Friday, April 1, 2011

PSA: Cronon Round-Up

I've been following the story cloud about Bill Cronon, the environmental historian, MacArthur Fellow, incoming president of the AHA, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His emails (sent from his university email account) have been requested by the Wisconsin Republican Party under the FOIA, after Cronon published a blog post that convincingly argued that Governor Walker's attempts to kneecap public-sector unions in the state had been heavily influenced by a conservative organization that writes model laws for conservative politicians around the country. Cronon's point: This kind of political maneuvering is fine, but should be done in the open, not behind closed doors.

In the past week the shit has really hit the fan. A NYT op-ed denouncing the Wisconsin Republican Party's efforts. The Wisconsin GOP's denunciation of the campaign of intimidation against them for their FOIA request. Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton, took aim at academic intimidation on his NYT blog. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article about the request, along with the university's response. Jack Shafer weighed in with a defense of all FOIA requests (which, for the record, I find convincing, even as I deplore the way in which it's being used in this instance).

Historians have also been chiming in. Historiann wrote a nice round-up piece, with the suggestion that professors working at public universities start forwarding and cc'ing every piece of email correspondence to the Wisconsin GOP (death by kipple and tedious work email). Tenured Radical sang it loud and proud, reminding folks why tenure is a Good Thing and why you should never, ever use your work email to send anything that you wouldn't want forwarded around the ether. And Historian Super-hero Tony Grafton laid the smackdown at the New Yorker, reminding some folks that what historians do (and what Cronon was doing--helping to reveal an aspect of the Wisconsin political process for posterity and the historical record) is important and filled with sharp elbows (seriously: the reviews on my last article submission were excoriating).

I'm of two minds about the whole thing. I mean, yes, the Wisconsin GOP's tactic is a huge political stunt and retaliation for Cronon's blog post, and Cronon's point that compliance with this request would have a seriously dampening effect on the discourse and communication of employees at any public institution is one that I definitely agree with. But, on the other hand...historians want open access, don't we? And part of me wonders if some of the resistance to the FOIA request actually reveals a gap in terms of understanding and using newfangled intertube technology. There are people who recognize that anything they send from their work email address or store on their work computer is not private. And so they don't write about personal matters, personnel matters, or anything that they wouldn't want to come back and bite them. For sensitive matters or personal matters, they use the telephone, personal email, or face-to-face interaction. Then there are people who think a magic cloak of privacy guards all of their email correspondence, and behave accordingly.


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

As a historian, I'm generally in favor of openness, but not necessarily immediately. Many archives, for instance, impose a 30-year period of closure on material that might be sensitive.

Then there's the question of what constitutes a public record. I've been looking at the Massachusetts definition (since I work for the University of Massachusetts), and it's not clear to me which emails are public records and which aren't. I haven't looked at the Wisconsin definition, but I could imagine that it could take dozens or hundreds of hours of university counsel's time to determine which of Cronon's emails were, in fact, public records--and which ones that do count as public records may legitimately be withheld due to concerns about FERPA, personnel matters, etc.

By the way, from a legal standpoint, if an email is a public record it doesn't matter whether it was created and is stored on a government account or a private account. What matters is whether it was created as part of the author's job. If I were to write a memo in my capacity as chair of my department personnel committee, and I inadvertently sent it from one of my personal email accounts, it would still be a public record.

Contrariwise, the fact that I sent a personal email from my university account (which our IT policy allows, if it is occasional) does not make it a public record.

E. R. Truitt said...

Brian, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'm still trying to work out what I think about the various issues, and your take has considerably helped me to clarify some of the different issues at play. I didn't know that the standard is what emails are produced as part of someone's job. And, as I think Tenured Radical points out, there is a lot of personal/professional crossover in work emails, perhaps especially (?) in academia.