How Far Will Conservatives Go To Thwart Academic Freedom?

News & Politics

On April 1, the University of Wisconsin responded to a sweeping public records request by the state GOP by giving them no more than what the target of their investigation, historian William Cronon, thought proper: a carefully screened sub-set of the emails, excluding broad categories protected by academic freedom and student privacy.

There's a pattern of similar efforts in other states to use academics' emails against them that should prevent anyone from letting down their guard. In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is taking his witch-hunt against climate scientist Michael Mann to the state supreme court. In Michigan, a conservative think-tank is pursuing public records requests targeting labor studies departments at three public schools.

The Wisconsin chapter began when Cronon—the incoming chair of the American Historical Association—started his blog, Scholar as Citizen, with a March 15 post that cast a very sharp spotlight on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a little-noticed conservative organization founded in 1973, about which Cronon wrote:

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.)

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 its seeks to promote.

Although Cronon wasn't the first to write about ALEC—he posted links to earlier work—he was a uniquely situated public intellectual in a state where ALEC's handiwork had just ignited an unprecedented storm of controversy, and he wrote in a careful, judicious tone that conveyed a seriousness of purpose. As Nation columnist and seventh-generation Wisconsin native John Nichols explained:

In the best "Wisconsin Idea" tradition, and the old progressive principle that said University of Wisconsin professors should share their knowledge with the people of the state, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order.

Cronon was also well-known as a political independent, a centrist with good words to say about both major parties. The post proved wildly popular, gaining over half a million views—roughly matching the lower echelons of cable news programs. He was serious, restrained, and noticed.

The Wisconsin GOP decided to go after him, with a public records request seeking copies of his emails starting on January 1 referencing the terms “Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union” or the names of 10 GOP state lawmakers, including eight who are being targeted for recall, as well as the leaders of two public employee unions. Cronon—a staunch open government advocate—never disputed the GOP's legal right to make the request, but he did write a long, thoughtful, and sometimes passionate blog post on March 24 that profoundly questioned the wisdom—or even just plain common sense—of the request, hoping that it would move the Wisconsin GOP to reconsider. In particular, he cited student privacy concerns (protected in federal law by an piece of legislation authored by William F. Buckley's brother James) and impacts on professional communications, supporting the vitality of any academic discipline.

While Cronon focused on the potential institutional damage, historian Jon Wiener, who wrote about the controversy for the Nation, took a different approach. “Damage is not 'random' or 'collateral'” he said in an email interview. “The damage is intimidation of others on campus—not of their historical scholarship, but of their political activism.”

Cronon also wrote carefully about the whiff of McCarthyism:

In the op-ed I published in the New York Times on March 22, I drew a carefully delimited analogy between what is happening in Wisconsin today and the partisan turmoil that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy worked so hard to create in the early 1950s. McCarthy, of course, thought nothing of trying to have university faculty members fired from their jobs because he believed they held objectionable political views—and many were indeed fired as a result. The kind of intervention happening in this case isn’t so overt: Mr. Thompson [author of the GOP's request] hasn’t yet issued a demand for me to be disciplined or fired. But it’s hard not to draw an analogy between this effort to seek of evidence of wrongdoing on my part (because I asked awkward but legitimate questions about an organization with close ties to the Republican Party) and the legal and professional consequences that might follow the discovery of such evidence.

While Cronon remained restrained in his writing, the Wisconsin GOP did not. Its response the next day accused him of “deplorable tactics in seeking to force the Republican Party of Wisconsin to withdraw a routine open records request.”

McCarthyism In The New Millennium

While academics represented only one slice of those that McCarthy and his fellow-travelers went after in the early Cold War period, they were—unlike Cronon—almost exclusively clearly on the left. 9/11 saw a sharp resurgence in McCarthyite attacks on the academy—beginning within weeks, with a careless hodge-podge report titled "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It," issued by an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which had been co-founded by Lynne Cheney and Joseph Lieberman, among others, in 1995.

Later, several high-profile cases emerged, including Ward Churchill, who was stripped of tenure and fired from the University of Colorado at Boulder following a prolonged political attack stemming from remarks he made in an essay published the day after 9/11, Norman Finkelstein, a child of Holocaust survivors who was denied tenure by DePaul University due to intense outside pressure—lead by Alan Dershowitz—accusing him of anti-Semitism, and Mideast expert Juan Cole, who was denied a position at Yale following high-profile pressure from neo-conservatives with big public platforms. The procedures in these cases were unusual, to say the least. In Finkelstein's case, the DePaul's Faculty Governance Council voted unanimously to send letters objecting to "Professor Dershowitz's interference in Finkelstein's tenure and promotion case" to administrators at both DePaul and Harvard, where Dershowitz teaches.

"There's obviously a concerted attack going on now in academia against critics of Israeli policy," Finkelstein said in a 2007 interview. "In my own case, however, I think the hysteria was mostly due to the fact that I am a political activist and speak widely on the subject to the broad public. Most academics do not."

But historian Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism, took a broader view at the time. "What we're seeing is an attack on whole disciplines, on Middle East studies and ethnic studies," Schrecker said. "That will have a chilling effect on how these are dealt with in the academy." On that point, at least, Finkelstein agreed, citing several other examples. "Perhaps after my own case, the Joseph Massad, Juan Cole and Nadia Abu E-Hajj cases, academics will be more cautious about expressing their opinions," he said.

