Monday, March 28, 2011

Snooping Email

From the “just when you think it couldn’t get more ridiculous” files...

The leadership of the Republican party in Wisconsin has filed a Freedom of Information request to read all of the emails from the account of Professor William Cronon, a well-known historian and union activist at the University of Wisconsin. They’ve specifically asked for emails containing terms that would suggest relevance to union and/or political activity.

Technically, the request is legal. Emails at public institutions are considered public documents; that’s why I have a gmail account for my “dean dad” stuff, and another gmail account for things like Amazon purchases. Those of us in administrative positions are routinely advised that college emails can be subpoenaed, and that anything we write could later be used in court. That said, though, you’d have to be a special kind of stupid not to see that this request is an attempt to intimidate university employees. (Notably, tenure offers no special protection against this kind of snooping.)

The contrast to the rights of employees at private institutions is striking. The legal bar to clear for such a fishing expedition would be dramatically higher.

Already, public employees’ salaries and benefits either barely match or trail those of employees in similar jobs in the private sector. And that isn’t because of the profit motive, since most ‘private’ higher ed in America is still non-profit. (In my observation, the for-profits actually pay less than even community colleges for similar work. And by ‘observation,’ I mean ‘direct personal experience.’) The highest pay is reserved for the private nonprofits, though I don’t remember anyone ever raising that issue for a policy debate.

In the age of ‘gotcha’ articles that sink candidacies based on quoting controversial people, the idea of fishing expeditions in emails is particularly chilling. A single email, taken out of context, could be used to prove just about anything. (That’s especially true when others’ emails haven’t been searched, so there’s no sense of an average.) I have to assume that ‘chilling’ is precisely the point.

As bad as the Wisconsin kill-the-unions initiative is, this is actually worse. Unions are one vehicle for expressing concerns; this goes directly to expressing concerns at all. And it fails the most basic test of ethics, which is reciprocity. If the Republican party can read my emails at will, then I should be able to read theirs at will. Fair is fair. If public sector employees are subject to random harassment by anyone with a bat in his belfry, then so should private sector employees. Fair is fair. Let’s go fishing through the emails of, say, the Koch brothers, and scan them for terms related to matters of public interest. While we’re at it, let’s check the leadership of Goldman Sachs, GE, and the University of Phoenix. Fair is fair.

Or, we could be grownups and admit that this is the equivalent of wiretapping, and demand to see a warrant. That’s what the Koch brothers would do if this were applied to them.

Other than naked power, what underlies this is an abiding contempt for public work generally. To argue that public sector workers should have lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector -- with the same qualifications and the same job descriptions -- can only make sense if you believe that the public sector shouldn’t exist in the first place. Otherwise, you are simply holding that government employees should be the least qualified, least capable people you can find. The only reason I can imagine saying that would be complete indifference to the quality of their work, and presumably to the very existence of it.

I can imagine an intelligent argument for effective public higher education. I can also imagine an intelligent argument for the abolition of public higher education altogether -- it’s certainly not my preference, but there’s an argument to be made. What I simply cannot imagine is an intelligent argument for poorly-done public higher education. If you’re going to have it, you should make realistic efforts to assure quality. Every time Wisconsin attacks its employees, it drives away the ones with options and leaves itself with those nobody else wants. Already, I’ve heard anecdotal reports of candidates for jobs there simply walking away, making the entirely reasonable decision that they don’t want to board a sinking ship. Stripping them of unions is bad enough; subjecting them to random politically-motivated fishing expeditions in everything they’ve ever written is something else altogether.

Nobody who actually wanted an effective public sector would do this. This is pure slash-and-burn, but without the guts to say so.

I wish the recall effort well.