "a precious asset to democracy in the United States" but also asks the following questions:
When should FOIA and Wisconsin’s Open Records Law apply to universities?Cronon isn't saying that he is above the law (a few commenters accuse him of elitism); rather, he is saying that laws can be both used and abused and citizens need to know and respect the difference. He illustrates this point by drawing a comparison to the misuse of subpoenas during the McCarthy era.
Answer: When there is good reason to believe that wrongdoing has occurred. When formal academic governance proceedings are making important decisions that the public has a right to know about. When teachers engage in abusive relationships with their students. When the documents being requested have to do with official university business. And so on.
When should we be more cautious about applying such laws to universities?
Answer: When FOIA is used to harass individual faculty members for asking awkward questions, researching unpopular topics, making uncomfortable arguments, or pursuing lines of inquiry that powerful people would prefer to suppress. If that happens, FOIA and the Open Records Law can too easily become tools for silencing legitimate intellectual inquiries and voices of dissent—whether these emanate from the left or the right or (as in my case) the center. It is precisely this fear of intellectual inquiry being stifled by the abuse of state power that has long led scholars and scientists to cherish the phrase “academic freedom” as passionately as most Americans cherish such phrases as “free speech” and “the First Amendment.”
But what I really admire about Cronon's response to what he sees as an abuse of FOIA by Wisconsin Republicans is how he brings close reading, a basic skill we teach in the humanities, into the sphere of public discourse.
There's much more to read (and you should go read all of it), including the request itself from Stephan Thompson of the Wisconsin Republican Party, but I excerpt at length here because what Cronon is doing in his response is exactly what we try to teach students to be able to do in introductory humanities courses, but they don't often see the connection to "real life" situations -- nor do those who would defund this important part of a university education (or perhaps, if I were more cynical, those who would defund the humanities know exactly what they're doing). Cronon writes:
Under Wisconsin’s Open Records Law, anyone has the right to request access to the state’s public records, and can do so without either identifying themselves or stating the reasons for their interest in those records. But since Mr. Thompson made no effort to hide his identity or his affiliation with the Republican Party, since his request came so soon after my ALEC study guide was published, and since he provided search terms to identify the particular emails that most interested him, it’s not too hard to connect the dots to figure out what this request is all about.By close reading the language of his attackers' communications, he exposes the political motives of these would-be investigators and how their action arises not from righteous outrage over the potential misuse of (partially) publicly funded university email but from the desire to silence him for "com[ing] pretty close to hitting a bull's-eye" in citing ALEC's influence over Wisconsin politics and encouraging readers to learn more about it -- indeed, that his "little study" of
Let’s subject Mr. Thompson’s email to some textual analysis. That is, after all, what we historians do: we read documents and try to interpret their meanings.
The timing of Mr. Thompson’s request surely means that it is a response to my blog posting about the American Legislative Exchange Council, since I have never before been the subject of an Open Records request, and nothing in my prior professional life has ever attracted this kind of attention from the Republican Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.
* * * * *The narrative they would like to spin about me seems pretty clear from the search terms they’ve included in their open records request. For instance, they name eleven politicians in that request. Three of these–Governor Scott Walker; Speaker of the Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald; and his brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald—are the Republican leaders who have engineered and led the policies that have produced so much upset in the State of Wisconsin over the past two months. They would thus likely be lightning rods for any inappropriately partisan emails one might be tempted to send as a state employee using a state email account.
But the other eight Republican legislators named in Mr. Thompson’s open records request are probably even more important: Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, and Mary Lazich. Why seek Bill Cronon’s emails relating to these individuals? Answer: because they’re the eight Republicans currently targeted by petition campaigns seeking to hold early recall elections in response to recent legislation.
It’s these eight names, in combination with a search for emails containing the words “Republican” and “recall,” that Mr. Thompson is hoping he can use to prove that Bill Cronon has been engaging in illegal use of state emails to lobby for recall elections designed to defeat Republicans who voted for the Governor’s Budget Repair Bill. (One might also infer from his request that a blog post about the influence of ALEC on Wisconsin politics might somehow have an impact on those recall elections—a thought that wasn’t much on my mind when I put together my ALEC study guide, but that seems more intriguing now that we see how forcefully the Republican Party has responded.)
In this context, the remaining search terms are almost certainly intended to supply a key additional element in a narrative designed to undermine a professorial critic not only for misusing state email resources, but for being a puppet of the public employee unions which Mr. Thompson and his Republican allies would like the wider public to believe are chiefly responsible for criticisms of their policies. The request for emails containing the search phrases “AFSCME” and “WEAC” are of course seeking emails to or from or relating to the two largest public employee unions in Wisconsin. Marty Beil and Mary Bell—also named in Mr. Thompson’s request—are the leaders of those two organizations. Emails containing the words “rally,” “union,” and “collective bargaining” would just be the icing on the cake to show that I’m a wild-eyed union ideologue completely out of touch with the true interests of the citizens and taxpayers of Wisconsin.
I suspect this is the story Mr. Thompson would like to be able to tell about me if his open records request yields the pay dirt he imagines he will find in my emails.
an organization that has exercised such extraordinary but almost invisible influence over American political life for the past forty years may finally start to receive more of the scrutiny that its far-reaching activities deserve.I admire Bill Cronon because he exemplifies not only the Scholar as Citizen but the Citizen as Scholar. He demonstrates why broad public access to a liberal arts education matters in a democracy in terms of both what citizens know about their elected leaders and how well they are able to think critically about that information. At stake is the capacity for citizens to act responsibly and elect leaders who will best represent them.
Most citizens are not scholars by trade, but they can learn to read closely and think critically.
One thing I miss about academe is participating daily in activities that train the next generation to do so.