Saturday, March 26, 2011

Because We Are All Bill Cronon: An Open Letter To Our Colleague In Madison

Where is this clause in the constitution?
Dear Bill:

Welcome to the blogosphere!  I like the design of Scholar as Citizen, and frankly, I'm also happy to have another age peer in the house.  Although I've never had a whole political party go after me (very impressive, dude!), I did suffer an attack from a fellow historian and his followers that had its hair-raising moments. 

I didn't get the death threats on my voice mail that an untenured colleague at a prestigious flagship received from the Sunshine Band.  However, I got plenty of hate mail, as well as copies of numerous emails sent to Zenith's president, members of the history department, and the board of trustees.  These various communications, and numerous letters, all called for my termination -- something that was, of course, impossible, since I already had tenure. It wasn't covered in the national media, but it was ugly all the same. On the other hand, you are more famous than I am, so it stands to reason that you would get a splashy, welcome Tea Party.

Here's my favorite line from Mark Jefferson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin GOP, who filed the FOIA on your email, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government," Mr. Jefferson said in the statement. "Further," he added, "it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open-records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The left is far more aggressive in this state than the right in its use of open-records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.

Chilling.  Just chilling.  I hate it when the big, bad histowy pwofessors go aftah the eeny-weenie iddle politicians.  Pick on someone your own size next time, ok?

What is fascinating to me is that your politicians in Wisconsin seem to be so affronted by the right to free speech.  I thought the Republican party was all about our "freedoms": isn't that why they decided to trash the future of public education by diverting the money to a ten year war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why we want everyone to have the right to not have access to affordable health care?  Every yahoo conspiracy theorist to have all the weapons he can afford?  Je ne comprends pas -- whoops.  There I go being all socialist and academic again.

Another lesson of this little episode seems to be that when a college professor says something well-researched and true he is on particularly thin ice.  I'm glad we cleared this up, because when Ward Churchill was fired, and right wing gun nuts orchestrated a campaign to force Michael Bellesisles out of his tenured job, I thought that it was poor citation, pretending to be a Native American and having an abrasive way of discussing the global context for terrorist attacks that were the issue.

Anyway, what you have discovered is that for all the trolls that are out there, plenty of colleagues will stand up for you too.  Feels pretty good, even though it is a steep price to pay to have your life disrupted at the worst possible time of year.

Whatever happens next, this episode presents some possibilities for the rest of us that are highly un-funny.  They are the kind of things we tenured radicals know, but never think about.  So for all the bloggers out there, and for all the fans of Tenured Radical, I would like to inaugurate what I will now call the Walker Rules of Electronic Communication and Knowledge (WRECK):
  • Your university email account belongs to the university.  While Bill Cronon is being persecuted by a bunch of right wing Republicans determined to reduce the American working class to pre-industrial conditions, technically your employer can enter your email account whenever it chooses.  This means that we should all be careful what we say when we write from, or to, an edu address.  In fact, it isn't such a terrible idea to add your gmail or yahoo account to the signature line of your university account requesting that all personal communication be sent there.
  • People (including students) who work in IT can get access to your university email through the web server whenever they want to.  They shouldn't, and they probably don't, but they are capable of it.  Don't put anything in an email that you would not want circulated.  This includes personal matters (sex), conflict with colleagues, and correspondence about personnel cases that reveals any information that you, the department, the referees, or the candidate might consider private.
  • The computer you are assigned by the university belongs to the university, and they can search it at any time.  They can also search your office without a warrant.  According to FindLaw, unless you are covered by a state law or a union contract that prohibits such searches, "Employers can usually search an employee's workspace, including their desk, office or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas.  This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer. This includes searching for files saved to the computer itself, as well as monitoring an employee's actions while using the computer (eg, while surfing the internet)."  Does this mean that we should all be thinking about buying a home computer for all activities we wish to ensure privacy for -- downloading pornography, getting divorced, blogging?  Maybe.  And technically, the university could prohibit you from blogging on the computer they provide, although arguably this would be an infringement of academic freedom.
  • You can't be sure you have erased something from a computer or a server.  In fact, according to Daniel Engber of Slate, you can be pretty sure that you can't erase anything permanently, even if you use a utility like Evidence Eliminator.  And even if you could, those emails that you sent are now on someone else's computer, someone else's server, and so on.  They are retrievable.
  • The Republican Party is owned and operated by vicious thugs who abuse their power to make us all into corporate servants and lackeys for capitalist special interests.  This has nothing to do with computers:  I thought I would just throw this in.  But we are reminded that there is a long  history for this sort of activity in the United States:  in the late 1830s, for example, the southern slaveocracy pushed for national legislation to censor abolitionist literature.  When they didn't get it, beginning with South Carolina, they passed state laws that allowed local officials to seize these materials and open the mail of private citizens.  The parallel is obvious, isn't?  Freedom to have absolute power over labor > constitutional right to free speech.  It's a good thing the Grimke sisters didn't have an email account.
My understanding is that  there is a campaign underway at the public unis to forward all sent mail to Governor Scott Walker (that's, Mark Jefferson (that's and GOP State Party Chairman Brad Courtney (that's Anybody who wants to dialogue with other stalking horses for international capitalism members of the state party leadership can go here for their addresses.  Some people might interpret this as an attempt to crash their servers, but you and I know that it is just an attempt to give them a little historical context.

