Monday, April 4, 2011

The U of Wisconsin Email Case

Inside Higher Ed today carries a story on the request in Wisconsin for emails of a history professor by the state’s GOP in relation to the passage of anti-union legislation in that state. Wisconsin has a state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act – as does California.

One take-away from this episode is that faculty should not assume emails are private communications. Even if you use an outside service such as gmail, your communications can be forwarded around and wind up on services which are subject to outside scrutiny. Undoubtedly, UCLA would take a position similar to the U of Wisconsin’s on emails but notions of privacy are clearly eroding.

As yours truly has noted in the context of publication of faculty salary and benefit information by name, the university – UC in that case - has not aggressively pointed out the dangers that such information can create for identity theft and other such improper activity. It should be noted that private universities – with which UCLA competes for faculty - are not subject to such requests for internal records. The public-private distinction is eroding as tuition increases. This blog has noted that roughly 7/8th of the proposed UC budget does not come from the state.

Wisconsin Stands Up for Professor

April 4, 2011, Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman

If the Wisconsin Republican Party's perceived attack on the academic freedom of a prominent faculty member at the University of Wisconsin at Madison was seen as a test for Chancellor Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin -- with some wondering whether Governor Scott Walker's backing of the university's push for autonomy would compel her to hold her tongue -- she appears to have passed. Martin and the university on Friday partially complied with the state open records request that a staff member of the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed last month seeking e-mails sent and received by William Cronon, a historian at Madison whose high-profile writings about Walker's crackdown on public employee unions had drawn scrutiny from the governor's allies…

Martin's own statement to the campus on the matter, while acknowledging the need for professors and the university to obey the law, went further in declaring the extent to which academic freedom is at stake in the case.

"When faculty members use e-mail or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy," Martin wrote. "Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions."…

Full article at

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