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UU professor target of GOP probe after questioning conservative bill

William Cronon at center of storm over academic freedom in Wisconsin.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.18.11

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Professor William Cronon

‘I’ve rarely felt more called on to defend my values,’ said William Cronon, professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. (Hilary Fey Cronon)

Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin at Madison was intrigued by a rash of conservative legislation that was being introduced across the country, including in Wisconsin, aimed at ending collective bargaining rights, rolling back environmental protections, and requiring photo identification to vote.

These proposals can’t all be coming out of Wisconsin, he reasoned. So he did what professors do: He researched it. He found that much of the legislation was likely coming from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a little-known Washington, D.C., group that supports and promotes conservative issues.

When Cronon wrote an item about ALEC on his blog, Scholar as Citizen, on March 15, and urged his fellow Wisconsinites to educate themselves, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a freedom of information request for his emails since January 1. The university subsequently released some emails, but withheld most on the grounds they were protected communications with students, other faculty members, and professional groups.

The GOP request created a storm of controversy about academic freedom that brought widespread attention to Cronon and his blog. It came on the heels of several weeks of protests by thousands of people in Wisconsin over an attempt by Gov. Scott Walker to strip many public workers of collective bargaining rights.

In an interview with UU World April 6 Cronon, a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies, as well as a member since childhood of First Unitarian Society, Madison, said he felt compelled to stand up for his values.

“I hope that people, including Unitarian Universalists, can recognize that what I’m doing is living my values. I rarely in my life have felt more vividly that I’m seeing history unfold around me. What happened to me will be an event that future historians will write about. I’ve rarely felt more called on to defend my values.”

He added, “I cherish free inquiry. The pursuit of challenging ideas should not in itself be cause for punishment. The asking of difficult questions should be the beginning of a dialogue rather than an ad hominem attack. I felt I could not sleep at night if I didn’t take a stand on this. When something in the world happens that speaks directly to your values, that’s an invitation to become engaged. I couldn’t not act, given the situation I found myself in. This is bearing witness to the moment.”

Cronon followed up his blog post with an op-ed piece in The New York Times on March 21, in which he wrote about Wisconsin as a place where progressive reforms such as workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance began, and where Republicans and Democrats had a history of bipartisan approaches to legislation.

In the op-ed, “Wisconsin’s Radical Break,” Cronon wrote: “The demonizing of government at all levels that has become such a reflexive impulse for conservatives in the early 21st century would have mystified most elected officials in Wisconsin just a few decades ago.” He urged a return to transparency and to “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”

In the interview with UU World, Cronon said that the values articulated in the op-ed “are very deep UU values. And the values of many other people of goodwill. The defense of academic freedom is more broadly a defense of free speech and free inquiry. Our religious tradition is all about free inquiry and individual conscience.”

Cronon said he was accused of attacking political conservatism. Not true, he said. “My purpose with the blog item was simply to create a study guide, to say, ‘here’s an interesting and important group that you may not have heard of before.’ I’m very interested in the history of the conservative movement. There’s a lot more interesting substance at that end of the spectrum than people at the other end give it credit for.”

“People who read the op-ed as a partisan attack, a flaming liberal’s assault on the governor and his party, that’s not the spirit in which it was written. I had been thinking since mid-February about writing a letter with ‘Have you no decency, sir?’ at its center. Quite a few things this governor sought to do could have been accomplished without this level of upset, of conflict. The way they pursued these goals just provoked and divided people. And this in a state where people are really pretty nice to each other. I do think the governor threw the first stone by backing away from longstanding traditions.”

Cronon added, “I try very hard when I’m in an argument with someone I disagree with, to take on the burden of understanding their point of view clearly enough that that person can say, ‘Yes, you understand my position fairly.’ When two sides can consent to hear the other’s point of view and then talk about whether there’s a middle ground, that kind of honest engagement has not been as much in evidence as I would have liked the last couple of months.

“The most important reason why people showed up by the tens of thousands is because of removals of longstanding rights. Doing that so rapidly and with so little political discussion and so little effort at public consensus building. Those are the real reasons people marched.”

Cronon regrets that many conservatives probably now perceive him as liberal. “People who know me say that’s an odd way of perceiving me. I annoy liberals for my centrist way of doing what I do. What I care about is not served by partisanship.”

A primary area of research for Cronon is American environmental history. “One reason I wrote the op-ed, and that I care about the history of conservatism, is that the environment should not be a partisan issue. We all ought to agree on good environmental goals that are in the best interest of the future of our children and grandchildren. I now face a problem in continuing to live my nonpartisan values and engage questions.”

Cronon said he expected that word of his writings would spread by social media, but still he was surprised by how fast that happened and how quickly people rallied to support him. By the end of March, two weeks after he posted his blog entry, Cronon’s blog had more than 500,000 page views. When a “Support Professor William Cronon” page went up on Facebook, more than 4,600 people clicked to “like” it as of April 7.

“This got a lot of attention,” he said. “Facebook and the Internet were quite important. It was a real education for me. I did not fully appreciate how important that kind of online community could be in turning to people you trust when dealing with a rapidly unfolding series of events.”

He said that a spiritual practice he began about a year ago helped him weather the request for the emails and the attendant publicity. “I’ve been consciously engaging in certain mindful practices. I’d done it before, but more in an intellectual way. In the past year I’ve done it in a more systematic and rigorous manner. I do breathing meditation, focusing on my breath and being present to my own emotions in the presence of breathing. I feel myself to be a different person in this moment because of that work. I feel myself being way more centered than I ever would have been in the absence of that work.”

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