Last week’s guest post on the digital humanities and the classics really got me thinking about academic outreach (both from inside academia to those outside and spreading information about digital tools and projects within academia). Dan Cohen furthered my thinking with a good post about blogging as a medium and the resistance of blogging academics to take on the blogger moniker. While these posts encourage academics to venture into the “public sphere,” one recent news item (William Cronon and the Wisconsin GOP’s inquiry into his emails) highlights the dangers of academics moving outside the ivory tower and the importance of academic freedom and tenure.
To call William Cronon a distinguished professor is selling his standing short. If there was a fantasy draft for history professors in the US (sorry its almost baseball season), he would be a no brainer first round pick. But, because of a some controversial writing in public venues, a Wisconsin republican has asked to see a large amount of emails (including any with the word “Republican”) from his university email address (he is at U of Wisconsin which is a public university). While not illegal there seems to be no justifiable reason for this inquiry and its timing other than intimidation or revenge purposes. (Check out the great article by Paul Krugman)
I do not care too much to get into the politics on my blog (I have not put too much time into researching the controversy) and the reasons and viewpoints are largely irrelevant anyways. The way in which this situation is unfolding reflects poorly on the future of education. Professors need the freedom to take unpopular stances without politically driven repercussions. Certainly, scholars do not say whatever they want without repercussions—lying, plagiarism, deception, etc. are not accepted. However, in this case, it appears that the Cronon’s speech (in a constitutional sense) was merely politically unpopular, not inaccurate or misleading.
An earlier situation in which a conservative student group filmed and misleadingly edited a professor’s class worried me for similar reasons. In this case, the politically motivated group used deception to “show” a politically driven “liberal” professor. In reality, the professor was challenging his students to think about the long term, broad view implications of their opinions (he challenged his liberal and conservative students in the same way). If a college classroom is not a place for opinions and ways of thought to be challenged I may need to change career paths. Education needs people to question their beliefs. Society needs it. But some politically-minded groups are content with keeping opinions unchallenged and the political debate without introspection.
Thankfully, Cronon is a tenured and distinguished professor, so his story is getting press with a balanced perspective. However, the politically charged path on which higher education appears to be, bodes very poorly for society. Non-tenured professors will think twice before writing op-eds, giving public speeches, or starting a blog and these are the types of outreach professors need to undertake for society to full benefit from the expertise that scholars possess. As a graduate student, the potential to write something career damaging certainly crossed my mind as I debated starting a blog. Hopefully, the political climate does not prevent others from such activities.