William Cronon did his job, what more do you want to know?

I’m a regular reader over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Here is Jonathan Adler’s take on the GOP’s FOIA request on UW historian William, and I can’t not respond to some of the arguments I am seeing over there. It’s always a conundrum whether you should answer there or move your points to your own turf, but since I lurk there and this response is long, I’ll post it here.

Argument 1: The liberals abuse FOIA all the time, therefore, this is just the Republicans doing what liberals do all the time. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Palin was subjected to FOIA, yada.

Ok, but since when does “Bobby does it all the time” constitute a legitimate reason for doing something once you are over the age of 7?

The assertion that liberals use FOIA more than conservatives strikes me as an assumption based on impressions and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence. I’ve never seen a study or a survey. I’ve never seen any data. Is there any? Or is this just something that people tell themselves is true?

Why do we need a FOIA request here at all? Cronon told everybody what he thought. Upfront. It’s out there. No secret.

So we need a FOIA request to do what, exactly? Prove that Cronon’s doing his job? That he’s not doing his job? The op-ed proves he did his job.

Because thinking and writing is a professor’s job.

He used the historian’s craft to compare the leadership conduct of a current leader with a past leader and to warn people of potential dangers. It’s not like he spent his days writing romance novels here.

I personally think his comparison to McCarthy was overwrought, but then, I also thought Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’ statement comparing NPR to the Nazis was wrongheaded, too.
I disagree with them both.

But…but…but what if Cronon made his arguments on company time?

So what if he did?

Making arguments in public–even bad arguments or arguments you consider to be repulsive–is part of a professor’s job.

Argument 2: “Royalty” professors need to be taken down a peg; other state employees are subject to email seizure, so should professors’.

Professors work and sacrifice a very long time to get the privileges they have. I worked for ten years: if you think it’s easy, go try it. Prince Charles inherited his position. No comparison, except that Charles is pasty-white and rather bad on television and lots of professors are pasty-white and bad on television, too.

Second, see above. Professors are subject to FOIA.

It’d just be nice if FOIA requests were used to uncover something we don’t already know or we needed to know rather than to investigate somebody who wrote an op-ed. Again, what’s the FOIA request for? To find out his secret thinkythoughts about Wisconsin leadership? Whether he has political ideas? All that seems pretty clear to me by now.

Argument 3: If any employee in a private company were caught writing emails criticizing his boss on company time or using company bandwidth, he’d be fired.

Ok, first, government and private industry are different and do different things and have different roles, cultures, and obligations. They are different institutions. Last I checked, Republicans were fond of pointing out these differences.

Second, Walker is not Cronon’s boss.

Walker is a public servant. He directs the governor’s office, and he’s the state’s chief executive, but he’s not the CEO, exempt from criticism from anybody who works for the state. It’s not Cronon’s obligation to genuflect or, even, to keep a party line.

In fact, it’s nobody’s role to genuflect, praise, or avoid criticizing American public officials. That’s one of the nifty things about America.

By contrast, Max Nikias is, in fact, my boss, and a wonderful, enlightened, brilliant, gracious, and gifted man he is, too, in every possible way.

Academics may be state employees, but they are free–and have always been free in the US–to critique elected officials.

Milton Friedman did it. I do it. Why?

Because it’s our job to make arguments in public.

Even arguments that sensitive governors and his buddies don’t like very much.

I strongly suspect that Ray LaHood would not like this blog if he read it. I don’t write and think to be liked or to curry favor with this administration or the next one.

I write and think because it’s my job.

Argument 4: I’m a taxpayer and Cronon works for me, and if he did this work on the taxpayer’s dime and with taxpayer bandwidth, then I an entitled to see those emails.

Yeah, sure, whatever. You’re also entitled to inspect the toilet paper in all public buildings to make sure they aren’t using a lavish 4-ply when when a single-ply will do. Entitlement doesn’t mean it’s great use of anybody’s time or worth doing.

William Cronon is also a taxpayer in the state of Wisconsin.

So does he work for Walker or does Walker work for him?

