Saturday, April 2, 2011

U Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor on Academic Freedom

And now, for a slightly less contentious subject (at least I think/hope it is). University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin (wonderful name, that) has released a statement explaining which of William Cronon's emails they will and won't release, and why (for background, see earlier post). FERPA will be respected, as will academic freedom, as defined/described below:

We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the "continual and fearless sifting and winnowing" of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

Very nicely put, I'd say. While I still deplore what I'm pretty sure were the motives behind the open records request, one result has been some very solid statements, including but not limited to Cronon's and Martin's, on the nature of academic freedom and academic inquiry. May all the pressures we face produce such results.

P.S. Cronon also has a pretty nifty guide to doing historical research posted here, and various other neat stuff on his website. All in all, I'm grateful to the Wisconsin GOP for reminding me of Cronon and his work (but also outraged at their entirely unnecessary interruption of that work).


  1. "Smithers, have the Wisconsin GOP killed."

  2. What Biddy Martin has failed to do in every way -- that is, defend that University -- was done by UW Madison legal counsel:

    After separating FERPA protected student and prospective student emails, private correspondence, personal matters (like references to medical conditions), and official duties for tenure reviews, they had a total of 0 remaining eligible emails.

    Closing sentence: "The university is required to inform you that to the extent that this amounts to a denial of your request."

  3. @Monkey: interesting. I hadn't gotten that far. Well, she did explicitly say that they checked for "legal or policy violations" -- which many guessed is what the request, which, if I'm remembering correctly, didn't have to include a rationale, was looking for -- and found none.

    This probably isn't over, but I still think Martin's statement does a pretty good job of explaining what needs to be private in order to maintain academic freedom, and why. And yes, the lawyers did what they needed to do.

  4. Academic Monkey,

    You cut off that sentence, it does not mean the finality of what you are suggesting it means. On the other hand, it is a lovely legalistic smackdown.

  5. I heart Biddy Martin, from way back.

  6. Frog and Toad, you shouldn't. She's one of those stick in the mud bureaucrats who won't stand up for anything but her job.

  7. and today the Washington Post ran an editorial by a conservative lamenting how academics get involved in politics. (sniff). those beasts

  8. AM, really? That's sad. I like her work. She's a veteran academic feminist, and I'd like to think she was a good administrator. You couldn't pay me enough to take an administrative position, though, judging from the hatred hurled at every woman I've ever seen take one.

  9. @ F&T
    I think that's the problem: there is administrating, and there is leadership, and the two don't go together very well. The people I know at UW are calling for blood because she was supporting the passage of Walker's bill instead of defending the University when it was under attack.

    She wrote these long nonsense press releases that said absolutely nothing and didn't change the atmosphere at all. Like she was a hamster spinning on a wheel when she should have been talking hardball about all the university does for Wisconsin. (a million better ideas have been conveyed by professors in op-ed pieces)

    Granted, my view may be slanted from my one horrible personal experience with her at a conference two months ago and from the people I know on facebook (who would all be negatively affected by Walker's bill) but you're the first person I've heard speak highly of her.

  10. Well, I don't know her personally, or as an administrator. She's just done some important work. But that's not enough to run a university, I guess, is it?

    I stand corrected, sadly so.

  11. Hmm -- more controversial than I expected, apparently.

    And now I can thank the Wisconsin GOP for reminding me of the work of William Cronon *and* introducing me to the work of Biddy Martin (which I'd expect them to find more upsetting). I have to admit I hadn't heard of her before, but it looks like she's written some interesting stuff.

    But that doesn't mean she's a good administrator, of course. I know absolutely nothing about her performance in that role, except this one statement to which she has lent her name (and which she presumably co-wrote with the university lawyers, since there's some identical language in the two statements -- acceptable and even wise practice in this case, I'm pretty sure).

    I still like the statement.

    And I'm aware that, notwithstanding the statement, bad things are still happening in Wisconsin.


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