Standing Up for Academic Freedom

MLA delegates take stands against Academic Bill of Rights but moderate their views a bit for public consumption.
December 30, 2005

The Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly approved a resolution Thursday praising David Horowitz for ... just kidding.

After a year in which academics were often on their heels as federal and state lawmakers embraced aspects of the Academic Bill of Rights and Student Bill of Rights pushed by Horowitz and his supporters, the English and language professors on the MLA’s policy making body spent much of their hours-long voting session at the group’s annual meeting trying to take the offensive. They passed a resolution opposing the two Horowitz campaigns and any effort to turn them into legislation, as well as a motion urging the American Association of University Professors to toughen its statements defending academic freedom in the wake of an “assault from the right.”

But amid all the talk and formal legislating about broad national politics, one very local situation -- the strike by graduate students at New York University -- dominated much of the discussion, even as an effort to get the MLA to formally side with the students sputtered.

Although speaker after speaker rose to complain about “right wing” attacks on higher education, some of the association’s more pragmatic members reined in proposals from the MLA’s Radical Caucus that they feared would undermine the chance of being taken seriously by state legislators and other policy makers. The two academic freedom measures ultimately adopted by the MLA would never be mistaken to have come from a conservative group, but they ended up more moderately than they began.

The first resolution put forward by the Radical Caucus in English and Modern Languages resolved that the MLA should oppose the Academic Bill of Rights and Student Bill of Rights and all legislation, local, state and federal, aimed at carrying it out. The Horowitz-inspired measures, the resolution said, "give some power over course content and faculty expression to one or another governmental agency," and are designed to violate the "academic freedom of both students and faculty."

While the body overwhelmingly endorsed that approach, the delegates stripped from the resolution a clause that describes the purpose of the Academic and Student Bills of Rights as enforcing "the teaching of 'conservative' ideas that cannot win support through their own merit."

Grover Furr, an English professor at Montclair State University and a leader in the Radical Caucus, said he understood the “tendency for us to universalize and therefore abstract the principles we stand for” to try to win broader political support for the statement. But “here we’re burying our heads in the sand if we do not recognize that the purpose of the Academic and Student Bills of Rights” is “about promoting conservative ideas.” And not just any conservative ideas, he insisted, but “conservative ideas that cannot win support through their own merit” (like, for instance, intelligent design, he said when challenged to identify an idea that was being promoted without merit).

“I understand that this is going to get some people angry,” he said of his original proposal. “But we ought to be forthright and upfront.”

Opponents of the clause about “conservative ideas” -- liberals all, it seemed -- took great pains to list their grievances with Horowitz and their distaste for the Academic Bill of Rights. Michael Bérubé noted that he lives and works in Pennsylvania, where legislation to carry out the Horowitz campaign has gone the furthest, and he implored his colleagues to explain “the larger assault on academic freedom in every forum available to you.”

But in asserting the true “purpose” of the Academic Bill of Rights, Bérubé said, the offending clause, he said, is “deeply problematic” because it would put the MLA in the position of claiming to get inside the heads of Horowitz and his supporters. In addition, an “ungenerous reading” of the resolution’s language would be that “conservative ideas in and of themselves have no merit,” Berube said, and there is no reason to give potential critics of the MLA resolution an opening, even mistakenly, to say that they oppose all conservative thinking.

Added Misty Anderson, an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville: “This is a piece of public speech, which we hope will be invoked in legislatures and in contexts beyond this room. It is important for us not to borrow trouble we don't need.”

The delegates voted overwhelmingly to strip the language from the resolution, which then passed overwhelmingly without the offending clause.

Changes were also made in a motion urging the American Association of University Professors to strengthen its policies protecting the rights of faculty members to teach what they want, and how they want, in the classroom – policies that were written in 1940 and updated in 1970. The original version of the measure from the Radical Caucus suggested that the AAUP alter its policy on academic freedom “to convey approximately the following notion: ‘The AAUP hereby asserts the freedom of each faculty member, tenured or untenured, part-time or full-time, to determine, according to his or her own professional judgment, what is relevant to the subject matter he or she teaches, and to teach accordingly.”

Cary Nelson and others active in the AAUP urged leaders of the MLA caucus not to so directly tell the professors’ group how to conduct its business. So the Radical Caucus resubmitted its motion with language saying that the MLA urges “the AAUP to strengthen its protection of free and critical teaching.”

The ultimate concern, said Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, is language in the current AAUP policy saying that instructors should generally avoid discussing material that has “no relation to their subject,” which Horowitz and other supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights have cited to discourage, for instance, professors who oppose the Iraq war from discussing their political views in a geology or Spanish course.

What’s important for the AAUP policy to recognize, though, is that such language provides “insufficient protection” for humanities scholars, since “our subjects have porous boundaries” and the best classroom discussions should have few limits in where they can go. It is also important to recognize, Foley said, that many fewer professors have the protections of tenure today than they did 40 or more years ago.

“The nature of what we do has changed, and the professoriate is more vulnerable,” she said.

The modified motion passed by a wide margin.
One issue that the delegates did not vote on still managed to dominate the hours-long session. Supporters of the striking graduate students at New York University had proposed an "emergency resolution" that would have put the association on record reaffirming its past statements urging the support of graduate student unionization. But the delegate assembly's organizing committee -- after what Michelle A. Massé, an associate professor of English at Louisiana State University called "a prolonged, intense and deeply divisive discussion" -- blocked consideration of the resolution, citing parliamentary problems with the resolution.

But while the resolution was technically kept off the convention floor, supporters of the NYU students took every opportunity to plug the students' cause (and spank the university) throughout various other parts at the session, including  "open discussions" about two thorny subjects: "what to do about service expectations and evaluation," and "what do do about contingent labor."

The NYU comments -- offered by NYU students themselves, and members of the MLA's Graduate Student and Radical Caucuses, were not always completely relevant to the discussion, but they were always vociferous.


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