Michigan Think Tank Asks 3 Universities for Labor Professors' E-Mails

March 29, 2011

A free market-oriented think tank in Michigan has sent the state's three largest public universities open-records requests for any e-mails from their labor-studies faculty members dealing with the debate over collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, based in Midland, Mich., sent the requests on Friday to labor-studies centers at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Wayne State University. The boilerplate wording on the requests, as first reported on Tuesday by the blog Talking Points Memo, asks the universities to provide all e-mails from the employees and contractors of their labor-studies centers containing the words "Scott Walker," "Wisconsin," "Madison," and "Maddow," in reference to Rachel Maddow, the liberal commentator on MSNBC. Mr. Walker is the Republican governor of Wisconsin.

The records requests, covering the faculty members' correspondence from January 1 through March 25, also ask for "any other e-mails dealing with the collective-bargaining situation in Wisconsin."

The requests resemble one the Republican Party of Wisconsin sent this month to the University of Wisconsin at Madison seeking any e-mails that a professor on that campus, William Cronon, had sent in reference to the state's volatile labor situation or several prominent Republican lawmakers, including Mr. Walker.

That open-records request has been denounced in statements issued by the American Association of University Professors and the American Historical Association as likely to have a chilling effect on the academic freedom of university faculty members.

The Mackinac Center's open-records request was sent by a research associate at the direction of Ken Braun, managing editor of one of the center's newsletters, Michigan Capital Confidential. In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Braun refused to discuss exactly why his center had sent the letter, saying it does not comment on its investigations in progress. But, he said, "there is a very specific type of discussion that I am looking for, and that is why it is targeted at these three unique departments at these three universities."

"I hope the universities respond to our requests as fast as they sent them out to bloggers," he said.

Mr. Braun denied being on a fishing expedition intended to expose faculty members' political beliefs or activities. "If I were going on a 'politics of professors' search, I would have cast the net much wider," he said.

The requests were directed at the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan, and the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State.

Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, confirmed on Tuesday that it had received the open-records request. He said the university would process it in accordance with its usual procedures pursuant to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Officials at Michigan State and Wayne State have yet to comment.