from Inside Higher Education, December 30 and 31, 2007

A Moderate MLA

The Modern Language Association frequently helps out its critics with
provocative session titles and left-leaning political stands offered by its
members. At this year’s annual meeting, in Chicago, some MLA members have
worried that the association was poised to take stances that would have sent
David Horowitz’s fund raising through the roof with resolutions that
appeared to be anti-Israel and pro-Ward Churchill.

But in moves that infuriated the MLA’s Radical Caucus, the association’s
Delegate Assembly refused to pass those resolutions and instead adopted much
narrower measures. The association acknowledged tensions over the Middle
East on campus, but in a resolution that did not single out pro-Israel
groups for criticism. And the association criticized the University of
Colorado for the way it started its investigation of Ward Churchill, but
took no stand on whether the outcome (his firing) was appropriate.

The votes by the MLA’s largest governing council came in an at-times-surreal
five-hour meeting. Cary Nelson, author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical,
was in the position of being the leading moderate, offering alternative
language to defeat Radical Caucus proposals. Critics of Israel repeatedly
talked about “facts on the ground” to refer to the treatment of Israel’s
critics on campuses today, and it was unclear whether the term was being
used ironically in light of the phrase’s use to describe Israel’s settlement
policy on the West Bank and a recent book at the center of a Barnard College
tenure controversy.

While material distributed by those seeking to condemn Churchill’s firing
portrayed him favorably, and as a victim of the right wing, some of those
who criticized the pro-Churchill effort at the meeting are long-time experts
in Native American studies and decidedly not conservative. Many attendees
were confused by the parliamentary procedure, and at least one proposed
amendment that appeared to have significant backing (in theory) fell apart
when questions were raised about its syntax.

After one vote that his side lost, Grover Furr, a Radical Caucus leader who
teaches at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, called the meeting “a
perversion of parliamentary procedures.”


Furr was the author of the original resolution on the campus climate for
critics of Israel. The resolution as he wrote it said that some who
criticize Zionism and Israel have been “denied tenure, disinvited to speak
... [or] fraudulently called ‘anti-Semitic.’” The resolution called this a
“serious danger to academic study and discussion in the USA today” and then
resolved that “the MLA defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech
of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel.” The
resolution made no mention of the right of others on campus to embrace
Zionism or Israel or to hold middle-of-the-road views or any views other
than being critical of Israel and Zionism.

Nelson offered a substitute — which was approved to replace the original by
a vote of 63 to 30 — after heated debate. Nelson’s substitute noted that the
“Middle East is a subject of intense debate,” said it was “essential that
colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on
all sides of the issue,” and urged colleges to “resist” pressure from
outside groups about tenure reviews and speakers and to instead uphold
academic freedom. Nelson’s resolution did not identify one side or the other
as victim or villain in the campus debates over the Middle East and said
that academic freedom must apply to people “to address the issue of the
Middle East in the manner they choose.”

In arguing for his version, Nelson — a professor of English at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also president of the
American Association of University Professors — said that the original
version would be “incredibly divisive and quite destructive” to the MLA.

Defenders of the original version faulted Nelson’s version for being

Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, said
that “it’s not a 50-50 situation” and that the focus of criticism needs to
be on Israel’s supporters because of Israel’s role as a recipient of U.S.
aid, and the way “powerful supporters” of Israel meddle on campuses. “Let’s
talk about what’s real here. It’s not anti-Semitic to focus on this
particular set of academics who really need our support.”

Katie L. Kain of the University of Montana said that the MLA needs to take a
stand against pro-Israel groups because of their role in campus debates. She
compared the situation today to the McCarthy era. “The substitute resolution
does not acknowledge the facts on the ground,” she said. Kain said that
guest lecturers to her campus had been unfairly tagged as anti-Semitic.
Other speakers cited examples of what they said were outside attempts by
pro-Israel groups to influence hiring decisions.

Susan O’Malley, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of
the City University of New York, said that CUNY’s trustees tried to prevent
an adjunct at her campus from teaching the novel The Scar of David. CUNY
officials could not be reached for comment, but press accounts suggest that
the book was in fact taught.

