Anthony Grafton: Academic Freedom After the Cronon Controversy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University.]

Many observers are worried about the latest skirmish in the battle to destroy American higher education, which involves the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin. As has now been widely reported, on March 17, Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.

As the Cronon controversy has swirled and grown—a conservative group in Michigan has made similar requests for academic email from labor scholars at three universities in that state—some basic points risk being lost. The first is that Cronon himself is the last scholar one would expect to become a flash point for political debate. He’s not the Eastern liberal typically evoked in polemics about the radical professoriate, but a Midwestern “pragmatic centrist,” best known for deeply researched and elegantly written books. Cronon grew up in Wisconsin and chose to return and work there as an adult. Among historians he is chiefly known for his great generosity as a teacher and a colleague....

A third point is the most important of all. Since the modern university took shape in the late nineteenth century, professors in many fields have done research and taught—but also offered arguments in the public sphere, using their expertise as scientists or scholars to shed light on issues that affect the general welfare. In some notorious cases, university authorities, official or unofficial, denounced these activities. Mrs. Leland Stanford Jr., for example, insisted in 1901 that the sociologist Edward Ross be dismissed from Stanford for taking Progressive stands on various issues. In 1894, by contrast, the Wisconsin State Board of Regents refused to discipline or dismiss the University of Wisconsin economist Richard Ely, whose support for the rights of workers had offended some. In words of which the university is justly proud, the regents declared that academic comment—even polemical comment—formed part of the necessary process of
“sifting and winnowing” by which public debate should be conducted...

It’s a little bit like being a Raymond Chandler detective. You go out into the mean streets, armed only with knowledge and determination, knowing that you can easily be wrong, and grimly aware that your only reward for being right may be a blow on the head. It’s a great, quixotic part of the vocation of science and scholarship. That’s why universities have come to agree that honest public interventions are a legitimate part of academic work, and why they do their best to protect those who engage in them from personal and political attack....

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John a Wilson - 4/13/2011

The greater threat to academia is the coming higher education bubble. Kids are drowning in debt without job prospects in the world outside academia. Who will feed the beast without hope of compensation for how long?