Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Finally, A Reasonable Discussion of the Cronon Affair

By Peter Wood, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, no less, who finally points out that responding to a FOIA request need not compromise academic freedom:
I don’t know of any evidence that Professor Cronon did in fact violate any laws. It may be that the Wisconsin Republican Party is simply fishing. If so, its action is further unwelcome, not as a violation of academic freedom, but as a demonstration of small-mindedness. The better way for the Wisconsin Republican Party to answer a critic is by answering his arguments on their merits.

If Professor Cronon were in jeopardy of losing his job for what he wrote on his personal blog or published in the Times, I would agree with the AAUP and the AHA. Academic freedom in that case would be at risk. He faces no such risk. Separating the ostensible motive of the Wisconsin Republican Party (i.e. political reprisal for his public writings) from its chosen tactic (the Open Records Law request) may seem a fine distinction, but it is a necessary one. It’s necessary because the doctrine of academic freedom will lose legitimacy if it is allowed to become an excuse for breaking the law.

The Cronon affair has prompted widespread commentary, including articles by Paul Krugman, Jonathan Tobin, KC Johnson, and Mitchell Langbert, and an editorial in the Times. Some of this is hyperventilating. Krugman, for example, compares the e-mail request to “the ongoing smear campaign against climate science,” and asserts that there is a “clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.”

What’s needed is some level-headedness and clarity about what academic freedom can and cannot protect. Unfortunately higher education’s traditional watchdog for academic freedom, the AAUP, has recently mislaid its once sturdy understanding of this key concept. The AAUP’s recent pronouncements on academic freedom have served mainly as a rationale for further left-wing-inspired politicization of the university. As a result it is unable to offer trustworthy guidance in a case where a university has been served with a legitimate legal request.