Request for access to emails from faculty, staff made by think tank
A Michigan public policy think tank has set its sights on MSU and two other state universities in what some say could be a showdown between free speech, academic freedom and partisan politics.
MSU received a request under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, on Thursday from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for faculty and staff emails from the university’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations containing the terms “collective bargaining,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison,” “Scott Walker” or “Maddow.”
The last term refers to MSNBC pundit Rachel Maddow, an outspoken critic of laws in Wisconsin and now Michigan that she and detractors nationwide have called an affront to worker’s rights.
The laws give states the right to curb collective bargaining, or compensation negotiations between employers and workers’ unions.
But why the Mackinac Center has requested emails from labor research schools at MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University appears to be anyone’s guess.
Kenneth Braun, managing editor of the Mackinac Center’s news site and the FOIA sender, Michigan Capitol Confidential, said the center cannot comment on the nature of its request until it receives and analyzes the documents. That is in part, he said, because the center does not know what situation it is looking at until it receives said documents.
“We’re being told we can’t ask a question, and we’re in a tough spot of saying we can’t say what we’re looking for until we’ve found it,” Braun said, adding the center sends out 1,000 or so FOIA requests each year.
The specificity and choice of terms in the Mackinac Center’s request is rather curious, said John Beck, one of three associate directors of MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.
Beck said the school engages in a number of academic and business programs and partnerships where the word “Wisconsin,” for example, might pop up in a way unrelated to collective bargaining.
The latter topic, Beck added, is taught at the school, so class emails from professors to students likely will be heaped onto the request.
The request could be because of a number of things, and one cannot rule out the possibility, Beck said, that it’s an attempt to quell political opposition.
“But again, we teach collective bargaining at this school,” he said. “It just so happens one of the sets of words hits us right where we live. It is one of the lifebloods of this school.”
For their part, MSU administrators had little to say on the matter.
Kent Cassella, director of media communications at MSU, confirmed in an email Thursday the university has received the request.
“It will be processed the same way all open-record requests are — by the procedures outlined in the Michigan Freedom of Information Act,” Cassella said in the statement.