ANN ARBOR — So what do the words “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” and “Maddow” have in common? They are among the search terms included in an open records request for the emails of labor studies professors and staff at three public universities in Michigan – Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
The Freedom of Information Act request comes from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. The center is also asking to review any emails to or from the professors that refer to the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin. At first, Ken Braun, the man behind the FOIA request, wouldn’t say why.
Mysterious? Perhaps not. Braun is the senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center’s online newsletter. In one post from last year, Braun wrote this of the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University:
“This obscure corner of the taxpayer-supported university does a lot that resembles progressive political agitation rather than teaching and research.”
I asked Ken Braun whether his FOIA request had anything to do with that entry, titled “Wayne State’s ‘Wholly Owned Subsidiary’ of Big Labor”.
“I don’t comment on FOIA investigations,” he said. “That is an interesting article, however.”
Here was Rachel Maddow’s take on the whole Mackinac matter (pronounced “mackinaw” by Michiganders). Remember, Maddow is one of the search terms in the Michigan FOIA.
Michigan academics aren’t the only ones under scrutiny. Last month, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested emails from William Cronon, a historian critical of Governor Scott Walker’s push to weaken public sector unions.
In both states, the lines got drawn fast. On one side: an apparent concern about the use of public resources for political advocacy. On the other: fear of academic intimidation and reprisal in a politically charged climate.
Cary Nelson is the National President of the American Association of University Professors. He falls in the latter camp.
Nelson is also an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says that, in academia, FOIA requests for financial documents and contracts are fairly common, while broad requests for emails are not. But when asked for an example of an academic FOIA request that revealed serious wrongdoing, he told this story about his own institution’s use of email:
Over at U of M’s Labor Studies Center, the staff says they have nothing to fear or hide. Billie Rohl is the center’s program administrator.
Ken Braun of the Mackinac Center says intimidation is not his goal. Just yesterday, Braun went on an AM radio program and revealed the specific motivation behind his FOIA request. He said that he was indeed investigating what he called partisan political activity at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center.
Marick Masters, Wayne State’s director of labor studies, previously told The New York Times that, “This looks like an attempt to embarrass us. I haven’t engaged in any partisan activities here.”
In the past, the center has described itself like this:
“The Labor Studies Center is a comprehensive labor education center committed to strengthening the capacity of organized labor to represent the needs and interests of workers, while at the same time strengthening the University’s research and teaching on labor and workplace issues.”
But you won’t see that description on the center’s website today. As of this morning, the site is under construction.
The political upheaval in Wisconsin continues to get plenty of national attention.
The Los Angeles Times reported on the “new normal” there.
And the New York Times wrote about a battle for a Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin that has turned into a battleground.
NPR has been reporting on how FOIA requests are transforming politics. Here’s a story from January, laying out the issue.