30 March 2011

William Cronon will be fine but that doesn’t make me feel better.

There is natural cycle to higher education news. In the mid-fall, we read about outrageous football budgets and coaches’ salaries. In the spring, folks are interested in admissions policy. In late summer, we get ourselves jazzed up about financial aid. And, somewhere between these perennial headlines, there are other oldies-but-goodies that show up: compensation for chancellors and presidents, US News and World Report rankings, or “Why can’t college students write good?” Aside from my belief that we treat most these issues superficially, I am constantly annoyed by our nasty little habit of evoking important ideas and using them as convenient shibboleths or attention-grabbing buzzwords.

“Academic Freedom” is possibly the most overused and misunderstood term in the higher education. When it creeps into the headlines, I cringe. Then something happens and (just as I’m getting ready to roll my eyes) I realize that we have, in fact, stumbled upon an important issue and now is the time to call upon our cherished principles.

I am referring, predictably, to the “Cronon Affair” unfolding at UW-Madison. This is one of those rare cases worth getting upset about. However, my concerns are not what one might expect.

I’m just going to say it: I’m not too worried about William Cronon or his academic freedom.

The events leading up to Professor Cronon’s dilemma are unfortunate, disappointing, and generally pathetic. They are an affront to academic freedom but they are not an attack. No one has suggested sanctions against Professor Cronon. (Not yet anyway.) Even if they did, that attack it wouldn’t go too far. Why? Professor Cronon has tenure. He has been disrespected and victimized by the events of the last week but, thanks to tenure, no one can stop him from continuing his work.

So tenure is the reason I’m not overly concerned about academic freedom in this case. But, it is not the kind of reason that makes me proud to be a member of the Wisconsin and UW-Madison community.

* * *

In case you’ve missed it, here is what’s happening with Professor Cronon.

William Cronon is a respected Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. Now, being a senior member of the history department at UW is a major achievement. But Professor Cronon isn’t merely successful. He is a giant who has proven himself to be the rightful heir of another UW historian of towering stature, Frederick Jackson Turner. Plus (apropos of I’m-not-sure-what), people really like him. Even in the most private conversations – when grad students, staff, and (yes) faculty are apt to snark about certain professors – I have never heard anything but the kindest words of affection and admiration for Professor Cronon.

Two weeks ago, Professor Cronon published an inaugural post on his Scholar as Citizen blog. In it, he outlined some of the facts about contemporary conservative activism that he uncovered over the course of his research. Contrary to his expectations, Professor Cronon’s post went viral and readers were moved by the implications – as they saw them – of the information he presented. The reaction was largely one of dismay. And, as the topic was conservative groups, the frustration of Cronon’s readers was aimed at the conservative party in the US and Wisconsin – the Republicans.

Yeah, well, the Wisconsin Republican Party doesn’t appreciate this kind of attention. So they filed an open records request for all of Professor Cronon’s emails (to and from his @wisc.edu account) that contain a series of words including Governor Walker, Recall, Republican, etc. Because Professor Cronon is an employee of a public institution, he and his professional communications fall under the umbrella of the state’s open records laws. This, however we might feel about it, is a fact. Similarly, an open-records requester in Wisconsin does not have to identify him/herself or to give a reason for the request. This, too, is a fact.

(Though, as the leadership of the Wisconsin GOP seems to have misunderstood, the fact that they need not proffer a reason does not mean that no one is allowed to ask or wonder about their reasons. Many people, including Professor Cronon, have done so and I will leave it to you to read through their observations and conclusions.)

This is the game in which we all must play. It’s ugly and often unreasonable. But that’s the way it is. Academic freedom does not offer protection at this point. It provides no way for a professor at a public university to refuse to comply with freedom of information laws. It also provides no way to prevent unsavory people from being thoughtless and rude. However, tenure will prevent this pathetic display from becoming an actual infringement on scholarship. Tenure is what we should be talking about.

That being said, it is a sad day when things get so bad that we have to rely on tenure.

* * *

Let me tell you a story about tenure. It is set in California in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And, as has always thrilled me as a historian, it is a jackpot of familiar personalities and institutions. I’m talking about names like Earl Warren, Chester Nimitz, Clark Kerr, Hearst Newspapers, and Bank of America. Oh yeah, and the University of California.

In an era of escalating anti-communism, the Regents of the University of California amended the existing loyalty oath that was required of all California state employees. The new oath – which applied only to university employees – was approved under dubious procedure and included a clause that required employees to swear that they are not and had never been members of the Communist Party.

Contrary to the popular mythology, a majority of staff and faculty members didn’t care that much. They signed the new oath, in good faith, and carried on. Some of them cared, sorta. They thought it was offensive to be singled out as university employees, but signed anyway. And a very small group of faculty members refused to sign. They felt it was an undue and improper requirement and they simply would not submit. The first year that this happened (1949-50), the UC President, Robert G. Sproul, smoothed things over, got the Regents to approve annual contracts without the new oath (as long as everyone had at least signed the old oath), and imagined that the new year would be an opportunity to work out the kinks.

