Why ask for William Cronon’s email? Certainly it’s to intimidate him, and indirectly, his colleagues. I think that’s only the beginning. In the end, it’s a declaration by the organizations filing the requests in Wisconsin, Michigan and wherever else they will ask next that they don’t want any public universities of any kind. This is genuinely a pretty serious abandonment of a consensus position. It used to be that Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that higher education was an important investment in human capital and an important precondition of the flourishing of the American dream. Sure, on the right you might grouse more about the left-wing eggheads, but you still believed in the basic idea of public education. A Republican governor was as proud of having a flagship campus and a public university system as a Democratic governor was. No longer.
You may say, “Aren’t you exaggerating”? Honestly, I don’t think so. When you decide that you don’t want William Cronon around any longer, you’ve decided you don’t want any professors, any intellectuals, any higher education. Cronon is as good a blue chip standard as you are ever going to see for scholarly excellence. There is nothing faddish about his work, but at the same time, his scholarship has been remarkably creative and imaginative from the beginning of his career to the present. His prose is clean, communicative, engaging for a very wide variety of readers. He has a reputation for being a dedicated teacher and for generosity in his institutional service. In environmental history, where many scholars have passionate and highly political visions of the subject, Cronon is famous for his even-handed and exploratory approach to his work. He’s pretty much what a consensus politics would define as an ideal American intellectual: original, ruggedly independent, creating useful and practical knowledge, dedicated to truth.
When the Wisconsin Republican Party misuses a public records law to ask to peer inside the core of his professional life on a fishing expedition, the message is clear: leave. Not just to Cronon, but all of his colleagues. In an America where being the employee of a public university means that your emails and professional records are subject to routine examination by every tinpot bully that wants to rummage around in them, any professor or administrator who could leave for a private institution will eventually leave. That’s how labor markets work. In the long run, that will leave you with faculty with a heroic dedication to public service, faculty who couldn’t escape humiliatingly inferior terms of employment, and rent-a-expert mouthpieces for whichever industry or lobbying firm wants to hire their services. And so ends public higher education in the United States. Welcome to a failed state.
Not that the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing the damage all by itself. The tendency towards rent-an-expert analysis is doing plenty of damage in its own way. The intimidators are trying to burn the house down, but rent-a-experts are termites gnawing away at the foundation. Track the performance of various expert voices addressing the nuclear crisis in Japan and you’ll get a pretty good sense of the magnitude of this problem. For a complex example of the problem’s dimensions: a blog post from an MIT professor that was originally sent to his friends and family to offer an explanation of the reactor’s design and of nuclear power, but that also expressed in no uncertain terms the opinion that there would be and could not be any significant release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Since that time, the post’s author has offered an intelligent retrospective analysis of his own credibility or lack thereof, and his work has been incorporated into a wider effort to “clean up” the expert assessment in a more useful ongoing resource for public understanding.
I don’t want to single out this author as a conspiracist, and I appreciate his effort to rethink and recontextualize his initial entry into the public debate, something that other highly vocal experts who were quick to debunk fears about the Japanese accident have not done. The problem with expert participation in the online public sphere is not just that our information can iterate wildly across a wide domain almost instantly. It is also that the online public sphere is absolutely loaded with people who really do use their status as experts to serve as mouthpieces for some kind of paymaster outside of their own universities: researchers who shill for Big Pharma, experts who are peddling some rent-a-solution into the NGO pipeline for implementation in development work, and so on. It is not wrong to view a lot of public expertise coming from university faculty with skepticism.
A public intellectual has to engage issues of public concern fearlessly, but they also have to try and live by the code of a ronin, to be a masterless samurai, not out of shame or inability to find a patron but because that’s what inquiry requires. That’s the source of the intellectual’s value, and it is the reason why the public should support research in universities or should demand independent reportage and writing. If industries or civic organizations want research for their own profit or narrow institutional interests, let them hire their own experts and let them be transparently identified as such at every moment.
This also means that to speak as an expert about the things which you know best requires disclosure and caution in equal measure. If you have an interest or a history that matters, say so. And an expert has to be judicious: nothing does more to destroy the value of expert authority for a public than to be overly aggressive, dogmatically certain, itchy trigger-fingered. The more I know as an expert about an issue, the less certain I become about prognosticating about it. As an expert historian, my most confident judgment would be that people who are absolutely certain about what’s going to happen next in a crisis are very likely to be wrong.
Speaking as an intellectual is not always speaking as an expert, and we should want our public university faculty to do both: to be educated, thoughtful and independent participants in the public affairs of their day and to provide authoritative insight into the subjects they know best. That’s not just practically useful, it is one of the aspirations of a better, freer society. Whatever threatens that independence, whether it is political bullies or people who sell expertise cheap to the highest bidder, is underwriting the decline of American life.