Privacy and Professionalism II: Academic Freedom

The recent attempts by conservative groups to use open access laws like FOIA to do blanket searches for emails of professors they deem liberal is a bald attempt to intimidate academics, whom many conservatives see as liberal and therefore enemies. This practice came to light most recently after William Cronon brought to light the actions of the policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), after which the Republican Party started requesting emails with certain terms, such as “union,” “Walker,” “Republican,” and others, in them.  Subsequently, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative group in Michigan,  has also asked for emails of professors in labor departments at the University of Michigan, Michigan State Universtiy and Wayne State University (here’s their rationale).

The question that arises from this is: to whom are public university researchers responsible? The public? What does that mean? The electorate? Professors are not elected officials. The students? A large part of a professor’s job is teaching, but research is equally important, and, although the two are not always as easily distinguishable as some would like, much research has nothing to do with students or time in the classroom. The letters from UW counsel and the Chancellor Biddy Martin explain well the balance between the private and public in academia.

If you made a FOIA request of my wayne.edu email, I don’t know what you would find. There are ten years of emails in there, some personal, some not. I imagine there are probably emails in there about politics, but not for the last several years, because I, like many, use a personal email account for such matters and reserve my college email accounts for university business. How far, though, does Freedom of Information reach? If I send emails from my private account, but from a university-owned computer or IP address, might that be subject to exposure? How much does the public have a right to know?

In the era of sting politics, these groups seek to make public everything academics do, in hopes of turning up something incriminating or embarrassing. I would not be surprised to see, in the near future, covertly recorded video of classroom interactions, from planted students, in an effort to embarrass colleges and spread fear among instructors. When that happens, I would hope that administrations would back the instructors and not do what NPR did with Ron Schiller and the Obama administration did with Shirley Sherrod, firing people for damage control before investigating the facts.

In the end, faculty and administration responses to scare and smear tactics like these will decide the fate of academic freedom in public universities.

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