This discussion rather brings up the no-win situation that the contemporary professoriate exists in, particularly for faculty in the humanities.

A. Write an op-ed that annoys people, have them up in your jock for your ideas.

B. Write only for scholarly journals and have them up in your jock for living only in the “ivory tower”; or

C. Write nothing, and have them up in your jock for not being relevant or failing to engage with contemporary social problems.

You might not like what Cronon thinks and writes, but you probably don’t like any number of things that we, as a taxpaying collective, collectively invest in. I hate that my taxes go to fund the US’s apparently permanent state of war. Don’t even get me started on those banker bonuses.

It’s quite obvious that some people hate the fact that we pay collectively for a professoriate. Bootyhootyhoo.

Thomas Sowell actively argues that it’s bad to have a professoriate playing with ideas, as he plays with ideas.

It is in the nature of democratic collective action that no one taxpayer’s preference is strictly enforced. Check in with the residents of Libya to see whose preference set they are living with.

6 thoughts on “William Cronon did his job, what more do you want to know?

  1. excellent post. cronon will do fine out of this: he’s a balanced, level-headed guy whose deserved respect and fame will spread, even if for perverse reasons. he’ll maybe become the most famous badger professor since fj turner, whose named chair wc holds. maybe even significantly more people will read his books, invite him to do lectures, etc., making him (i suspect even) wealthier. fj turner died surprisingly poor, although it was 1932, and maybe the depression had something to do with it, but only maybe

    wouldn’t it be cool if the whole nasty kerfuffle drew more attention to turner too? he was one of the signature capital-p progressives–and big friends with woodrow wilson, knew him when from a graduate-student boarding house when they were both at johns hopkins. imo as someone who cares about the american frontier, turner needs a good look from a 2011 perspective. i suspect he’d come off impressively well

  2. With all due respect, Lisa, we all know that the academy is about 90% liberal (and there are studies to back that up). A good number of the liberal professoriate (a vocal minority, I assume) are very ideological and partisan political. That’s fine. However, once that is brought into the classroom, that’s not fine anymore.

    Like it or not, state employees cannot engage in political activity during work time or with their work hat on. Do they have First Amendment rights? You betcha, but the First Amendment doesn’t protect propagandizing in the scope of employment for state employees. Even professors at private universities should have an ethical obligation to keep politics out of the classroom.

    All the righteous indignation and cries of “academic freedom” are, frankly, very childish. If you are ever involved in litigation that may relate to emails that you sent or received, they are discoverable, and the judge won’t listen to your whining. (I agree that student information needs to be kept confidential).

    I didn’t see the liberal professoriate come to the defense of the academic freedom of Bjorn Lomborg. In fact, many in the academy joined in on the ad hominem attacks (which are a sign of weak substantive arguments). Give me a break, folks. Many professors are for academic freedom when the ideology expressed in the ideas are the same as their own.

    I’ll be happy to share my emails (with confidential student information struck out) with anyone that wants them. Maybe the Governor of Virginia would learn something from my emails.

  3. With due respect, Jesse, you’re wrong. You can’t argue the case, so you’re arguing in generalities about “the liberals” and “the classroom.” So what? You’re a liberal so we get to look at your email? That’s the rule you want?

    You can’t pretend that your views don’t come into the classroom–plenty of my students have said that “Jesse’s politics are obvious” to me time and time again. And they’re right about what they guess about your politics. And that’s fine. You have to be the person you are in the classroom. You have a brain. You have a set of ethics. You are being ask to use them, for students and with students. Nobody wants you to be anybody other than who are you. Not the students and not me.

    By the time students get to us, they are independent enough to evaluate what we say; they are impressionable and we have influence, but we are one of many influences they have, from their peers, to media, to their family, etc. (All of the students I’ve ever met like and respect you but they don’t always agree with you. Ditto with me. That’s the way it should be.)

    I say over and over that professors are subject to FOIA. But what do we need a FOIA request for here? What do we need to find out about Cronon or his work at the university that we don’t know about right now?

