Economics and the MLA

December 30, 2009

PHILADELPHIA – In the midst of a prolonged economic downturn, the Modern Language Association’s governing body took steps to ensure its own financial stability and (it hopes) that of its members at its annual meeting here Tuesday.

But, as the MLA Delegate Assembly’s session stretched into its sixth hour, drawn-out debate and vote on the most controversial issue on the agenda -- a resolution condemning the University of Colorado for firing tenured professor Ward Churchill, whose research came under scrutiny after furor over controversial statements he made about the 9/11 attacks -- was elbowed out by the rules of parliamentary procedure, as the crowd of delegates in attendance dwindled to well below the 80 required to reach quorum. Lining up behind Churchill's First Amendment rights has been a major goal of the MLA's Radical Caucus, which believes that the research misconduct findings were a pretense to get rid of Churchill because of his views. But many other association members, while not necessarily comfortable with the way the university investigated him, have been reluctant to focus on the issue.

While the assembly didn't vote on Churchill, it did vote to raise its membership dues for the first time in close to two decades, and to voice support for low-paid and untenured faculty members.

A proposal to hike MLA membership fees beginning in 2011 – for the first time since 1993 – passed after lengthy discussion focused on whether lower-paid members were shouldering a disproportionate share of the rate increases. Though the initial plan presented to the delegates included rate hikes across the board, for everyone ranging from graduate students to faculty making more than $200,000 a year, the group voted not to adopt increases for members earning less than $30,000 annually.

Rates for members making between $30,000 and $40,000 will increase $5, to $70, while rates for members making over $200,000 will increase to $280 annually, up from the $175 required of all members earning $140,000 or more in the current dues schedule.

A resolution calling for full- and part-time faculty members to “be eligible for tenure” and expressing the view that “[a]ll higher education employees should have appropriate forms of job security, due process, a living wage and access to health care benefits” passed in a 81-15 vote, but not without concerns from delegates that the wording went too far – or not far enough.

Ian Barnard, an associate professor of English at California State University-Northridge, said he wanted to see the resolution extended to include a call for all faculty to be eligible not only for tenure but also for full-time employment. Simply voicing support for a lecturer to continue to be guaranteed one course per semester was, he said, “really weak … a way for us to cop out,” for departments to avoid paying for health benefits and for adjunct faculty to continue bouncing around among many jobs just to make ends meet.

A representative for creative writing faculty, Brian Leung, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, said the resolution’s clause declaring “a living wage … an economic right of all employees” came off as “snooty” and “rings really hollow” coming from academics, whom outsiders often criticize for complaining about employment conditions from within the security of the tenure system.

Eva Woods Peiró, an assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Vassar College, said a “living wage is anything but snooty."

Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors, pointed to various studies showing that many academic employees at colleges and universities – part-time faculty and graduate students, among others – earned less than the living wage established for a certain geographical area. “It ain’t a high bar, but many are below it,” he said. All the MLA could work to do, he added, was “to lift the floor up to a point where your job pays for your food, your accommodation and so forth.”

Deliberations on the resolution came after an hour of open discussion on “The Academy and the Economy,” with half an hour each devoted to the use of contingent labor and “languages other than English in danger,” in which delegates and audience members voiced their concerns about how economic realities are challenging their academic areas.

The Delegate Assembly created the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession at last year’s session and, in light of institutions’ ever-intensifying shift to hiring less expensive instructors, be they adjuncts or graduate students, several attendees voiced concerns about the treatment of non-tenure track academic employees.

John Franklin Crawford, an associate professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico who spent his career “half contingent labor and half tenure track,” said he saw “the prospect of real catastrophe” if academics of all stripes don’t band together to fight against the adjunctification of higher education.

Lila Marz Harper, a representative for lecturers, adjuncts and instructors who teaches at Central Washington University, warned that the movement away from hiring English and modern language faculty with research interests (and budgets) in favor of contingent workers “will starve the MLA of new membership” and will mean “we’ll lose generations of new scholars.”

Talking, Not Voting on Churchill

Though Nelson of the AAUP had proposed that the discussion be shifted on the agenda until after debate and voting on the two resolutions before the assembly – one on job security and living wages, and the other on Ward Churchill – he was unable to get enough support to switch around the discussions.

By the time the assembly reached discussion of the Churchill resolution – the last substantive item on the agenda – it was nearly 6 p.m. and the crowd of delegates and onlookers had thinned dramatically since the session’s 1 p.m. start.

Debate started off fiery, with Grover Furr, a professor of English at Montclair State University and a leader of the MLA’s Radical Caucus, defending Churchill’s right to free speech that was violated (in Furr's view) in Colorado’s firing decision. “He is allowed to say disgusting and horrible things … and not be penalized by a governmental institution,” Furr said. “We’re not really standing up for Ward Churchill here, we’re standing up for the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Barbara Foley, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and a member of the Radical Caucus, said she “very much disagree[d] that there was anything scrupulous about the way the University of Colorado” dealt with Churchill.

Some delegates questioned the need for a resolution on Churchill -- the assembly passed a resolution in 2007 condemning the university’s investigation of Churchill -- but a few advocates argued strongly for a resolution coming from this year's assembly. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Delegate Assembly did not pass any Churchill-related resolutions in 2007. It did, though toned down an initial draft that characterized the investigation as "retribution" for Churchill's 9/11 comments.)

“A series of things have happened to justify another resolution,” Nelson said, including a ruling by a state judge that gave Colorado’s regents “quasi-judicial immunity” in voting to fire Churchill.

No one at the session defended the University of Colorado's handling of the case. University officials have said they didn't fire Churchill for his statements, but for a series of incidents of academic misconduct. And the university has noted that faculty members -- while not making final decisions about Churchill's employment status -- led investigations that uncovered misconduct

Debate continued until someone – a few delegates, when asked, weren’t quite sure who – asked aloud whether a quorum was present in the room. A quick tally found 61 delegates left as the clock approached 6:30 p.m., and while deliberations could’ve continued with a favorable vote from those still in attendance, there wasn’t sufficient support.

Yet again, the Churchill issue remained unresolved. Foley said she saw it as “a real setback given the academic atmosphere in the country …. There was a lot at stake in Ward Churchill’s case in terms of academic freedom for people involved in sort of oppositional fields."

Though Churchill, is in her opinion “no leftist by any means,” his case has become associated with the academic left, and in voting not to vote on the measure, “this attack on his academic freedom is an attack on the freedom of many members of the MLA.”

Conservative forces in academe, “are going to be relieved,” she added. “But for everyone else, this is some scary stuff.”

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