William Cronon

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William Cronon
William Cronon, 2007.jpg
William Cronon, photographed in the Madison, Wisconsin Arboretum in 2007.
Born (1954-09-11) September 11, 1954 (age 60)
New Haven, Connecticut,
Nationality United States
Alma mater University of Wisconsin–Madison;
Jesus College, Oxford;
Yale University
Occupation Historian
Known for President of the American Historical Association;
MacArthur Fellowship; Wisconsin email scandal

William "Bill" Cronon (born September 11, 1954) is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was President of the American Historical Association for 2012.

Education and recognition[edit]

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Cronon obtained a D.Phil from Jesus College, Oxford while a Rhodes Scholar from 1976 to 1978.[1] He holds a B.A. (1976) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an M.A. (1979), M.Phil. (1980), and PhD (1990) from Yale University.

In July 1985, Cronon was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.[2] He was Wayne Pacelle's advisor at Yale in the 1980s.

Cronon serves on the board of directors for The Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group. He has also been a member of the Wilderness Society since 1995, and as of 2014 he served as vice chair of the organization's governing council.[3]


A noted environmental historian,[2] Cronon is best known as the author of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983), based on a seminar paper he wrote for Edmund Morgan at Yale. In that book Cronon proposed that the way cultures conceptualize property and ownership is a major factor in economies and ecosystems, and that the Native Americans were active interveners in and shapers of the ecosystems in which they lived.[2]

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), which won the Bancroft Prize in 1992,[1] "is credited with having radically widened many environmental historians' gaze beyond such things as forests and public lands to include cities and what Cronon calls the 'elaborate and intimate linkages' between city and country."[2] Cronon says that Chicago and capitalism fundamentally transformed the midwestern countryside. In one chapter, he details how grain became a standardized commodity, going from something sold in sacks with the farm's family name stamped on it to a standardized good stored in silos according to grade.

In his essay "The Trouble with Wilderness", published in the New York Times and in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (1995), Cronon traced the idea of wilderness throughout American history. He believes this history allows us to see how untouched, pristine wilderness is only a fantasy.

Cronon was also featured in Ken Burns's 2009 documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Scholar as citizen: Tension between transparency and academic freedom[edit]

During the 2011 Wisconsin protests over the state budget, Cronon started a blog called "Scholar as Citizen." His first blog post on March 15, 2011, was about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that provides model legislation to Republican and Democratic state legislators. According to Anthony Grafton of The New Yorker, "Cronon argued from indirect evidence that ALEC had played a major role behind the scenes in Governor Walker's attack on public employee unions in Wisconsin. He also argued that this sort of political work, though legitimate, should be done in the open."[4]

On March 17, 2011, Stephan Thompson of the Wisconsin Republican Party filed a freedom of information request for email sent from or to Cronon's University of Wisconsin-Madison account that contained keywords related to the ongoing political events, including "Republican", "Scott Walker", "recall", "collective bargaining", "AFSCME", "WEAC", "rally", "union", and the names of 12 Republican senators who supported Walker's bill.[5]

Cronon also wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, published on March 21, 2011, that criticized Walker.[6]

On March 24, Cronon wrote a second blog entry announcing the Wisconsin Republican Party's freedom of information request for his emails, saying that the party's action had "the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor".[6][7] Citing Wisconsin's long history of protecting the right to academic freedom, Cronon asked the Republican Party of Wisconsin to withdraw its request.[5] The party did not withdraw the request and on April 1, 2011, the university turned over a selection of Cronon's emails. Attorney John Dowling, acting as senior legal counsel for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, included a statement with the documents that explained the university's decision to continue to withhold some of Cronon's emails.[8]

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin expounded upon this decision in an email to the UW-Madison campus community on the same day:

We are excluding students because they are protected under FERPA. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it.

