Who Speaks for an Association?

MLA moves to make it more difficult to take an official position.
January 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- Some of the most divisive debates at meetings of disciplinary associations in recent years have focused on deciding which issues are worthy of an official stand by the association. The American Historical Association went through a lengthy and at times emotional process in 2007 before condemning the U.S. war in Iraq -- notwithstanding that the war had been going on for some time and that everyone in the public debate was personally opposed to the war. The question was whether the association should take a position against the war and whether doing so might inhibit scholarly debate.

Most disciplinary associations insist on some tie between a public issue and higher education. Some groups are fairly specific on the issues on which they take stands (pushing, for example, for more research support for their field, or decrying attacks on academic freedom). Other associations are willing to define the boundaries a little more broadly. For example, in 2003, the Modern Language Association adopted a resolution noting that its members are "committed to scrupulous inquiry into language and culture," condemned the use of the phrase "war on terrorism" as a means to "stigmatize dissent" and "to underwrite military action anywhere in the world."

On Saturday, the MLA moved to make it more difficult for the association to adopt resolutions of official policy on various issues. The Delegate Assembly approved, by a vote of 100 to 36, a measure to require not only that resolutions must be approved by a ballot of all members, but that those members voting in favor of the resolution equal at least 10 percent of the association's total. Most of the resolutions adopted in recent years by the Delegate Assembly and forwarded to the membership have been approved, but with voter participation so low that they would have failed to be adopted under this new policy (which now itself must be forwarded to the membership for approval).

Michael Bérubé, an MLA vice president and the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, said that the change was proposed out of concern that having official policy for the association determined by such small percentages of members -- sometimes only 3 or 4 percent -- was "a threat to the legitimacy of resolutions."

He said that 10 percent was suggested by the MLA's Executive Council as a bar that resolutions could get over -- as some have done. But he said that the figure was high enough that only resolutions with some critical mass of support would become policy. He noted that skeptics have pointed out that there is no such requirement for the election of MLA officers -- and said he wished that voter participation were higher across the board.

Bérubé said that when someone becomes an officer, that person is elected, but without any platform or any presumption that he or she speaks for all MLA members. Official resolutions, however, purport to speak for all of the language and literature professors in the association.

Margaret Hanzimanolis, an English professor at De Anza College, spoke against the change, calling it "a ceiling on political discourse" and saying that the MLA "has an obligation to engage the world."

Other speakers said that the change would make it more difficult for the MLA to take stands on behalf of adjunct faculty members or various oppressed groups in academe and in society as a whole.

Still others, however, spoke in favor of the change, saying that it would motivate sponsors of resolutions to draft proposals that members would not only favor, but take the time on which to vote. And one speaker said that the threshold should be even higher -- 30 percent. He argued that most of the resolutions are "well-meaning" but "compromise the whole organization that supposedly endorsed them." He said that the MLA needs to consider whether it cares more about "rhetorical grandstanding" or doing things "for the benefit of a beleaguered profession."

The debate did not specifically cite the Radical Caucus of the MLA, which has sponsored many resolutions in recent years. But several of those who spoke against the rules change were members or supporters of the caucus, and many active MLA members who are not caucus members have spoken (privately) in recent years about fears that the caucus resolutions distract the work of the Delegate Assembly, even when they do not pass.

At the MLA's Delegate Assembly in 2007, for example, it took five hours of debate and parliamentary maneuvers before Radical Caucus resolutions supporting Ward Churchill and criticizing Israel were substantially changed before they were adopted.


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