Because We Are All Bill Cronon: An Open Letter To Our Colleague In Madison

March 26, 2011, 11:44 am

Where is this clause in the constitution?

Dear Bill:

Welcome to the blogosphere!  I like the design of Scholar as Citizen, and frankly, I’m also happy to have another age peer in the house.  Although I’ve never had a whole political party go after me (very impressive, dude!), I did suffer an attack from a fellow historian and his followers that had its hair-raising moments. 

I didn’t get the death threats on my voice mail that an untenured colleague at a prestigious flagship received from the Sunshine Band.  However, I got plenty of hate mail, as well as copies of numerous emails sent to Zenith’s president, members of the history department, and the board of trustees.  These various communications, and numerous letters, all called for my termination — something that was, of course, impossible, since I already had tenure. It wasn’t covered in the national media, but it was ugly all the same. On the other hand, you are more famous than I am, so it stands to reason that you would get a splashy, welcome Tea Party.

Here’s my favorite line from Mark Jefferson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin GOP, who filed the FOIA on your email, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“I have never seen such a concerted effort to intimidate someone from lawfully seeking information about their government,” Mr. Jefferson said in the statement. “Further,” he added, “it is chilling to see that so many members of the media would take up the cause of a professor who seeks to quash a lawful open-records request. Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner. The left is far more aggressive in this state than the right in its use of open-records requests, yet these rights do extend beyond the liberal left and members of the media.

Chilling.  Just chilling.  I hate it when the big, bad histowy pwofessors go aftah the eeny-weenie iddle politicians.  Pick on someone your own size next time, ok?

What is fascinating to me is that your politicians in Wisconsin seem to be so affronted by the right to free speech.  I thought the Republican party was all about our “freedoms”: isn’t that why they decided to trash the future of public education by diverting the money to a ten year war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why we want everyone to have the right to not have access to affordable health care?  Every yahoo conspiracy theorist to have all the weapons he can afford?  Je ne comprends pas — whoops.  There I go being all socialist and academic again.

Another lesson of this little episode seems to be that when a college professor says something well-researched and true he is on particularly thin ice.  I’m glad we cleared this up, because when Ward Churchill was fired, and right wing gun nuts orchestrated a campaign to force Michael Bellesisles out of his tenured job, I thought that it was poor citation, pretending to be a Native American and having an abrasive way of discussing the global context for terrorist attacks that were the issue.

Anyway, what you have discovered is that for all the trolls that are out there, plenty of colleagues will stand up for you too.  Feels pretty good, even though it is a steep price to pay to have your life disrupted at the worst possible time of year.

Whatever happens next, this episode presents some possibilities for the rest of us that are highly un-funny.  They are the kind of things we tenured radicals know, but never think about.  So for all the bloggers out there, and for all the fans of Tenured Radical, I would like to inaugurate what I will now call the Walker Rules of Electronic Communication and Knowledge (WRECK):

  • Your university email account belongs to the university.  While Bill Cronon is being persecuted by a bunch of right wing Republicans determined to reduce the American working class to pre-industrial conditions, technically your employer can enter your email account whenever it chooses.  This means that we should all be careful what we say when we write from, or to, an edu address.  In fact, it isn’t such a terrible idea to add your gmail or yahoo account to the signature line of your university account requesting that all personal communication be sent there.
  • People (including students) who work in IT can get access to your university email through the web server whenever they want to.  They shouldn’t, and they probably don’t, but they are capable of it.  Don’t put anything in an email that you would not want circulated.  This includes personal matters (sex), conflict with colleagues, and correspondence about personnel cases that reveals any information that you, the department, the referees, or the candidate might consider private.
  • The computer you are assigned by the university belongs to the university, and they can search it at any time.  They can also search your office without a warrant.  According to FindLaw, unless you are covered by a state law or a union contract that prohibits such searches, “Employers can usually search an employee’s workspace, including their desk, office or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas.  This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer. This includes searching for files saved to the computer itself, as well as monitoring an employee’s actions while using the computer (eg, while surfing the internet).”  Does this mean that we should all be thinking about buying a home computer for all activities we wish to ensure privacy for — downloading pornography, getting divorced, blogging?  Maybe.  And technically, the university could prohibit you from blogging on the computer they provide, although arguably this would be an infringement of academic freedom.
  • You can’t be sure you have erased something from a computer or a server.  In fact, according to Daniel Engber of Slate, you can be pretty sure that you can’t erase anything permanently, even if you use a utility like Evidence Eliminator.  And even if you could, those emails that you sent are now on someone else’s computer, someone else’s server, and so on.  They are retrievable.
  • The Republican Party is owned and operated by vicious thugs who abuse their power to make us all into corporate servants and lackeys
    for capitalist special interests. 
    This has nothing to do with computers:  I thought I would just throw this in.  But we are reminded that there is a long  history for this sort of activity in the United States:  in the late 1830s, for example, the southern slaveocracy pushed for national legislation to censor abolitionist literature.  When they didn’t get it, beginning with South Carolina, they passed state laws that allowed local officials to seize these materials and open the mail of private citizens.  The parallel is obvious, isn’t?  Freedom to have absolute power over labor > constitutional right to free speech.  It’s a good thing the Grimke sisters didn’t have an email account.

My understanding is that  there is a campaign underway at the public unis to forward all sent mail to Governor Scott Walker (that’s, Mark Jefferson (that’s and GOP State Party Chairman Brad Courtney (that’s Anybody who wants to dialogue with other stalking horses for international capitalism members of the state party leadership can go here for their addresses.  Some people might interpret this as an attempt to crash their servers, but you and I know that it is just an attempt to give them a little historical context.

Anyway, Bill, good luck with this.  I’ve always enjoyed your work, and while I know you never sought out this kind of notoriety, we couldn’t be standing up for a better guy.

your friend,

Tenured Radical

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