Faculty Senate approves resolution protecting academic freedom

April 5, 2011

by Stacy Forster

The Faculty Senate passed a resolution at its April 4 meeting calling on the university to protect the university’s atmosphere of free inquiry and expression and to defend faculty and staff from harassment in the form of open records requests.

The university’s commitment to “sifting and winnowing” had come under scrutiny in recent days after the Republican Party of Wisconsin submitted an open records request for email from history professor William Cronon.

Cronon had written on his blog that he felt the request was a politically motivated attempt to silence him, while the Republican Party asserted its right to seek records under the state’s open records law.

Last week, Chancellor Biddy Martin sent an email to campus saying that UW-Madison had complied with the law but applied a balancing test, taking such things as the rights to privacy and free expression into account.

That same day, UW-Madison released records that the university felt were in compliance with state law but omitted emails that referred to current and potential students, professional organizations, personnel and communications among scholars.

University Committee Chair Judith Burstyn said the Faculty Senate felt it was important to make a statement on academic freedom in light of the records request.

The resolution, which was crafted with help from political scientists Donald Downs and Howard Schweber, argues that open records laws are abused when they become partisan tools, which come from both sides of the political aisle -- posing a threat to academic freedom.

“The university can’t change the law, but the university can take a leading position on behalf of public employees everywhere and make a statement that we think this is wrong,” Schweber said. “What was begun as a classic notion of sunshine being the best disinfectant has turned into a law that’s used as a weapon to target not government officials and offices but individual public employees.”

With an amendment by life sciences communication associate professor Patty Loew, the resolution stopped short of saying the university should reconsider its position for responding to open records requests. Loew said she supported Cronon and the spirit of the resolution but was concerned that provision might lead to the perception the university was being obstructionist.

Martin said she believed the university was protected more by taking the position it did in releasing some records than arguing the open records law doesn’t apply to the university.

“To carve out a status for ourselves to be less subject than others would be problematic,” she said.

Cronon wrote on his blog that he was grateful for the careful, thoughtful approach the university took in responding to the request.