As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy. I want to give my perspective on these events and clear up some misunderstandings of how things at the MLA work.
Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than 800 sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about 60 percent of the approximately 500 session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the program reflects.
Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and email messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.
Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues — sometimes difficult and complicated issues — in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.
Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support."
Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward — and was even announced at the MLA session.
An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members — and only members — can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not — nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.
Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.
As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a monthlong period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site.
This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage MLA members to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the 10-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.
Rosemary G. Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association.
The Modern Language Association is the largest professional organization for humanities faculty in the country. Its Executive Council will soon make two decisions that may well have substantial impact both on public perception of the humanities and on the influence that humanities disciplines can have on public policy. Long after the flawed and embarrassing process that brought two resolutions to the floor of the association’s Delegate Assembly for debate is forgotten, the actions of its leaders — and potentially its members — will signal what role humanities faculty can play in public life.
The Executive Council must first decide whether to send Resolution 2014-1 to its 30,0000 members for a vote accepting or rejecting it. The resolution singles out Israel for restrictive travel policies for foreign visitors that are hardly unique in the world. Indeed the resolution’s proposers were unable to present any statistical evidence proving that American faculty were often prevented from entering the West Bank to pursue teaching or research. One of the resolution’s proposers went so far as to proclaim it was outrageous to expect anything more than a few anecdotes in the way of supporting evidence. MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights, a new group formed to combat these and future ill-advised association actions, was able to demonstrate that only one anecdote was actually credible.
Instead of putting it to a vote, the Executive Council can return the resolution to its Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee for reconsideration or revision. That may well prove the path of least resistance, but the DAOC has not proven itself to be a reliable judge of policy initiatives. The resolution originally protested restrictions on entry both to the West Bank and Gaza. After MLA Scholars for Faculty Rights pointed out that Egypt (not Israel) controls the major entry point for Gaza, the resolution’s sponsors made a great show of removing Gaza from the text. The DAOC then announced that, as a result of that change and the deletion of the claim that Israel’s visa denials were “arbitrary,” it was now willing to recommend the resolution for adoption. But in fact Delegate Assembly members were aware the DAOC had been planning to put forward the original version with its endorsement as well. The DAOC’s public change of heart was merely play acting.
What the Executive Council could do instead is to issue a new statement both affirming its earlier stand on faculty travel and updating it to reflect current professional concerns, meanwhile asking the U.S. State Department to monitor all, not just one, foreign country’s treatment of visiting faculty. Such a resolution might also take note of the fact that the U.S. record of providing free access to international faculty has been rather less than ideal.
Here is how such a resolution might read: "Throughout the world there are countries that present serious obstacles and extended delays to foreign faculty, including American citizens, seeking entry to do research or take up either temporary or permanent teaching positions. Since the U.S. record in approving visas to foreign faculty members is uneven at best and includes instances of faculty being excluded for ideological reasons, reasons that undercut both academic freedom and our democratic values, the MLA Executive Council is addressing this issue without any illusion that our own country is blameless in this matter. We also recognize that some nations have valid security concerns that justify delays in offering visas or even denial of entry. But exaggerated security concerns and even xenophobic cultural traditions can also impede travel that would benefit all parties. We believe maximizing freedom of entry and access for faculty worldwide will facilitate international understanding and enhance research and teaching everywhere. We urge all countries to adopt policies that honor that principle. The MLA Executive Council also asks the U.S. State Department to investigate reports of unwarranted delays or exclusions of entry and report annually on patterns of faculty access to other countries.”
The Executive Council will also have an opportunity to decide on what, if any, action to take on an “emergency resolution” whose consideration was rejected by the Delegate Assembly. There seemed a certain interested pique in the way the person running the meeting announced it would be referred to the Executive Council despite its consideration being voted down. Once again, the document came forward with assertions, not evidence, this time claiming supporters of the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities were the victims of intimidating emails and public attacks. Having received a number of critical emails myself, I find it easy to believe there is plenty of hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides of these debates. So what to do? The resolution will be received in public as a back door gesture of support for the ASA position.
But once again the MLA Executive Council could try to represent all its members, rather than take a position guaranteed to alienate many. And it could take a stand in the interest of broad principle. Here again is a draft of the kind of even-handed statement MLA’s leaders could issue: “As both local and national debates about the Arab/Israeli conflict and the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis have intensified in recent months, some faculty members and students have been subjected to hostile criticism from people outside the academy. The MLA recognizes that when faculty or their professional organizations take positions on matters invoking passionate commitments both here and abroad they have to expect strong responses not conditioned by campus standards of civility. We nonetheless decry instances when verbal attacks cross the line into intimidation. We also strongly reject attempts by outside groups to intervene in hiring and promotion decisions to oppose candidates whose views they reject. Such interventions in campus decision-making threaten academic freedom and the independent self-governance that make our academic institutions strong. Yet faculty and students have no way to control the rhetoric of the public sphere. Perhaps the best we can do is to lead by maintaining the example of campus civility.”
I do not personally pretend to be a disinterested observer in these matters. I have long argued that the occupation of the West Bank was destroying the soul of Israeli democracy. I support a two-state solution. More recently, I have suggested that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. And I endorse a boycott of West Bank industries as a targeted form of economic pressure, though I stand with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts. The fact that I take these stands does not prevent me, however, from standing back and trying to decide what would be in the best interest of a profession that includes a wider range of views than my own. The draft statements I offer here are offered in that spirit. They also reflect 20 years of experience in writing comparable policies for the AAUP.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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