A Medieval War -- Over Arizona

August 4, 2010

As soon as Arizona enacted its law designed to crack down on unauthorized immigration to the state, academic groups started to announce they would stay away from the state. But many of those announcing that they would shun it until the law was repealed didn't in fact have any major events scheduled for Arizona. (Much of the law's enforcement has been blocked by a federal judge, but the legal and political fighting remain unsettled.)

On Tuesday, the Medieval Academy of America -- following an intense debate among its members -- announced that it was proceeding with plans to hold its annual meeting in Tempe in April. The meeting attracts hundreds of scholars, and those who are members of the academy narrowly voted down a plan to move the conference (although that vote was advisory only). The decision to go ahead with a meeting in Arizona is getting blasted by some academy members, some of whom say that they are calling off plans to present at the meeting and are canceling memberships.

The academy's council (its governing board) made the decision to stay in Arizona, but took a poll of members, 42 percent of whom wanted to move the location, and 46.5 percent of whom wanted to proceed as planned, with the remainder not expressing a view.

Notably, the academy also asked members if they would be willing to pay the costs of relocating the meeting. This is a key issue as most associations that face pushes to move their meetings cite the high cost of breaking contracts as a key reason not to, and the academy would have lost tens of thousands of dollars by moving -- a huge sum for a scholarly association without deep pockets. Only 32.7 percent of members said they would be willing to contribute to defraying such costs.

The statement from the council's leaders said that numerous issues were at play in the decision to stay in Tempe, including the association's "fiduciary responsibility for the academy's endowment, the appropriateness of making collective political statements, the precedents that would be set if the academy canceled the meeting, the scholarly effects of canceling the annual meeting, the work done by the Arizona programming committee, the difficulty of finding any alternative meeting place, the timing of cancellation, and the possibility of legal challenge to Arizona's legislation (which in fact occurred on 28 July)."

So rather than move the meeting, the academy plans "to ensure that the program of the meeting reflects and relates to similar issues at stake in medieval society, including such topics as race, ethnicity, immigration, tolerance, treatment of minority groups, protest against governmental policies judged unjust, and standards of judicial and legislative morality."

On both closed and public e-mail lists once the decision was announced, academy leaders faced heavy criticism, and some scholars said that they would leave the group.

Masha Raskolnikov, associate professor of English at Cornell University, said that she had applied to present at the meeting, but will not attend, and is resigning from membership in the academy. Raskolnikov was born in the Soviet Union and lived there until she was 7. "I remember that my parents had to carry their papers with them everywhere, and could be and sometimes were stopped by police," she said.

Those papers noted that the family was Jewish "not in a religious sense" but in "an ethnic/racial sense" as interpreted by Soviet authorities, and this meant that the police could be "particularly punitive" if they wanted to be. "This is not a part of my family's or the world's history that I have forgotten, or would be able to forget," she said.

While she said she has sympathy for "those daunted by the difficulties of finding a new venue for the conference" and dealing with a financial challenge, she said she found herself "totally mad at the 46 percent who seemed to have voted to keep the conference in Arizona," and wondering "what this kind of referendum tells me about my field of intellectual endeavor."

Much of the discussion of the issue has taken place on the blog In the Middle, where Jeffrey J. Cohen, a professor of English at George Washington University, issued an open letter in May calling for the boycott of Arizona.

Some of those posting comments after the decision was announced questioned whether a boycott from a scholarly group would have any impact. One medievalist wrote: "Here's what the AZ Legislature would have said if the MAA had canceled: 'Medieval Academy? What's that, some kind of Harry Potter type deal?' Here's what the conference hotel would have said: 'Thanks for the 30 grand! Feel free to cancel your next meeting with us.' The damage done by this symbolic gesture would have been to [the academy] and no one else."

Others, however, say that they are disappointed by the pragmatic approach being taken by the academy.

Eileen A. Joy, associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, posted this comment: "I think I would respect the MAA's decision better if it weren't justified by such a laundry list of rotting vegetables that I can smell but can't see [mixed metaphors intentional]. This may simply be the understandable outcome of a decision that was based on the Council trying to really take *everything* into account. I remain distressed that their decision reflects perhaps TOO much attention to all of the competing interests and 'issues,' as they put them. It's a kind of clusterfuck of all sorts of competing *pragmatic* decisions and considerations [of everyone's opinions] that does not reflect in any way the moral and ethical considerations at stake."

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