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Academic Politics, not Academic Freedom, at Issue in Michigan FOIA Requests

Another request has gone out about whether professors on a state payroll used their offices to play partisan politics; and the political left is again screaming about the end of academic freedom. In the wake of the controversy over inquiries into whether a University of Wisconsin professor who has been a vocal participant in the union/GOP squabbles in that state used his taxpayer funded perch to do so, a Michigan think tank is asking the same question about academics at a number of state-supported institutions in that state.

The Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy about professors at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State Universities is drawing predictable screams of horror from those who think these probes are intended to silence critics of Republicans who have advocated for changes in collective bargaining by public employee unions. The New York Times quotes Greg Scholtz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors as saying that this “will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”

That sentiment was echoed by William Cronon, the Wisconsin academic who has been put under the same sort of scrutiny. He says that the desire of some to find out what he and his Michigan colleagues are doing is making him angry. He maintains he’s innocent of any wrongdoing and also thinks that the requests are in some way a violation of his academic freedom. In an editorial on the subject, the Times even claimed that such inquires will hamper the ability of academics to conduct research.

Cronon and the others may not be enjoying this scrutiny but it should be understood that what is at stake here is a question of academic politics, not academic freedom.

While the left is more accustomed to using FOIA requests to embarrass state and federal officials and bureaucrats whose actions they dislike, there is nothing sinister in the tactic being turned on liberals who happen to collect their state checks at a college campus. If, as their critics suspect, these professors have been using their state-funded positions to take an active part in the partisan political squabble between Republicans and their Democratic foes then they have violated the law.

The level of discomfort at this scrutiny is due in no small measure to the fact that most university professors tend to feel free to impose their own ideological and political biases on their course work, as well as on discussions in the classroom. The left dominates most campuses not merely in the sense of outnumbering conservatives on the faculty but in the way it often limits, penalizes or even censors discourse that dissents from pervasive orthodox liberalism. So it is little wonder that when outside think tanks or political groups start to ask questions about whether academics are playing politics on the job the campus left swoons with shock.

But the right to examine lines of academic inquiry or to educate is not under attack. Curtailing the ability of state employees to engage in partisan political activity while on the job will have no impact on the ability of these professors to conduct research or teach.

It may well be that these requests turn out to be nothing more than unsuccessful fishing expeditions and that the professors have not crossed any lines. But whether they have or not, the fact that they have been put on notice that they are not above the law or immune from scrutiny is a healthy development and violates neither their rights nor the spirit of academic freedom.



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