Anyway, Bill, good luck with this.  I've always enjoyed your work, and while I know you never sought out this kind of notoriety, we couldn't be standing up for a better guy.

your friend,

Tenured Radical


Anonymous said...

I work in IT for a (private) university and the points you've listed in re ownership and privacy are spot on. I suspect in some ways it's even worse for Cronon as a state employee.

At a technical level there's really nothing stopping University IT from poking around, although there may be equipment/software in place which logs such access. What protects him are (a) policies which regulate such access and (b) the ethics of the people who have the access. These aren't laughing matters either: breaching security or privacy is about the fastest way for someone in my field to lose his job and have trouble getting another one.

I don't know about Wisconsin, but where I work we'd have it hear it from the provost before accessing the files of someone who still worked at the university (departed employees are a different matter). If it came up in this context there would be real misgivings about doing it; we might ask for a court order (I'm speculating--nothing remotely close to this has ever come up in my work experience).

Bardiac said...

There's a certain irony that the folks who voted in the bill by not complying with the 24 hour open meeting laws in the state are now so avid for openness.

I stand with you in admiration for Cronon's work and response here. I hope you don't mind if I link.

Janice said...

His blog entry on ALEC was well-researched, informative and non-partisan. Of course it would threaten someone, no?

Our laws on disclosure and access in Canada are somewhat different but the principles are moving in some different directions. Just this week, a HS teacher in Canada had the courts uphold his rights against warrantless seizure of his school-provided laptop, saying he had a reasonable expectation of privacy as it was provided to him for his use.

Lesboprof said...

Perhaps the tag line we need to add to our emails is something like this:

"This correspondence is not private and may be solicited by anyone via the Freedom of Information Act, as I am a public employee who has no privacy in which to conduct my professional business. Please remember this if you plan to send me email or engage in an email-based discussion of professional matters. Be especially wary of sending me anything critical of the current political administration in my state. Until I get a job in the private sector, this will remain true."

Anonymous said...

I'm curious... with that email list of politicians. Would the open records act allow *us* to request *their* email records?

The College Dropout said...

As a student, I support Cronon because I feel that infringing academic freedom threatens my education. I wonder, does this thing happen within private schools? I'm well aware of attacks on liberal professors that occur within religious colleges, but I am curious as to the limits set in secular private schools. I attend a community college and plan to transfer to a 4 year state school. The possible chilling effect this is going to have on honest and open communication in public education makes me feel cheated. How, as a professor, do you think students can best support their teachers in our current climate?

Anonymous said...

Pretty sure Cronon's in Geography, not History.

Bardiac said...

Nicole and Maggie, Yes, you can request their records. But they surely have other email accounts that aren't

I would like to know if Scott Walker took the call from fake David Koch on government time and on a government phone, though. I sure as heck hope my taxes weren't paying for my screwage.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

When I worked in WA state, it was made very clear to everyone that we could not and should not send emails from our campus accounts unless they were strictly work-related. They also wouldn't let anyone buy the cheapest travel tickets possible, just in case the person had a relative that worked for the airline in question or expedia or what have you. I hate to think how much extra money was spent because they were trying to guarantee ethical behavior.

But yeah -- universities own their mail and their computers. Don't mix the two.

Anonymous said...

Right, Bardiac, but the harassment isn't solely from the contents of the email, as Cronon also uses other email accounts. It's the hassle of having to deal with the FOI and the fact that some of them might indeed have inappropriate things on their emails that they inadvertently used the wrong email for.

Anonymous said...

Professor Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies. Most of the courses he teaches are history courses (History of the American West, The American West Since 1850), but he also teaches courses that are cross-listed in geography and geography majors may take them for geography major credit (American Environmental History).

anthony grafton said...

Tell it, TR, tell it.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) Excellent post.

