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UVA Should Defend Academic Freedom

For release April 14, 2011
For more information, contact Rachel Levinson

Request for Scientist's Records Mirrors Subpoena from VA Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

Washington, DC — The AAUP and eleven other public interest organizations today sent a letter to University of Virginia (UVA) President Teresa Sullivan urging the university to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom” in its response to a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) request related to the work of a climate scientist who used to work at the school.

The request, made on January 6 by the American Tradition Institute, a relatively new free market advocacy organization, seeks a broad range of documents related to scientist Michael Mann’s tenure at UVA, including emails, grant applications, and even handwritten notes. To date, the university has not indicated which of Mann’s documents would be exempt from the request.

The request is similar to the civil subpoena issued last year by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for Mann’s documents. The subpoena, technically called a civil investigative demand, was widely criticized as an attack on academic freedom. The university challenged the subpoena, and a Virginia circuit court set it aside in August 2010. Cuccinelli is appealing that decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a signatory to the letter, called on UVA to be transparent about how it handles such requests under Virginia’s open records law, and said that it is critical for the university to protect academic freedom.

“While we need freedom of information laws to hold public officials accountable, the law has exemptions for good reason,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “In its response, UVA should be sure to uphold professors’ rights to freely exchange ideas with their colleagues and students. Scientists should be able to challenge other scientists’ ideas and discuss their preliminary thinking before their analyses are complete and published.”

The university’s response to the VFOIA request could undermine the scientific process, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), another signatory to the letter. "We are urging the University of Virginia to stand with the University of Wisconsin by publicly resisting the threat to scholarly communication and academic freedom represented by the concerted effort to obtain faculty emails,” said AAUP President Cary Nelson. “Whatever people may think of climate research, the climate for academic freedom must not be allowed to deteriorate. If scientists think every email they send may be subject to a politically motivated attack, it will create a chilling effect on their discourse and hurt scientific research."

The letter was signed by AAUP, the Alliance for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the Center for Inquiry, Climate Science Watch, the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council for Science and the Environment, the Ornithological Council, People for the American Way, UCS, and Bob O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The attack on Mann in Virginia is similar to the recent attack on University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon. The Wisconsin Republican Party submitted a request for Cronon’s records from the university after he wrote an article examining the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded organization that seeks to influence state laws. The university released a statement articulating its commitment to academic freedom and listed exemptions under the law, including correspondence with students and private email exchanges among scholars. There is yet another similar case in Michigan, where the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has requested documents related to the work of labor professors at three universities. 

Grifo commended the University of Wisconsin for how it handled the state Republican Party request and urged UVA to follow suit. “Given the increased scrutiny academic institutions are facing from political groups, it is imperative that universities be clear about how they are complying with open record laws,” she said. “UVA should follow the University of Wisconsin’s lead and protect academic freedom while being careful and clear about the standards it is using to determine which documents to release. Wisconsin found a way to walk the line, and Virginia can, too.

The American Association of University Professors is a nonprofit charitable and educational organization that promotes academic freedom by supporting tenure, academic due process, and standards of quality in higher education. The AAUP has about 45,000 members at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Media Contact: 
Rachel Levinson
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 14, 2011