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Disciplinary Power Struggle

April 22, 2013

The Medieval Academy of America announced on Friday that the group's co-executive directors -- in office only two years and credited by many members with doing an outstanding job -- had resigned, effective immediately.

The announcement by Richard W. Unger, president of the academy, gave no reason for the departure, but called it "regrettable."

In an e-mail statement to Inside Higher Ed, Eileen Gardiner and Ron Musto, the now-former executive directors, said that they left because the board of the academy was changing procedures to minimize the power of the staff members who lead the daily operations of the academy, and forcing them to spend excessive time responding to "oversight" from board members.

"We are proud of the progress we were able to report at the annual meeting in Knoxville, and we were delighted with the members’ positive reaction. However, our perception was that conflicting views on the role of the executive director would bring our further agenda of innovation to a halt," the statement said.

Almost as soon as the academy posted the short note stating that Gardiner and Musto had left, posts on Twitter and e-mail started to ask why.

Unger, the academy president and a professor of history at the University of British Columbia, declined via e-mail to say why they had left. "You ask why they resigned and it is not for me to speculate on the reasons for their action. They are the ones who can give you an authoritative answer to your question," Unger said.

In their statement, Gardiner and Musto said it was unfair for Unger to imply that they made the decision to leave. "He and two other members of the council are also well familiar with the immediate circumstances leading up to that letter, having been present at the culminating events in Knoxville," they wrote. "Suffice it to say that a principled resignation in protest means that there was something to protest, but -- for the sake of transparency -- it is for President Unger to publicly disclose his perspective on, and address directly, the issues raised in our letter of resignation."

One of the accomplishments for which many credit Gardiner and Musto is that they reached out to many medievalists who were angry when, in 2010, the association went ahead with a plan to hold its annual meeting in Arizona at a time that many academic groups were boycotting the state over its controversial laws about unauthorized immigration to the state. Some members quit the academy, and some of them said that they rejoined due to the work of Gardiner and Musto (who did not take office until after the Arizona controversy).

On the blog In the Middle, Jeffrey Cohen, a medievalist at George Washington University, was critical of the way the academy announced the job changes. Cohen wrote that the announcement "strikes me as carefully worded administrative speech that withholds a truth rather than conveys one. Eileen Gardiner and Ron Musto were bringing to Medieval Academy much needed changes, especially in the wake of the Arizona fiasco. They were in fact making the academy an organization to which I wanted to belong.... I wish our elected officials had communicated more openly with those they are supposed to represent before and after precipitating what appears to be (from my vantage at least) either a sudden purge or a blunt refusal to work further with the changes being enacted by the current executive directors."

 

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