Schrecker also pointed to a difference with old-style McCarthyism. "What was happening then was people being fired for their extracurricular activity,” she said. “What's happening today, there's a great threat to the actual educational function. The content of the course. To what people say in class, which did not happen in the McCarthy period," she explained. She also pointed out that “Their first targets were always the squeaky wheels, the most outspoken, who are difficult.... That's what's happening now. Churchill and Finkelstein are not Boy Scouts.”

If Cronon doesn't appear to fit the pattern described so far, he does fit within a somewhat broader view, one that includes climate scientist Michael Mann, the subject of a prolonged, so-far-failed attack by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Mann was the target of intense attacks by global warming deniers after stolen emails were released purporting to reveal that climate scientists were engaged in an elaborate scheme to deceive the public—what deniers quickly dubbed “Climate-gate”. A series of investigations followed, all of which exonerated everyone involved of everything more serious than harboring grudges against those attacking them, a few minor mistakes, and not being open enough in sharing some of their raw data.

Mann was a particular focus of attention because of an email in which he talked about a “trick” in his work, a colloquialism among scientists referring to a clever way of rendering complex problems or data more easy to deal with. But climate deniers had a field day portraying this to non-scientists as an outright admission that global warming was “a hoax”, as Oklahoma Senator Inhoff loves to call it. Cuccinelli used this fabrication to go after Mann shortly after winning office in November 2009, even though Mann had left the University of Virginia (UV) for the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.

Cuccinelli set out to investigate Mann, based on the theory that he had allegedly “defrauded taxpayers” by getting state funding for his research, and made sweeping demands for vast amounts of emails and other documents from UV. But the university staunchly refused to comply, and won the day in court—although Cuccinelli was recently granted an appeal to the Virginia State Supreme Court.

Fake Left, Hit Center?

Like Cronon, Mann's position within his discipline's mainstream is rock solid. But, like Middle East studies and ethnic studies in Schrecker's view, his entire field has become a target for attack, and Cuccinelli's vendetta is just an intensification of what's been happening to many others for quite some time—and not just in the field of climate science, according to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science.

“They've always attacked an individual scientist if their research rises to the level that it gets in the way of someone's interests,” Mooney said, but “Michael Mann became the one they really wanted to get.... They pulled out all the stops.” And, he added, “That's clearly what happened the Wisconsin case.” Given what Cronon said and his prominence, Mooney concluded, “He had to be dealt with. It couldn't be ignored.”

The psychology involved is far removed from science. “When they have really strong beliefs and and really strong emotions and really strong motivation—in this case that climate change isn't real—if they believe strongly enough, they feel like the need to defend themselves against those who are attacking their beliefs,” Mooney said. “The Cuccinelli thing shows how far it will go.”

Asked to compare the two cases, Mooney said, “The similarities are that someone in an academic field is associated with arguments or positions that are so threatening to the policies of groups of people that they're willing to go this far to attack and discredit the individual involved. The differences include the specific nature of the dispute, the legal standing, the position of the university so far” and other specifics. But the heart of the conflict and motivating dynamic appear quite similar.

Wiener, however, sees a greater difference. “The Cronon thing is not about rewriting history—I doubt they know anything about Cronon's work as a historian (except for his post on ALEC). Seems to be they'd be delighted if Cronon stuck to environmental history and stayed away from blogging about ALEC.”

Wiener also doesn't see the attack on Cronon as part of anything systematic. “There is the Michigan labor studies email 'request.' which is much more systematic.” This refers to a public records request from the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, aimed at professors at three state schools.

“According to professors subject to the request,” Talking Points Memo reports, “the request is extremely rare in academic circles. An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they're part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.”

The Mackinac Center is part of a nationwide network of state-level think tanks, organizationally separate from ALEC, but functionally closely related. Koch brothers money has gone to them in the past, according to Mother Jones. The center has a history of pushing for extreme proposals such as those promoted by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder as well Wisconsin's Scott Walker, TPM explained. It also has a history of using public records requests to go after state workers—though never in such a sweeping manner before. The list of search terms even included MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, by her last name. “Some days my job is weirder than others,” told TPM, in response.

The story reveals a striking lack of symmetry between conservative private institutions on the one hand, and the public institutions they are gunning for, on the other. According to TPM, Mackinac Center research associate Jarrett Skorup, who helped produce the requests, “wasn't sure what they'd be used for in the end.”

"I would imagine just to see what the people in the labor studies dept are thinking about stuff in Wisconsin," Skorup told TPM. But his boss, Ken Braun, refused to comment. "I'm not going to release what we're writing about," TPM quoted him.

The two sets of rules may have rational historical roots justifying them. And Cronon himself would no doubt defend that state of affairs. But a rational past seems increasingly at odds with an irrational present.

The right has been playing hardball with unequal rules for a very long time now. William Cronon appears to have tapped a nerve by saying, in effect, "Hold on. Let's take a look at how this game is being played." Some folks, it would seem, don't like that one bit.

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