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SEATTLE -- Budget cuts to higher education were a constant topic of discussion at this year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association here -- in formal sessions, in hallway chatter and among graduate students trying to find a strategy to get a decent job. But despite nearly unanimous concern about the budget cuts, and widespread anger over how humanities programs are being treated, members of the MLA's Delegate Assembly rejected a proposal that the association encourage all members to talk at least once in each course about the impact of budget cuts.

The proposal was put forward by the MLA's Radical Caucus, which appears to have less sway in the Delegate Assembly than it once did. Delegates who spoke against the proposal questioned whether it was fair to encourage the association's many adjunct members to do something that might get them in trouble if, for example, a dean wanted to know why a Spanish instructor was focusing a class discussion on budget cuts.

Others said they believed it was totally appropriate for professors to speak about the budget cuts in class, but that it was not appropriate for the MLA to tell its members what to do in the classroom. Indeed, professors said that while the MLA has with some regularity defended the rights of professors to speak on controversial subjects (in or out of the classroom), they could not remember the association in recent years even considering the idea of urging members to devote class time to a specific topic.

The MLA is frequently lampooned in the conservative press as being controlled by radical politics. But as has been the case in recent years, the MLA's constituent body was quite willing to say no to a proposal from the Radical Caucus.

Specifically, the proposal stated that budget cutbacks “continue unabated,” and are “relevant to every discipline and every subject,” making them appropriate subjects for classroom discussion.

Grover Furr, associate professor of English at Montclair State University and a leader of the Radical Caucus, said that there is no question that faculty members have the right to speak in class about budget cuts. Further, he said that academic freedom is “a use it or lose it” right, so it is important for faculty members to speak out in class.

Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, and also a leader of the Radical Caucus, said that just as the MLA has taken “very principled positions” on issues such as unionization and apartheid, it should now speak out on ‘the current economic crisis, which is a crisis in capitalism,” and that this proposal represented “the next step of using the bully pulpit.”

While some delegates expressed fears about the impact of the resolution on adjuncts, others said that those off the tenure track could make their own decisions.

There seemed to be more concern about the idea of the MLA telling any professor what to cover in class than to other objections to the proposal.

“This is not a resolution that the MLA is making against cutbacks,” said one delegate. “This is a resolution telling people what they ought to do in their classrooms, and I believe that is a road we do not want to go down.” He said that if the MLA tells people what they should cover in class, the association could also tell members what not to talk about.

Another delegate said that while he is concerned about the budget cuts, he questioned whether he was an appropriate academic teacher on the subject.

In the end, the vote against the resolution was 87 to 37.

The MLA Delegate Assembly did adopt two other resolutions:

  • The first affirms “that members of the academic community have the right to challenge legislative or administrative decisions curtailing educational access, oppose political interference in such allied academic areas as ethnic and environmental studies, and address social justice issues relevant to their communities without fear of reprisal.”
  • The second notes that some Occupy protests “have met with violent police actions” and expresses MLA support for “peaceful protests.”

In the weeks before the MLA meeting, a Twitter feed announced OccupyMLA and discussed the possibility of protests at the meeting. Generally, OccupyMLA tweets argued that the MLA and tenured professors needed to do more on behalf of those off the tenure track. By the time of the MLA meeting, however, the Twitter feed had gone inactive, and there were no visible protests at the meeting.

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