Professors Face Scrutiny Over Labor Standoff

An open records request by a conservative think tank in Michigan seeks all emails related to the collective bargaining standoff in Wisconsin from labor studies professors at three public universities. The request came just days after the Republican Party of Wisconsin made a similar request of a professor at that state's flagship university in Madison. The professors in question say the requests are highly unusual, smack of McCarthyism and are an attack on academic freedom. Republicans counter that they don't need to give a reason for such "routine" requests and call it chilling that they would come under fire for "lawfully seeking information about their government."

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The recent turmoil in Wisconsin over union rights for state employees has touched off a debate over the rights of professors at state universities. This new debate centers on a request by the Wisconsin Republican Party for emails from a University of Wisconsin professor. That professor had written a blog post questioning the Republican agenda. Now the GOP wants to see emails he wrote that contain the words union, recall and Scott Walker - the name of the governor.

NPR's David Schaper found the issue got a lot of attention at a gathering of political scientists this last weekend.

DAVID SCHAPER: It's not that political science conferences are dull, but at last weekend's annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association at a downtown Chicago hotel, there was an extra buzz. After all, many of the Midwest states are swing states, turning blue in 2008 to help elect President Obama and then repainting their state houses red last fall.

Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin are now broiled in heated legislative battles over labor rights. Add to that this new drama: Wisconsin's Republican Party filing an open records request for William Cronon's emails. He's a high-profile professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

That was followed days later by a similar Freedom of Information request targeting the emails of professors and staff at the labor studies programs at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University in Detroit. Those are filed by the Mackinac Center, a conservative public policy group.

All this has some of these political scientists concerned.

Professor RANDAL JELKS (University of Kansas): I think every academic institution's eyebrows went up, especially the public ones.

SCHAPER: Randal Jelks teaches American studies and African-American studies at the University of Kansas.

Prof. JELKS: I think that politicians are trying to intimidate academics from speaking out on issues, especially those who are in state-related institutions.

Mr. CARY NELSON (President, American Association of University Professors): These email requests, for me, were the first time I was willing to say this was a contemporary version of McCarthyism.

SCHAPER: Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and calls the requests an assault on academic freedom.

Mr. NELSON: It gives us a sense of thought control. It gives us a sense of intimidation. It gives us the sense of trying to make people fearful of exercising their speech rights.

SCHAPER: Nelson considers these broad fishing expeditions that could have a chilling effect on professors and what they write and what they say, even how they teach. But maybe that's a bit of hyperbole.

Ms. LUCY DALGLISH (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press): I understand the argument, but I think people are engaging in a little bit of hysteria here.

SCHAPER: Lucy Dalglish is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Ms. DALGLISH: Professors do not have a statutory protection for academic freedom.

SCHAPER: Dalglish says that doesn't mean academic freedom isn't important, but it doesn't trump the public's right to know. And that means some emails of public university professors should be open to public scrutiny, regardless of the motivation behind the request. Wisconsin's Republican Party and Michigan's Mackinac Center say they don't need to give a reason for making their request.

No one from the Wisconsin GOP would talk on tape for this story, but in a statement, executive director Mark Jefferson says taxpayers do have a right to know if public employees are conducting themselves in an ethical manner.

The University of Wisconsin is complying with the open records request but is holding back some emails because of privacy concerns. For his part, Professor Cronon says he has nothing to hide, but told Wisconsin Public Radio he is disappointed the GOP is on the attack instead of engaging in a thoughtful discussion about what he wrote.

Professor WILLIAM CRONON (University of Wisconsin): A naive part of me really kind of hoped that the Republican Party would rethink whether this kind of intrusive, very aggressive, highly partisan tactic that they've adopted is in the interest of the state. I don't think it is.

SCHAPER: Meanwhile, officials at Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan say they're still trying to determine the appropriate response.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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