Friday, March 25, 2011

The Importance of Tenure

Bill Cronon, the founder of Environmental Studies, professor of History and Geography, an extremely influential academic, President-Elect of the American Historical Association and repeated winner of dozens of undergraduate teaching awards, has become the target of political retribution for writing and publishing this Op-Ed in the New York Times.

It criticized the recent events in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin GOP struck back by deeming Professors at a state university to be "public officials" and therefore subject to the state's Open Record laws. They requested that his professional email account be turned over for Republican scrutiny. If any email in that account deals with displeasure over the political scene (which threatened the well-being of his students and colleagues) or discussed his Op-Ed piece, Cronon could be guilty of violating his contract with the University.

Will those who have used their professional email accounts ONLY for teaching and nothing else please raise their hands?

I thought not.

This article puts the attack and intimidation into perspective. It's the President-Elect of the AHA. It's high-profile. It tells everyone else to shut up.

And suddenly, all reasonable attempts to abolish tenure seem to threaten free speech and balanced debate. We need tenure. Academics' jobs may seem like babysitting, but ultimately our value to society is observing society. And if we can get fired for such observations, if the PRESIDENT of the AHA can be threatened and attacked for dissenting against some pretty crazy McCarthyist ham-fisted tactics, then suddenly I cannot entertain a single form of compromise. Never before has this issue seemed so crystal clear to me.

Even if it means that 1/3 of us lose our jobs in order to return to the tenure system.

And just like that, I suddenly become an adherent to the vital importance of tenure. After resisting it for so long.

In related news, Stanley Fish suddenly becomes an ardent supporter of academic unions, after decades of finding them worthless. I wonder how he's reacting to the news about Cronon?

Tenure, unions. Job security. It's all related, and the toxic situation in Wisconsin is spreading.


  1. Oy. And eek. This is even worse than Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's witch hunt against a UVA scientist who studies climate change ( ). Maybe I'm overreacting, but it really feels like some Republicans would like to take us back to the McCarthy era.

    There are so many reasons this is wrong I don't even know where to start. But I'm sure that the University of Wisconsin is crediting Cronon's AHA leadership as "service to the profession" (which it should be); if so, then it's actually, officially, *part* of his job to interpret current events in Wisconsin in light of both Wisconsin history and their effect on the profession whose association he helps to lead. And both sharing and developing his thoughts informally with fellow members of the profession via mail correspondence and publishing the results of such deliberation would be entirely appropriate.

    Also, it seems likely that this Freedom of Information request, which asks for all emails containing certain keywords, could easily result in one or more violations of FERPA (say, releasing an email in which Cronon discusses both a student's research into labor history and the student's grade on an assignment). If this goes forward, then somebody who does have authorization to view student records is going to have to go through and redact the emails -- a great use of limited higher-ed employee time.

  2. It's a state-level Open Records request, not Freedom of Information. The Open Records can order the release of emails from date A to date B without any explanation of the why or how. It's just never been interpreted to apply to those unelected officials before.


  4. After reading Cronon's blog post about the situation ( ), I think they may have chosen the wrong person to pick on. But I may be overestimating the effectiveness of Cronon's ability to analyze his own situation, turning it into a teachable moment -- which he does very well. I may also be underestimating the ability of those who're attacking him to convince people that something is true simply by saying it enough times, loudly enough -- a phenomenon to which he alludes in pointing out that some people will consider the accusation itself as evidence of wrongdoing.

    And yes, this has me thinking about what's in my own email -- nothing that violates any rule in my own state, I'm pretty sure; in fact, I think I've received a few emails from officials at my university suggesting that I might weigh in with my local elected representative on issues before the legislature that affect the university, so our state rules must be a bit different (or ignored). Also, like Cronon, I've always maintained separate personal and professional email addresses, so the only somewhat personal emails in my university account are ones discussing department/university politics -- especially our mutual frustrations as contingent faculty-- with colleagues. There's not even all that much of that. But I'm still inclined to be even more careful in the future.

  5. Even if it means that 1/3 of us lose our jobs in order to return to the tenure system.


  6. Good luck reading through all the vigara ads, and attached papers. I could keep their staffs busy for a month with my email flow.

  7. First:
    see panel 4 in this week's "Big Fat Whale" offering:

    Second: as a public sector employee, I get that my work product is subject to FOIA/Public Information/Privacy Act/Sunshine requests (depending on what level of the public sector I happen to be working in).

    But: I'm also have a part-time seat in the academy. So I pray the courts will properly understand boundaries between legitimate requests for public information and political boots that tread both 1st Amendment and academic freedom turf. And if they understand poorly...we're all F*d.

    Unless there's misappropriation of public funds or a deliberate plan to deny somebody their legal/EEO due process, at stake, then correspondence in the academy ain't anybody's business.

  8. I guess if the Republicans in Wisconsin cared about the law, they might be concerned that searching for words like "recall" which might be used in the sentence "if you recall, I said grades would be posted on thursday" would turn up emails from students which ought to be protected by FERPA, but since the governor was contemplating seeding the protests with "troublemakers", I surmise he isn't much troubled by ethical issues.

  9. @CC and WL

    According to
    this article,
    the university is removing any legally confidential email from the assorted messages before they are released. This makes sense and is probably a pretty standard procedure. It's the UW's responsibility, not that of the open records' requester, to prevent the release FERPA-protected information.


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