(2) KC & The Motherfucken Sunshine Band tried to get Zenith's president to fire your asse!?!?!?!?!?

(3) This kinde of shitte makes me gladde I worke for a private university.

Anonymous said...

Ah, transparency -- nothing like shining a little light on the subject -- unless, of course, the subject is a fellow liberal faculty member! We don't want Wikileaks or academe, it would appear.


Unknown said...

TR, great post as usual. Bill Cronon is a worthy president elect of the AHA. He does our profession proud.

Sara said...

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read "Why do Republicans hate smart people?" It came to mind as I read your post.

RobKleine said...

Faculty should read things, such as your institution's computer use agreement, before they signing. Of course your work email belongs to the university. Why would one presume otherwise? Why would one presume it is OK to use university resources for personal reasons?

Tenured Radical said...

Well, mr. smartypants, people presume all kinds of things. And anyway what is "work related" and what is "personal" can be a difficult thing to distinguish in academia. Furthermore, I challenge you to find anything called "a computer use agreement" on the Zenith website, or as part of a hiring procedure.

Historiann said...

By Rob's logic, I guess I should bill the university for the use of my wifi connection every time I answer an official e-mail or do my work from home. Perhaps I should also charge them every time I return a work-related call from my mobile or home phone, too? What about the electricity it costs me at home to run my "university" computer? How about heat in the winter months? How about any weekend hours that I log into my work e-mail or any work I do on behalf of the university before 8 a.m. or after 5 p. on weekdays, or any time on the weekends?

The university employs me not just to teach, do service, and conduct my research. They also employ me to use my professional judgment in the scope and exercise of said duties. Universities do not want to get into pissing contests about faculty workload--whose resources are supporting it and appropriate use of university resources--because for most of us at public unis, the universities will be exposed as insufficiently compensating and supporting faculty time and efforts.

RobKleine said...

Ah, disparage the messenger rather than engage the issue.

Zenith may not require individuals to sign a computer use agreement before they are provided an account. That is their choice. Even back at the dawning age of email, in the '80s, the state university for which I then worked required folks to sign a computer use agreement. It is standard practice -- in academia, government, and the private sector -- that all email is the property of the employer. The email system at our institution -- Google Apps -- has a message on the email home page with the statement that all email is the property of the university.

As to the issue raised about compensation for individuals using their personal networks and cell phones for work related activities, yes, that is an interesting issue. Like you, I work more hours from my home office than I do my campus office. As part of a dual-academic career household, with one of us at a private institution and the other at a public institution, the issues of faculty work load and resources are very familiar. Some schools do provide faculty and others with cell phones, or compensation for cell phone use.

I find it interesting that making a statement of common practice, indeed a statement of what is accepted in the law, appears controversial.

I am curious: why do you suggest it is difficult to distinguish personal from work related email in academia?

Tenured Radical said...

I guess my point is that when people aren't asked to sign something they often aren't aware of the law.

But it's also the case that, in the Cronon FOIA, the university wouldn't be turning it over had it not been FOIA'd as an act of intimidation by politicians who are pissed that their connections to private, special interests were revealed by good research. So "employer" in this case is the University of Wisconsin, who did not ask for the emails.

Separation of work from private? Because many of the colleagues elsewhere we write to are friends ("Got the draft of your article: hope your prostate is calming down"); we do work with many on-campus colleagues in informal settings out of the workplace ("Let's plan the tenure case over lunch -- don't worry about jack; he's an a$$hat and I'm sure he'll behave"); and we negotiate between the two on email "Can't come to the department meeting: my wife and I are seeing the therapist."

Anonymous said...

Call it intimidation if you like; I think that using FOIA (a tool often used by liberals, including liberal historians) in this way is a stroke of legal genius -- as was the idea to separate the fiscal from the nonfiscal elements of the proposed Wisconsin law that caused this uproar, so the latter could be passed even in the absence of the Democrat senators. I think the Wisconsin Republican party is getting some astute legal advice.

If the University refuses to release the relevant emails, I wonder if there will be a Wikileaks-type dump of info on the web, as there was in the Climategate fiasco. These days its hard to keep information secret when it yearns to be free!


Tenured Radical said...

The university is complying with the request, as they must under the law. The question is, Jack, what does the Party hope to accomplish? What could possibly be revealed in Cronon's email?

If they are trying to uncover the traitors in their own ranks who may have squealed on them, well, that's their business. But wasting taxpayer money on investigating a history professor without having a good reason to do so is not something a responsible person does. And "liberal historians" file FOIA's so that they can have the evidence they need to write history.