    Bjorn Lomborg may be have been controversial, but he was hosted a huge number of universities in the US after both of his book releases. At UCLA, when E.O. Wilson started getting nasty with him, a bunch of professors (including two of my advisors, JR DeShazo and Randy Crane) stood up for both him, his positions (he has many) and his rights to say what he wants. I saw him when he came to UCLA.

    David Horowitz gets invited to discuss his work at universities. Dinesh D’Souza regularly does book tours through universities. So do socially conservative scholars like Mary Ann Glendon and Harvey Mansfield. I could go and on and on.

    When was the last time Google or Microsoft gave a place for a Marxist geographer to talk? If universities and the liberal professoriate are squelching conservative ideas, why do they keep inviting these people to talk? Why do they keep giving endowed chairs and leadership positions to notoriously conservative professors like Glendon and Sowell and Dworkin ? Poor little dears, held by the liberal academy.

    Lomborg was not protected by the tenure system in the US; he is a Danish scholar, and the system is different there (usually with only one or two tenured professors). In the course of his career, he left a lectureship to take a CABINET POSITION with a conservative Danish government, and now has a pretty nice cushy position with the Copenhagen business school. Do I need to FOIA his emails because I think he’s made a nice living out of being a contrarian? I don’t think so.

    Your studies about how liberal the professoriate is are also far more complex than you are making them out to be. For one thing, it’s not even clear how you measure a whole bunch of stuff, and having people mark “Democrat” or “Republican” doesn’t cut it according to most political science. Most people’s politics–both inside and outside the academy–are complicated and difficult to define, and they go beyond voting.

    Even if we could measure politics cleanly, so what if many or even most professors are liberal? Prove to me that it makes any difference whatsoever. I’m constantly being told that professors are irrelevant because they “live in an ivory tower.” Then the next minute we’re dangerous for having too much liberalism going on!

    I’m betting that the majority of business executives ranked VP and higher are Republicans. And we can’t act like corporations don’t have both market, social, and political power. So do we then demand that a certain quota of CEO slots go to Socialists and set aside professors slots for

    Is that what you want? Do you want Affirmative Action for Republicans in the academy? Don’t you think that labor markets work to sort people into different jobs according to their preferences, and that some sector concentration is likely?

  4. I never said that we can only look at the emails of liberals. My point was that many (too many) college professors are ideological and let the ideology into the classroom.

    As far as students knowing my my politics are obvious, that’s odd, since I’ve had comments on my evaluations that I’m “too liberal” and other comments that said I’m “too conservative”. I play devil’s advocate. The students (nor my colleagues) know my politics. I vote for Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Some of my views are “liberal” and some are “conservative”. So maybe it’s like a lot of things students say- should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve had students tell me that Professor so-and-so said that I could subsitute class A for Class B. Is that always true? Nope.

    No studies are perfect. We can question any study.

    I don’t want affirmative action for Republicans. I just want ideology out of the classroom and the workplace.

    I’m also just digusted with all the whining about turning over work emails. The law is clear that you have no expectation of privacy with respect to anything at your workplace- whether you are a professor or not. I thought transparency and accountability were good things- I guess not.

  5. That’s rather my point, Jesse. Students tell me I “must be a Republican” all the time. The fact that they can’t pin you down gets to the point: that your politics are *complicated*–and so are most people’s.

    In reality, fine, ask for the emails, but honestly, the rest of us get to ask if this is a good use of time and resources? If he were accused of harassing a student or misusing funds or actually in some litigation, I can see it.

    I’m happy enough with people people read my emails–mine are spectacularly boring! But what’s the point? if the GOP want to fire somebody because he’s a liberal, then try to get the university to fire him because he’s a liberal. Don’t pretend that he’s not entitled to write about what he wants to write about on university time. That’s the point of spending all the years to become a professor–so that you are free to write about what you want when you want.

    Do you think a historian is going to be able to take the politics out of history? The Civil War seems pretty political to me….

  6. If you read the Planet or Environmental Law Professors listservs, some people’s politics are less complicated than others.

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