A Veces, Quedarse Callado Equivale a Mentir

Many of you have likely seen the hubbub over the attempts by conservatives in Wisconsin to get a hold of U Wisconsin history professor Bill Cronon’s email after he criticized the current governor. Paul Krugman even covered the incident in a recent column, and makes a relevant comparison to recent attempts to attack climate science using leaked emails (the so-called “climategate”). Impugn the scholar, not the work.

This week, a group of conservatives here in Michigan has copied the tactic but gone for a much wider net – any professor associated with a labor studies center at one of the three major public universities (UoM, MSU and Wayne State). Surreally, the FOIA request by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy asks for emails that discuss any of the following:

“Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.

See Talking Points Memo for more details.

I don’t have time for a full reaction but my first response is to recall the words of Miguel de Unamuno, who (quite literally) stood up to the Franco regime in 1936 and asserted that, “Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.” I don’t know whether the actions of the Mackinac Center and other conservative groups around the country to attack academics who take political stances will work – either to produce documents, to produce incriminating evidence, or to chill speech. I am betting against it – for example, by picking on high profile, mainstream and relatively moderate folks like Bill Cronon they rate to unify academics more than divide them. I hope so anyway.

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4 Comments

  1. joshmccabe

     /  March 29, 2011

    My bet is Mackinac is looking for illegal connections between the labor centers and politicians. A friend of mine worked there a few years ago and uncovered an illegal relationship between some Michigan labor unions and Democrats to rig a redistricting plan so that it favored Democrats.

    As someone who is hyper-sensitive to government attempts to limit speech, I can’t say I would defend the professors in this case. The fact is that labor centers at universities are notoriously pro-union yet receive taxpayer funding. In the name of transparency, their records should be open to scrutiny as public employees. Why should one class of government workers have special privileges unavailable to others? I’m open to a good defense (i.e. social workers shouldn’t disclose the personal information of their clients), but I don’t see were a right to privacy would exist here.

    • If there was some narrowly tailored search, it would seem more defensible. But everyone affiliated with the labor centers, for any mention of *Wisconsin*? It’s a fishing expedition meant to intimidate.

      Should we FOIA every B-School professor’s email around wal-mart or whatnot because Business Schools are “notoriously pro-business”?

    • Two more quick thoughts:
      1. As Bill Cronon points out, FERPA protects student records, arguably emails between faculty and students should fall into that category.

      2. The whole point of tenure (whether or not it works) is to promote academic freedom. Professors are different from other government employees and are treated as such in many ways (see above on FERPA existing).

  2. @Josh: “Why should one class of government workers have special privileges unavailable to others?”
    A reasonable question: are faculty a class of government workers like others? The University of Michigan was founded in 1817, 20 years before Michigan became a state. For fiscal year 2010-2011, the state provided 20.3% of the general fund revenues and roughly 6% of the University’s overall revenues (see http://sitemaker.umich.edu/obpinfo/files/greybk_aasum_fy11.pdf).
    Some might see this as a rather modest basis for requiring faculty to serve up all of their incoming and outgoing emails containing the word “Madison” for the past several months. (In my case, it comes up primarily in correspondence regarding a recent paper submission that alludes to The Federalist Papers #10.)