Supporters of the switch to Nelson’s version said that they didn’t doubt
that some critics of Israel have been attacked — in a number of instances
unfairly. But they argued that the MLA shouldn’t be picking sides, and that
the principles behind defending Israel’s critics should apply to its
supporters as well. One professor said: “Academic freedom is meaningless
unless it applies to all points of view.” Another said that even if 95
percent of disputes over academic freedom and the Middle East relate to one
side of the argument, the principle of academic freedom should be paramount,
not helping those 95 percent over the 5 percent.


The case of Ward Churchill also led to a long debate. Churchill was fired in
July from his tenured position teaching ethnic studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder for multiple instances of research misconduct, including
plagiarism and misrepresenting the work of other scholars — charges he has
denied. Several faculty panels reached the conclusions that Churchill had
committed research misconduct, but they investigated him in the wake of a
furor over his controversial comments in which he had labeled some of the
victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns.”

The original resolution before the MLA Delegate Assembly condemned the
University of Colorado for firing Churchill and for undertaking an
investigation of him as “retribution” for his 9/11 comments. Many
politicians in Colorado wanted Churchill fired for those comments, but the
university said that to do so would violate his First Amendment rights and
never punished him for those remarks. As they entered the meeting, MLA
delegates received a letter to the MLA from Hank Brown, president of the
University of Colorado, and a copy of one of the faculty reports finding
Churchill to have committed scholarly misconduct.

In the letter, Brown said of Churchill: “His comments about 9/11 are in our
view protected free speech and were not at issue. What was at issue was
Professor Churchill’s academic work.... I recommended dismissal to the Board
of Regents because he fabricated his research. Please read the faculty
report carefully before you mischaracterize his dismissal.”

The day before the MLA vote, A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, a professor emerita of
English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke out at a hearing
against the original resolution. Ruoff, who has written and taught about
Native American literature and culture, said that she was concerned about
the process under which the university started its probe of Churchill. But
she said that the university appeared to have conducted “careful
deliberations” into the allegations against Churchill, and that the MLA
wasn’t in a position to conduct an investigation that might lead to other
conclusions. Groups like the AAUP are better suited to investigating
allegations of academic freedom violations, Ruoff said. (The MLA’s Delegate
Assembly also voted Saturday to consider a number of issues in updating the
group’s statement on academic freedom and some members urged that one of
those changes be to find ways to conduct such investigations.)

Nelson, of the AAUP, noted that some professors believe Churchill received
due process and that the faculty role was respected at Colorado. He proposed
an amendment — a version of which eventually passed — that criticized
Colorado for starting the investigation as it did, but that offered no
opinion on the decision to fire Churchill. “We are not set up to judge the
character and quality of that investigation,” he said.

Several professors said that they were uncomfortable backing even the
watered down resolution, fearing it would show support for Churchill. Ruoff
asked the group why it couldn’t just indicate its opposition to politically
motivated investigations and leave Churchill out of it. Charles Rzepka, a
professor of English at Boston University, said during the meeting that he
was startled to read some of the pro-Churchill material distributed by
supporters of the original resolution, and that he was wondering if the MLA
would be seen as backing the wrong side. In an interview after the meeting,
he said that the MLA’s reputation would take a hit for any perception that
it was backing Churchill. “I support speaking truth to power,” said Rzepka,
but that requires truth, he added. (He said he was among the 15 people who
voted No on the revised resolution, which passed with 57 votes in favor.)

Others dismissed the idea that the MLA should worry about whether
Churchill’s record made him worthy of support. One professor cited the
history of the civil rights movement, in which some women prior to Rosa
Parks were not defended because they weren’t seen as perfect from a PR
perspective — an attitude this professor criticized.

Foley of Rutgers said that it was true that Churchill had a “flawed
history,” adding, “I don’t think anyone is saying he is the perfect
scholar.” But she said the relevant fact was that Churchill was under attack
unfairly. “We are condemning the university for its politically motivated
investigation. They would not have undertaken that investigation unless they
wanted to get rid of him,” she said. “If we can’t support this individual
then everything we say about academic freedom is bullshit,” she said.

Finley C. Campbell, a retired English instructor at DeVry University, said
that Churchill was being punished for being the “uppity” minority person
whom the powerful could not tolerate. He said there was no way the MLA could
pretend there was not an individual at the center of this issue.
“Crucifixions are always personal,” he said.

— Scott Jaschik
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