April 1, 2011

The Republican Party of Wisconsin wants to see what William Cronon has been e-mailing about. Through an open-records request, the state GOP is asking to see correspondence from Cronon, a professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, that includes the terms “Republican,” “Scott Walker” and “collective bargaining,” among many other keywords and names.

Such fishing expeditions seem to be growing in popularity: The free-market folks at the Mackinac Center in Michigan have made a request to see e-mails from people in the labor studies departments at that state’s public universities. They’re looking for some of the same terms as the Wisconsin GOP but have added “Maddow” to the list.

What exactly they’re expecting to find is hard to say. Presumably, and at the very least, the Republicans are hoping to catch Cronon advocating for a particular candidate or political platform while using his university e-mail account, which would be against school policy.

It’s possible that these nosy politicians will strike public relations gold: something that confirms their suspicions that these professors are instrumental in the political opposition. They could even find something particularly damaging — an ill-advised comment that could upend a safely tenured career. Remember former University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill’s reference to the “little Eichmanns” who died in the World Trade Center attack, or the statement by Lincoln University’s Kaukab Siddiquethat the Holocaust was “a hoax”? (On second thought, Siddique kept his job, so maybe even those kinds of remarks won’t do the trick.)

More likely, though, these e-mails will contain just run-of-the-mill examples of political activism and partisanship. One needn’t look at personal correspondence to find that, though. Cronon’s March 21 New York Times article comparing Gov. Scott Walker and Joseph McCarthy made it plain. The professor is also on the board of the Wilderness Society, currently working to stop mining in the New Mexico desert. The society’s Web site instructs readers: “Ask Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to close Otero Mesa to mining immediately!” Whether Cronon engages in these activities while he is “on the job” seems trivial. Academics, like most other professionals, don’t clock in and out.

A significant portion of the professoriate sees engagement in politics as part of the job description. And, unfortunately, they are right. It is becoming harder and harder to find professors devoted to teaching traditional academic subjects for their own sake, to undergraduates who lack the basics in the humanities and the social and natural sciences. The academy has not become politicized because of a few radical professors. Rather, entire departments and university administrations see the goal of higher education as political. At a time when the percentage of students needing remedial education is at an all-time high, when the need for job training beyond high school is pressing and when we worry about how even our top students will compete with their peers around the world, political activism should be at the bottom of any university’s list of priorities.

Since the late 19th century, American university faculty members have been considered (in accordance with the German model) society’s experts, adding to the public stores of knowledge and informing leaders about the best ways to govern. By the early 20th century, American progressives had thoroughly embraced this notion. Herbert Croly, one of the leading progressive thinkers, wrote of the need for a “permanent body of experts in social administration” whose task would be to “promote individual and social welfare.” Progressives such as John Dewey, who helped found the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), argued that for our own good, we needed to protect the rights of professors to engage in any kind of scholarship that they and their fellow experts deemed necessary.

By this understanding, their “scholarship” extended far beyond the university. They were to be public intellectuals.

And so academics were given free rein to speak publicly within their fields. As Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, put it in his 1999 book “Academic Keywords” (co-written with Stephen Watt): “Academics were to be protected not only for speech directed internally, at the university community and the discipline, but also for speech directed toward the world of politics and public policy, at least when events in that larger world pertained to their expertise.”

But the aspirations of the public intellectual and the assumptions about his expertise changed in the second half of the 20th century. As Ellen Schrecker, a Yeshiva University historian, writes in her book “The Lost Soul of Higher Education,” professors took on specifically political goals. Schrecker, who is sympathetic to these goals, cites the historian David Hollinger, a Berkeley graduate student in the 1960s: “Life outside of the classes seemed to have become an all-day, half-the-night seminar involving everyone I knew discussing the meaning of the university and the life of the mind in relation to the rest of the world.”

The classroom became politics by other means. Proponents of black studies saw these programs, according to Schrecker, “as contributions to the ongoing struggle for racial justice, not as conventional academic courses of study.” One early supporter of women’s studies wrote, “What administrators didn’t realize, of course, was that it was almost impossible to take a women’s studies class, as scholarly as it might be, without developing a feminist consciousness.”

Today the mission statements of such departments reflect those original goals. Take the mission of Ohio State’s African American and African studies department, where the faculty “contributes ideas for the formulation and implementation of progressive public policies with positive consequences for the black community.” The emphasis on “service learning,” which has recently become popular in higher education, furthers academics along their road to activism. It means that faculty members are no longer simply engaged in teaching and learning and research. Rather, they are supposed to lead students into the field to accomplish particular “progressive public policies.”

A similar trend may be seen in gender studies departments. At Columbia College in South Carolina, the women’s studies program encourages students to “advocate for social justice for women,” according to its mission statement. At Iona College in New York, the women’s studies department says on its Web site that it will “promote social justice for women through the practical application of theory [and] . . . develop proactive responses to the differential impact of gender-based bias in the lives of women from diverse backgrounds and experiences.”

Departments of environmental studies have in recent years followed much the same model. Just consider the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Cronon is on the faculty. It was named for former senator Gaylord Nelson, who, according to the center’s Web site, introduced the first federal legislation to mandate fuel-efficiency standards in cars, control strip mining and ban DDT as well as the use of phosphates in detergents.

The Nelson Institute says its mission is to act as a “catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and including governmental, private, and non-profit entities.” It sponsors film festivals on “environmental justice” and sustainability projects for students. Its scholars worry about how the temperature in Wisconsin is climbing and try to come up with ways that citizens can reduce their carbon footprints. Its magazine criticizes the oil industry. It sends undergraduates to work in internships for environmental advocacy organizations.

Perhaps this is an education in some respect, but it comes at a cost. Students have a limited amount of time in which to learn the great foundations of an undergraduate education — and the rest of their lives to become agitators.

As for Professor Cronon, if he is engaged in politics, well, sadly, it’s part of his job.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the forthcoming “The Faculty Lounges . . . and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”

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