The Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly voted overwhelmingly Friday to endorse shifting the dates of the annual convention away from the traditional time slot in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and passed a resolution calling for the replacement of the term “illegal aliens” with “undocumented workers” (and a guarantee of in-state tuition for those fitting under the label). But the most controversial resolution introduced -- one condemning attacks on ethnic studies and citing in particular the case against Ward Churchill -- never made it to the floor for a vote for procedural reasons.
The endorsement of a date change by the Delegate Assembly at the MLA annual convention in Philadelphia Friday was perhaps the biggest news for the thousands of MLA members who voiced overwhelmingly on a recent survey that holding the convention during the peak of the holiday season no longer makes sense. In a survey of 20,000 members, which yielded 5,806 responses, 75 percent indicated that shifting the date so that the convention always begins the first Thursday following January 2 would positively affect their decision to attend. Just 9 percent said it would negatively affect their decision (9 and 7 percent respectively said it would not affect their decision or they weren’t sure). Meta DuEwa Jones of the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Structure of the Annual Convention, described the written-in comments on the survey as “heartbreaking” tales of members feeling forced to choose between their personal and professional commitments when deciding each year whether to come to a conference beginning two days after Christmas.
The MLA meeting is a must-attend event for thousands of English and foreign language professors each year -- not only for the content, but also because it is the site of initial rounds of job interviews. So those on search committees or job hunting have had to cut their vacations short.
The proposed change in the convention start date to early January was overwhelmingly endorsed 138 to 9 by the assembly, with little opposition voiced, despite the fact that MLA’s executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, acknowledged that the change will inconvenience some members who teach in colleges on a quarter system, have early spring semester or winter session start dates or teach abroad, where terms often begin earlier than in the United States. The earliest that the change could go into effect, assuming it’s approved by the MLA Executive Council, would be three years from now, due to plans already in place.
The slight shift in dates should have little impact on the hiring cycle, Feal said, and likely will not result in an increase in costs, and might in fact result in a decrease for many members. Although the December dates were long advocated because of presumably cheaper hotel prices, the committee studying the issue found that the price of hotels for the January dates were comparable, and pointed out that flight costs are typically much higher the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and airline miles often are unusable during that time. “Like often in academia,” David Damrosch, a committee member from Columbia University, said in reference to the presumed lower cost of holding the convention around Christmastime, “something that may have been true in the 1800s is no longer the case.”
The Delegate Assembly approved every motion and resolution that came before it Friday by a fairly large margin, with the closest vote being on a resolution that the MLA should urge the replacement of the term “illegal aliens” with “undocumented workers,” and that undocumented workers should be eligible for in-state tuition in the states where they reside. That resolution, which will go to the Executive Council for approval and, if approved in February, will then be submitted to the entire membership for ratification this fall, was approved 73 to 30, but, although the closest vote, stimulated no open discussion. (On New Year's Day, however, Lake Superior State University released its annual list of misused words and phrases,  criticizing the use of phrases like the one the MLA is suggesting -- and comparing it to calling a drug dealer an "undocumented pharmacist.")
However, the spirit of relative consensus never got the opportunity to rally around the resolution supporting Ward Churchill, the outspoken University of Colorado professor fighting to hold on to his job after a faculty panel found him to have committed multiple, “deliberate” acts of academic misconduct,  including falsification and plagiarism.
The scandal surrounding Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies who came under fire and found his work under scrutiny for his comments about September 11  in which described those killed in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns,” serves as “a test case against academics and departments in historically marginalized fields of study,” according to the resolution submitted on behalf of the MLA’s Radical Caucus that never made it to the floor. “Be it resolved,” the end of the resolution reads, “that the MLA condemns attacks against ethnic studies and other historically marginalized disciplines because such attacks threaten academic freedom, professional development, faculty governance, due process and equal protection.”
The MLA Organizing Committee blocked a vote on the resolution, introduced around noon Thursday as an “emergency resolution,” because it did not fit into the definition of “emergency,” on the basis that nothing significant has changed since October 1, the deadline for regular resolutions. Feal, the MLA’s executive director, said that no judgment was cast on the substance of the resolution, and that the only judgment rendered was on its failure to fit into the procedural definition of an “emergency resolution.” “They’re welcome to bring it up next year as a regular resolution,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “They can submit it tomorrow.”
Several members of the MLA Radical Caucus argued that their resolution was the victim of a procedural Catch-22 -- because they couldn’t mention Churchill in the resolved clause without getting a response from the University of Colorado, impossible under the framework of an “emergency resolution,” they had to generalize the clause so that it did not refer to an actual “emergency.” “The situation has grown and developed,” said John Crawford, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico who co-authored the resolution. “Not all of us are that fond of Churchill,” he added, “but what it really came down to was a violation of principles.”
“They’re using this whole thing to question why there are even ethnic studies departments.”