The next year (1950-51), a handful of professors continued their refusal to sign. Negotiations ensued. Ultimately, the Regents – lead by a faction of conservative politicos and businessmen including Regent Mario Giannini, President of the Bank of America and heir to an enormous financial/political fortune amassed by his father – got cranky. They were incensed that these faculty members refused to sign an oath that was demanded of them. Among the conservative Regents the general sense was that faculty members were, in the strictest sense, employees and nothing more. This lead to a highly adversarial atmosphere. Regent John Neylan put it in terms familiar to the WWII generation by publicly saying that the less-draconian members of the Board “favored appeasement… but you can’t buy peace.” And Regent Charles Teague told a friend in a letter that the Regents “certainly [had] an insurrection on our hands.”

The faculty Academic Senate attempted to intervene by supporting the Regents decade-old policy of “non-employment” for Communists but argued that the new oath was simply unnecessary. The Regents rejected this gesture and reiterated an ultimatum they had already made clear, “Sign or Get Out.” Any employee, including faculty, who had not signed the oath by a certain date would be summarily dismissed. At the last minute, the California Alumni Association intervened and struck a final compromise, which the Regents first accepted and then – upon a “reconsideration” vote that was forced via procedural maneuvering – rejected. The rejection and decision to enforce the signing deadline came despite the urging of President Sproul, Governor Earl Warren (the Governor is a Regent in California), Regent Chester Nimitz (yes, Admiral Nimitz), and up-and-coming faculty leaders like Clark Kerr.

Ultimately, thirty one faculty members were dismissed from their positions at the University of California days before the start of the 1950 academic year. None of them was a member of the Communist Party. None of them was accused of Communist sympathies. And absolutely none of them was dismissed for either the quality or content of their academic work. They were fired – well, technically their contracts were not renewed – because they took a somewhat unpopular position on a controversial policy. The conservative majority on the Board did not like the way these “non-signers” reacted to their dictate. As these Regents saw faculty members as mere “employees” they felt justified in their position – a position frequently supported by major newspapers, many of which were owned by (you guessed it) the Hearst Corporation.

Forgive me. My inner historian simply could not resist offering this somewhat lengthy narrative. I will get to the point.

Throughout most of this drama, a large majority of the UC faculty had no objections to the non-employment of Communists. They saw the oath as “foolishness” but were willing to sign. The non-signers’ argument that the oath was an affront to academic freedom was not the position of most faculty members. But, the sign-and-get-over-it majority changed its tune in the face of the Regents’ threat to dismiss any faculty member regardless of professional fitness or tenure. Just as I interpret the events of today, most faculty did not see the 1949 oath as a threat to academic freedom per se. They did, however, see an outright denial of tenure as a threat. And, it was.

You see, until this point, tenure at the University of California was a policy (not a formal structure) based on a gentlemanly agreement. If members of the faculty attested to the professional fitness of a peer and granted him/her tenure, the Regents would honor that decision by issuing a renewed contract every year. But, as we have learned so many times, gentlemanly agreements are only as strong as the gentlemanly nature of those involved. Similarly, academic freedom is a professional, philosophical value. Right or wrong, it is subject to interpretation. There is very little about academic freedom – in and of itself – that carries demonstrable force. Tenure is the enforcement mechanism. Without a formal protection guaranteeing tenure, the UC Regents in 1951 were free to change course however they saw fit. And, they did.

Needless to say, the Academic Senate and faculty of the University of California made it a priority to formalize tenure over the course of the 1950s. But the wounds of this battle were long in healing and left and nasty scar on the history of a great university.

(By the way, all thirty one dismissed faculty members were ordered reinstated by the California Supreme Court and the amended loyalty oath was declared unconstitutional. But a version of the oath remains in effect to this day. I have signed it twice.)

* * *

Let’s see, does any of this sound familiar? Rising conservative fanaticism, controversial policies hurriedly implemented, dubious procedural maneuvering, big business, targeting faculty members who have something to say….

Sixty years after California watched as egos and political whim rocked the nation’s most prolific public university, hubris and vindictiveness have emerged in Wisconsin and embroiled a similarly great institution. Thankfully, unlike the non-signers in the Golden State, Professor Cronon enjoys the protection of tenure. No matter how this abusive open records request plays out, the good Professor will be secure and the talent he brings to the University of Wisconsin will not become a casualty of this tragically misguided campaign.

Like I said, I am offended on his behalf but I am not worried about Professor Cronon or his academic freedom.

This isn’t about Bill Cronon and his academic freedom. It’s about having tenure as the only thing standing between professional politics and professional scholarship. Is that how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future? Do we really want tenure to be our default position? What about respect, professionalism, decency, dialogue?

* * *

I don’t like everything about tenure. For one thing, I am repulsed by the toll that I have seen the tenure process take on talented, thoughtful individuals. And, until now, I entertained some sympathy for ideas that tenure might be meaningfully replaced with stable, long-term contracts. Yet, due to the truly unfortunate choice of the Wisconsin Republican Party, I am forced to say that tenure remains absolutely necessary.

It disappoints me to think of how I found my way to this point. But at least it puts me in the company of the scholars, Nobel laureates, and all-around smart folks who make me proud to carry the blue and gold banner of California.

Can I muster the same pride for Big Red? We’ll see...

For now, I may be a student at UW-Madison. But if we are reaching a point where tenure is the only thing propping us up in our mission to serve the fine people of Wisconsin, that is not the kind of Badger I want to be.


Image: Professor William Cronon, from WilliamCronon.net

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