William Cronon is back in the news. The University of Wisconsin environmental history professor who penned an op-ed in the New York Times comparing his state's governor, Scott Walker, to Joseph McCarthy has now been named the head of the American Historical Association (AHA). In response to his piece last March, the Wisconsin Republican Party demanded to see a record of Cronon's emails, claiming that they were part of the public record because he taught at a public university. But Cronon was more clever than that. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an interview this week: "I've always been very careful -- probably because my father was a dean -- to make sure I never use institutional e-mail for personal or political purposes." As I wrote at the time of the controversy, whether Cronon engaged in political activities using his university email accounts, that is, while he is "on the job" seems beside the point since academics, like most professionals, don't clock in and out. What I also said at the time was whether Cronon was engaged in some kind of anti-Scott Walker campaign on "company time" is almost irrelevant since his whole job is basically politicized.

Just consider the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Cronon is on the faculty. It was named for former senator Gaylord Nelson, who, according to the center’s website, introduced the first federal legislation to mandate fuel-efficiency standards in cars, control strip mining, and ban DDT as well as the use of phosphates in detergents.

The Nelson Institute says its mission is to act as a “catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and including governmental, private, and non-profit entities.” It sponsors film festivals on “environmental justice” and sustainability projects for students. Its scholars worry about how the temperature in Wisconsin is climbing and try to come up with ways that citizens can reduce their carbon footprints. Its magazine criticizes the oil industry. It sends undergraduates to work in internships for environmental advocacy organizations.

The whole field of environmental history is a political one and it's a shame that the AHA has decided to elevate a scholar of it to this position. Cronon tells the Chronicle that he is "deeply committed to being nonpartisan in my professional work as an academic and in my political work as someone engaged with environmental issues and interested in perspectives from across the political spectrum." But his perspective sounds a long way from nonpartisan to me. He explains: "Certainly the history of climate change—both how it has affected people and how people have affected it—is a valid and important domain of historical and scientific inquiry. Indeed, the struggle to understand climate change -- although inevitably focused on the future in terms of our present concerns -- has been profoundly dependent on historical evidence." He warns that "we also need to be on guard against polemical efforts to undermine critical inquiry, amplify doubt beyond reasonable limits, or to twist evidence in misleading ways toward preferred political positions -- whatever those positions might be." Yes, well, I think we know which side is engaged in those "polemical efforts" and which side is engaged in "critical inquiry." I guess it's too much to ask that the AHA elevate some military history expert who has studied civil war strategy. Those professors are simply not trendy or political enough.