Monday, December 8, 2014

Freedoms, of Information and Academic

There’s a legal dispute at the University of Kansas surrounding the emails of Arthur Hall, a Koch brothers acolyte and head of the university’s Center for Applied Economics.  A student group filed a public records request, demanding to see all correspondence between Hall and the brothers Koch.

This interests me because we've had similar public records requests at my institution, asking all faculty to submit emails pertaining to one topic or another.  I've been vocal in saying that the requests were over-broad and threatened academic freedom.  What do I say now that the shoe is on the right foot rather than the left?

More or less the same.  First, I am not impressed by the argument that emails on publicly-owned email clients or using publicly-issued accounts constitute those that should be turned over.  Many relevant communications that should be disclosed are on private systems, and drawing the line at who owns what will simply drive most of the traffic onto the protected networks.  That means less transparency, not more.  Second, as I’ll explain, many of the communications on public systems have nothing to do with the purposes behind public disclosure.

Why do we have these freedom of information laws in the first place?  It’s so that the public can learn about the decision-making process in the public sector—transparency and accountability.  Why was a regulation written in one way rather than another?  Why were important contracts not let out for bid?  That’s what the public deserves to know and what the laws are for.  University employees, including faculty, should be subject to these laws insofar as they are engaged in decision-making.

General political attitudes are not decision-making.  Arthur Hall can think whatever he wants about climate change, and his emails discussing his views on this or other academic/intellectual/civic topics ought to be confidential.  Just because he doesn't believe in global warming doesn't mean he should be chilled.  But his emails concerning resource allocation, programmatic initiatives and other aspects of his work as a decision-maker are pertinent and ought to be released.  In that respect he should be treated like any other public employee and held to the same standards of transparency.

1 comment:

Thornton Hall said...

In a better world, the education available at KU would be fully funded by a progressive income tax. In that world, what, exactly, is the argument for "academic freedom"? Forget the grand project of liberalism. How does the freedom to be captured by the Kochs advance the interests of a farmer outside Topeka?

There's a hazy notion throughout academia that society is better off when academics are accountable to no one. Democracy for thee, but not for me.

That computer was bought by the farmer, not the professor. He should only be allowed to us it for the purposes the farmer intended when he bought it.