Changing How the MLA Takes Stands

Panel proposes overhaul of the sometimes controversial resolution process, which some members value. Tensions linger over movement -- rejected by the association last year -- to boycott Israeli academe.

January 8, 2018
 

NEW YORK CITY -- The Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association has been the site of intense debates over the years -- on resolutions related to higher education and also on world affairs, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Assembly meetings have gone on for many hours, sometimes with delegates not entirely clear on the purpose of various amendments as they are offered on the floor. "Emergency" resolutions are sometimes debated and adopted without the full vetting process that the association has for resolutions.

A special panel of the MLA has proposed changes in the process by which the association takes stands on issues, arguing that some votes in the past have been based on flawed or incomplete information. The panel also wants to do away with "emergency resolutions," which address issues that come up after the deadline for submitting a proposed resolution. The panel's recommendations did not suggest the kinds of issues on which the MLA should take stands, and focused on process.

But even as the MLA's Delegate Assembly considered the ideas in the report, the association continues to experience tensions over the idea -- rejected last year by the MLA -- of boycotting Israeli academe. A few prominent supporters of the boycott announced that they were quitting the MLA because of last year's action. Meanwhile, some critics of the boycott charged that some MLA members are orchestrating a plan to revive the issue of the association's support for a boycott.

The Process

As the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Advocacy Policies and Procedures outlined, issues don't need to be as controversial as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to create problems when the MLA adopts resolutions about them. And sometimes resolutions have been supported by large majorities of members.

The report notes that many members consider the MLA's 1968 statement of opposition to the Vietnam War to have been a "heroic" moment for the association. But, the report adds, "much more often, the [Delegate Assembly] has passed deeply flawed resolutions on matters about which its members had no plausible way of making informed decisions."

As an example, the report cites that Delegate Assembly's vote in 1994 to condemn Bennington College for stripping tenured faculty members of tenure and firing them. The resolution was not controversial within the MLA, but Bennington threatened to sue the association because the college didn't have a tenure system, and so did not strip anyone of tenure. At the time, there was no system in place to review the accuracy of resolutions (and to consider whether any might be libelous). Another time, the report notes, the MLA voted to condemn an incident at Hostos Community College as "an abridgment of free-speech rights" although the membership never received any indication of what happened.

Under the current system, resolutions approved by the Delegate Assembly are generally sent to the membership for ratification. But, many times, membership participation was so low that a measure might be ratified by 3 percent of the members. The MLA more recently amended its rules (over the objections of some) so that measures only become association policy if at least 10 percent of membership votes in favor of it.

To deal with these and other problems, the committee proposed a system that would turn the current system "on its head." Under the proposed system (on which no votes have been taken), resolutions would be reviewed in advance by the MLA's Executive Council to make sure that they are factually accurate, do not libel anyone and would not endanger the MLA's tax-exempt status. Resolutions could then be forwarded to the association membership for a decision on whether the Delegate Assembly should consider the issue. Then the Delegate Assembly -- without the possibility of amending the proposals -- could consider the issues. Emergency resolutions could not be presented, although anyone could ask the Executive Council to issue statements on various matters.

Some at the meeting here praised the proposed system, saying it would be streamlined, would avoid the "wordsmithing on the fly" that has accompanied the amendment process and would give more meaning to votes of the Delegate Assembly. Others, however, criticized the plan, saying that they preferred the status quo. More discussions are expected at next year's meeting.

Travel Ban Condemned

Two emergency resolutions were proposed for consideration by the Delegate Assembly this year. One measure sought to have the MLA take a stand on the current debate over the future of Catalonia. The resolution called on the MLA to "support the autonomy of the Catalan school and university system and the protection of Catalan language and literature." While the issue didn't create the kind of controversy that the Israel boycott has, there was hallway discussion in which some MLA members (who include experts on Catalan and Spanish culture and history) worried about the impact of MLA involvement in the issue. For an emergency resolution to be considered, it must gather support from three-fourths of voting Delegate Assembly members. This Catalonia resolution attracted majority support, but not the required supermajority, so it was not taken up.

The Delegate Assembly did take up an emergency resolution to condemn the latest version of the Trump administration's travel ban on people from certain countries, most of which are Muslim-majority nations. The delegates spent about an hour debating amendments before overwhelmingly agreeing to condemn the latest version of the travel ban. The MLA has consistently opposed such travel bans.

The Boycott Vote

Last year, by a large margin, members of the MLA voted to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” of Israeli universities that has been pushed for years by advocates for Palestinians.

In January 2017 the Delegate Assembly rejected a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israel, and then by a narrow margin approved a resolution that the MLA should refrain from endorsing the boycott. That measure then was backed by voting members by a margin of 1,954 to 885, with those voting in favor exceeding the 10 percent threshold to make the measure official policy.

In the days before this year's MLA meeting, a number of members who support the Israel boycott announced that they were leaving the association, publishing their letters of resignation on various blogs. These former MLA members said the resolution that was approved denied supporters of the Palestinian cause a means to express their views. (Critics of the boycott said the resolution that was passed was a defense of academic freedom and reflected a desire of MLA members to focus on other issues.)

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said via email that "we have responded to such letters individually as they come to us, privately."

MLA members who back the boycott or other efforts to promote Palestinian rights met in New York City during the meeting. Among those who led the discussions as Judith Butler, who is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA vice president (in line to soon become president). She is a proponent of the Israel boycott but is well-known in academe for many other reasons, most notably her pathbreaking work on gender.

Cary Nelson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an opponent of the boycott movement, attended the meeting and wrote an account about what he considered the less-than-welcoming reception he received. His article in Jewish Journal said that based on what he saw, Butler is planning a "stealth campaign" to revive the boycott movement in the MLA -- despite last year's vote.

Via email, Butler said Nelson was incorrect. Of his view that she has a stealth campaign, she said, "This is a bit of paranoid speculation. I do not have that power and I do not have such a plan."

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