I only respond to this because this is, at base, the critical question in this country at the beginning of the 21st century: whether the public interest is, in fact, coterminus with the ideological agenda of a Republican right wing that is willing to impoverish the vast majority of workers to enrich the very few.

Furthermore, if Republican political agendas need to be lied about and covered up in order to work, doesn't that say something? Let us not forget that Wisconsin -- in addition to being a bastion of progressivism -- was also a critical node of domestic Fascism, America Firsters, and solidarity with the German Nazi Party in the 1930's, and I think we are seeing it here.

Anonymous said...

TR, in your latest rant you forgot to mention "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy in your list of evil folks from Wisconsin. Wouldn't want to see him left out!

I think one major difference between democratic and totalitarian regimes is that in the former laws apply to all, no matter what their political beliefs, whereas in the latter the folks in charge think that laws only apply to those who think as they do, and label their opponents "Fascists", "Nazis", etc., who are undeserving of equal protection of the law.


Tenured Radical said...

Jack: I congratulate you on your capacity for selective response.

Anonymous said...

Why, thank you, TR -- we do aim to please, being from the South and all!


RobKleine said...

Sorry if I'm being dense, but I've gotta ask:

TR, what are these "Republican political agendas [that] need need to be lied about and covered up in order to work"?

Did anyone else happen to catch the email release by the Wi Governor's office? Fascinating stuff.

UntenuredProf said...

I think that this whole incident speaks volumes in terms of how society views our position in the world. I am an untenured political scientist and I’m almost afraid to have a public opinion as an academic, because lay people start critiquing your pedagogy, the content of your courses, and questioning your research agenda even if you appear to have some sort of bias they disagree with. I could only image what terror this individual or others go through while being targeted by any party machine (liberal or conservative). I would never use my position in the classroom or as a state employee to promote any agenda, but I often wonder where the job stops and where my rights begin.
I have kept a personal email separate form my work email for years and direct all of my personal correspondence there. I also have strict privacy settings in my social networking attempts.

Rana said...

Something that no one has mentioned yet in these comments is FERPA.

If the university, as a state agency, is legally bound to release the emails of its employees in response to a FOIA request (and I'm not convinced that it is, given that university employees are not state officials), it is also legally bound to keep those emails private when they involve student information.

So what happens if, say, Professor Cronon was responding to a student email about the recent issues? That correspondence would have to be released under FOIA, but could not be released under FERPA - so which law prevails? Whose rights are more important here - the right of students and professors to privacy, or the right of political party members to see if someone's talking about them in private?

I would think that the hierarchy of these rights is pretty clear.

Anonymous said...

The issue here is that FOIA is being used, not for the purpose it was intended (to provide the public with transparency and oversight over government agencies), but to target one individual with whom "the state" is pissed off.

The use of bureaucratic tools - which, in and of themselves are legitimate - to target individual people whose views do not match those of the ruling elites, is an example of abuse of power.

Looking at the notion of limited government and civil liberties, this is exactly the point. States (governments) that can bring all their formidable resources to bear on any one of us just to make us squirm, are to be feared.

Aaron said...

Disabuse me of this notion: in every online argument over points raised between academics and republicans (which the distinction is not always so), the academic responds to the points of the argument while the republican raises a straw man argument, going back to 1995 (the first year I saw this phenomenon) rather than addressing the actual points of the argument.

I think a new rule in politics should be that if you raise a straw man argument instead of actually responding to the factual situation raised, you automatically are considered the loser of the debate.

Basically just hold politicians and partisans accountable to the same rules as high school students in speech & debate club tournaments.

(deleted and replaced almost immediately when I noticed a rather glaring typographical error.)

E. R. Truitt said...

Thanks, Tenured Radical. I'm having a hard time with this one. The GOP's request is clearly a political stunt aimed at retribution. But...I'm a historian, and I'm in favor of more access to documents, not less. Isn't the moral of this story (as you noted) not to have any expectations of privacy over work email? Oh, here's a link to my own blog, with a short round-up and my own two cents.

Tenured Radical said...


I think the FERPA issues are not even a matter of debate, frankly; and presidential advisors' memoranda are FOIA-exempt (although presumably releasable decades later, or post mortem), on the grounds that the President has to have access to honest advice, regardless of whether that advice is going to be popular to a wider audience.

So yes, I think there are grounds for privacy, and since Cronon had been accused of no malfeasance, what is the use? I can imagine, for example, that a faculty member charged with sexual harassment could have his/her email examined, and we might all perceive it as understandable if uncomfortable. But as I said, it is wise for all of us to remember that anything digital is a weak link.

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