Martin went on to describe the idea of academic freedom and the university's firm commitment to protecting all academics' right to engage in the "open intellectual exchange" of ideas.[9]

On April 4, 2011, the Faculty Senate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison passed a resolution to protect academic freedom. The body decided, according to University Committee Chair Judith Burstyn, that the university needed to take a public position to defend academic freedom in the wake of the FOIA records request directed at Cronon. Political scientist Howard Schweber, who was involved in writing the resolution alongside colleague Donald Downs, commented: "The university can't change the law, but the university can take a leading position on behalf of public employees everywhere and make a statement that we think this is wrong. What was begun as a classic notion of sunshine being the best disinfectant has turned into a law that's used as a weapon to target not government officials and offices but individual public employees."[10]

The Wisconsin Republican Party had made no report on the contents of Cronon's emails as of August 5, 2011.[11] The party has also filed other open records requests.[12][13] The American Association of University Professors (quoting Cronon) said that "this action by the Wisconsin Republican Party is an 'obvious assault on academic freedom'".[14]

Published works[edit]

  • Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, 1983; 20th anniversary edition, Hill & Wang, 2003.
  • Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, W. W. Norton, 1991. ISBN 9780393308730
  • "Telling Tales on Canvas: Landscapes of Frontier Change," In: Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
  • "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative," Journal of American History 78:4 (March, 1992), p. 1347–1376.
  • "The Uses of Environmental History" (Presidential Address, American Society for Environmental History), Environmental History Review, 17:3 (Fall 1993), p. 1–22.
  • Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W. W. Norton. 1995. ISBN 9780393315110. 
  • "The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," Environmental History, 1(1) (Jan. 1996), pp. 7–28.
  • "Only Connect...: The Goals of a Liberal Education," The American Scholar, (Autumn, 1998), p. 73–80.
  • "Why the Past Matters," Wisconsin Magazine of History, 84:1 (Autumn 2000), p. 2–13. Awarded the William Best Hesseltine Award for the best article published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 2000–2001.
  • "The Riddle of the Apostle Islands: How Do You Manage a Wilderness Full of Human Stories?" Orion (May–June 2003), 36–42.
  • "The Densest, Richest, Most Suggestive 19 Pages I Know," Environmental History, 10 (4) (Oct., 2005), pp. 679–681.
  • "Storytelling" (AHA Presidential Address), The American Historical Review (2013) 118 (1): 1-19.


  1. ^ a b "Old Members News and Notes". The Jesus College Record: 48. 1993/4.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ a b c d Janny Scott (April 3, 1999). "An Environmentalist on a Different Path; A Fresh View of the Supposed 'Wilderness' and Even the Indians' Place in It". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-23. 
  3. ^ "Council Leadership". The Wilderness Society. The Wilderness Society. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  4. ^ Grafton, Anthony (March 28, 2011). "Wisconsin: The Cronon Affair". The New Yorker, News Desk. Retrieved April 4, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Gardner, John (April 1, 2011). "William Cronon and academic freedom". The Guardian. Retrieved April 4, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Leonard, Andrew (March 25, 2011) Wisconsin's most dangerous professor, Salon.com
  7. ^ Shafer, Jack (March 25, 2011). "There's No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request". Slate. Retrieved March 26, 2011. 
  8. ^ Grafton, Anthony (April 3, 2011). "The Cronon Affair: Wisconsin Answers". The New Yorker, News Desk. Retrieved April 4, 2011. 
  9. ^ Martin, Carolyn 'Biddy' (1 April 2011). "Chancellor's message on academic freedom and open records". University of Wisconsin-Madison, News. Retrieved April 4, 2011. 
  10. ^ Forster, Stacy (April 5, 2011). "Faculty Senate approves resolution protecting academic freedom". University of Wisconsin-Madison, News. Retrieved April 5, 2011. 
  11. ^ "WISGOP.ORG News". Retrieved August 5, 2011. 
  12. ^ McCallum, Katie (June 22, 2011). "Shelly Moore Caught Campaigning on Taxpayer Dime, RPW Requests Investigation". WISGOP.ORG News. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Wisconsin GOP Files Open Records Request on Campaigning UW Oshkosh Prof". WISGOP.ORG NEWS. May 5, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Obvious Assault on Academic Freedom". March 28, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 

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