Bill Cronon: a quick note

Like thousands of other historians, I have admired Bill Cronon's scholarship for years and think the Wisconsin GOP was nuts to go after his emails through a public-records request of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the epitome of the solid scholar and far from the evangelizing radical I bet the Wisconsin GOP was hoping to find evidence of. But that attempt is continuing: Somehow, the Washington Post thought the right person to comment this weekend was Naomi Schaefer Riley, who appears to be trying to slime Cronon in an attempt to sell a book. Well, I guess we all have to make a buck somehow. 

Was the public-records request a fishing expedition? Absolutely. An attempt to intimidate other faculty? Possibly. A close relative of the Virginia attorney general's attempt to look for wrongdoing in Michael Mann's research when he was at the University of Virginia? Definitely. But I was less horrified than others, probably because I live in a state with a much broader public-records law. The university can remove emails that are about individual student matters, but I suspect that our general counsel's office wouldn't have the same leeway that the lawyers in Madison do to exclude emails because there is no balancing test in the Florida public-records statute. 

I suspect that the majority of public-records requests made of my university have come from reporters and others with clearly public need, but I have also known requests (including from some faculty around the state) appeared to be fishing expeditions. I'm pretty tepid on university email, I have personal email, and like Cronon I know the difference. It's disturbing the first time a public-records request happens that requires you divert time from what your main job is, and I am not sure if my desensitization at this point is something to be proud of or worried about. But I haven't blogged about this because I'm still mulling the larger issues over.

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One response to “Bill Cronon: a quick note”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    The way Cronon links ecology and history is important work; he believes that nature has a history, and nature changes when society does. (Changes in the Land, 1983)

    But what has he done that’s so bad? I must have missed this.

    However evil it is to target a professor, we need to heed the words of C. W. Mills (1951):

    “Yet the deepest problem of freedom for teachers is not the occasional ousting of a professor, but a vague general fear — sometimes called ‘discretion’ and ‘good judgment’ — which leads to self-intimidation and finally becomes so habitual that the scholar is unaware of it. The real restraints are not so much external prohibition as manipulative control of the insurgent by the agreements of … gentlemen.”