01 Apr

The University of Wisconsin Chancellor gets it.


To: Members of the campus community,

Two weeks ago UW-Madison received an open records request from Stephan

Thompson, deputy executive director of the state’s Republican Party,

for email records of Professor Bill Cronon.

Professor Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research

Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at

UW-Madison. He is one of the university’s most celebrated and

respected scholars, teachers, mentors and citizens. I am proud to

call him a colleague.

The implications of this case go beyond Bill Cronon. When Mr. Thompson

made his request, he was exercising his right under Wisconsin’s public

records law both to make such a request and to make it without stating

his motive. Neither the request nor the absence of a stated motive

seemed particularly unusual. We frequently receive public records

requests with apparently political motives, from both the left and the

right, and every position in between. I announced that the university

would comply with the law and, as we do in all cases, apply the kind

of balancing test that the law allows, taking such things as the

rights to privacy and free expression into account. We have done that

analysis and will release the records later today that we believe are

in compliance with state law.

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected

under FERPA. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm

of the faculty member’s job responsibilities and that could be

considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We

are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges

among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all

that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue

knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for

controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those


Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual

exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and

protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new

knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and

acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more

narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an

intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of

the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and

share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a

right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state

law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to

public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the

processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our

state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who

will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the

development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature

exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of

state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. We

have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon’s records for any legal or

policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university

resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore

unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom,

regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from

the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the

‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. It is our

tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

Chancellor Biddy Martin

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