When people outside of higher education hear the phrase “threat to academic freedom,” they probably think of government officials (ab)using their power to punish professors with controversial views. The post-World War II Red Scare most immediately comes to mind, along with early 1960s purges of academic leftists. Of course, in the 21st century academy, the primary threat to academic freedom comes from within, as defenders of the status quo pay lip service to principles of “diversity” even as they seek to minimize pedagogical or ideological diversity among the professoriate.
Indeed, the more conventional threat to academic freedom—from government officials—has become so comparatively rare that when a case appears, it seems like a throwback to a bygone era. How else to explain the recent decision of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to demand data from the University of Virginia regarding former professor (and climate change expert) Michael Mann?
Mann was one of the scientists whose name appeared prominently in the “Climate-gate” scandal, the hacked e-mails from a server at the University of East Anglia. Yet an investigation by Penn State determined that he had committed no wrongdoing, and the idea of a government official investigating a university professor because of the professor’s research positions is unseemly at best and—as the AAUP’s Rachel Levinson put it—filled with “echoes of McCarthyism” at worst.
But Cuccinelli isn’t a typical public official. Elected in 2009, he was caught on tape flirting with birtherism. He maintained that the state’s public universities couldn’t ban discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. He provided pins for his staff that modified the state seal to cover up an exposed breast. In short, he has emerged as something of an embarrassment to the Virginia Republican Party.
Using his authority under a Virginia statute targeting fraud by state employees, Cuccinnelli produced a civil investigative demand to UVA that came across as almost a caricature of a politician’s witch hunt. The attorney general demanded all “correspondence, messages, or e-mails” from 1999 onwards between Mann and 39 other scientists, plus all correspondence between Mann and his research assistants. The document called for the university to produce “any or all algorithms, computer source code, or the like created or edited by Dr. Michael Mann.” And Cuccinnelli wanted to identify all UVA employees who had any meaningful role in either the procurement or the execution of Mann’s climate change grants.
Cuccinnelli’s crusade against climate change has won him some support on the right, especially since he’s also suing the EPA over the issue. But for those worried about the state of higher education, his action should arouse grave concerns, for three reasons.
First, Cuccinnelli’s behavior will provide ammunition to academic defenders of the status quo—from the AAUP’s Cary Nelson on down—in their campaign to portray the sole threat to academic freedom as coming from “right-wing” outsiders.
Second, the inquiry continues a conservative hostility to some types of science professors, which also appeared in efforts of GOP state legislators to use academic bill of rights proposals to mandate the teaching of creationism. Scientists are the natural allies of those contesting groupthink in the humanities and social sciences. Their commitment to the research ideal should be imitated, not scorned.
Finally, and most simply, this type of investigation is wrong. Ther’s no credible evidence of wrongdoing by Mann, and there’s considerable evidence of bad faith by Cuccinnelli.
No good, alas, will come from this development.