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From the President

Speaking Out

I am writing on the day after the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia voted unanimously to reinstate Teresa Sullivan as president after two weeks of turmoil and fierce criticism. Indeed, it was the only plausible thing the board could have done. Let us hope that this regrettable episode serves as a warning to boards of regents and trustees everywhere: though the relationships between boards and executives can take innumerable shapes, it is never acceptable for a board to fire a president peremptorily, without faculty consultation, and without cause. I particularly want to applaud the work of the University of Virginia Faculty Senate, whose members acted quickly, decisively, ethically, and (best of all) effectively in responding to the crisis. These are adverbs one does not often associate with faculty senates; let us hope that this is the beginning of a national trend and that the University of Virginia’s senate has shown us why such bodies are worth taking seriously.

During those two weeks, many MLA members asked me if I would weigh in on the situation at the University of Virginia, either in my own name (since it is my doctoral institution) or on behalf of the Executive Council. I wanted very badly to do so, but I knew it made more sense to wait to see what would happen in Charlottesville before attempting to write anything in an official capacity. Yet I am happy that MLA members see the MLA presidency, and the Executive Council, in this way. This reaction speaks to something I have been thinking about ever since I was first elected to the council in 2002. It has to do with what the MLA can and can’t say—or should and shouldn’t say—as a scholarly association.

Over the past decade I have been struck repeatedly by two widespread misconceptions about official MLA statements. One is that we cannot speak on matters of political import lest we forfeit our status as a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The other is that resolutions passed by the Delegate Assembly are the only, or perhaps the most important, vehicles for the expression of an official MLA position.

These are indeed misconceptions. The MLA speaks out on matters of political import all the time; we are in no danger of losing our 501(c)(3) status, because we do not violate federal regulations by engaging in prohibited activities, such as endorsing candidates for political office or devoting a substantial portion of our activities to attempting to influence legislation. The boundaries of our permissible statements are drawn not only by the Internal Revenue Code but also by the MLA’s charter and the MLA constitution, which states that “the object of the association shall be to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects.” If there are public policy issues that fall within our chartered mission, we can and we should address them.

Over the past ten years, we have done so, time and again. In 2002, the then MLA president Stephen Greenblatt wrote a letter of protest to Mona Baker, who had dismissed two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of her journals, Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts. We were the first scholarly association to protest Baker’s actions, and I am rather proud of that fact. In 2004 the council wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions that objected to the House of Representatives’ vote to create a politically appointed advisory board to “monitor” the activities of Title VI international studies programs. Also in 2004 the council wrote to the then secretary of state Colin Powell to object to the denial of entry visas to all Cuban scholars who wished to attend the conference of the Latin American Studies Association.

In more recent years we have reached out on a number of fronts to organizations with compatible missions. In 2010, prompted by an initiative undertaken by the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Coalition against Censorship, we wrote to Secretary of State Clinton to support her decision to allow Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib into the United States—and to urge the State Department to end the practice of “ideological exclusion” altogether. In 2011, following the example of the American Historical Association, we issued a statement protesting Wisconsin Republicans’ misuse of a freedom-of-information statute to search the e-mails of the history professor William Cronon. And this year we have worked together with the National Council of Teachers of English on the Tucson Unified School District’s decision to shutter the Mexican American studies program in Tucson public schools. Moreover, in conjunction with the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, we’ve done a great deal to bring attention to the working conditions of full- and part-time non-tenure-track faculty members.

We are not some kind of underappreciated political powerhouse; the MLA devotes the overwhelming majority of its resources to promoting research and teaching in the modern languages and literatures. But we can speak out on political matters that fall within our mission, and Delegate Assembly resolutions are only one way we can do so.

I wrote in May asking you to vote on our Delegate Assembly resolutions because I believe our resolutions should have some resolve behind them. (Thank you for voting. We passed the 10% threshold for approval on both resolutions.) Many of you wrote back to say that you supported the general sentiment expressed in the resolutions but did not see any urgency about their passage—or any compelling rationale behind the resolutions process. I have long wondered about this. When the response rate on the ratification of Delegate Assembly resolutions dropped below 5% of the membership (and prompted us to require a 10% threshold for approval), I began to worry that MLA members were treating MLA resolutions the way pension-plan members might treat their annual electoral proxy ballot—as an item of mail to be opened, skimmed through, and deleted.

The Delegate Assembly is a crucial MLA institution. It is our largest elected body, and its afternoon-long convocations each year constitute the business meeting of our association. But it is increasingly clear to me that, in many cases, Delegate Assembly resolutions are not the ideal vehicle for the expression of official MLA positions. They are one important vehicle, no question. But because the assembly meets only once a year, there is no way for it to respond to matters that arise between conventions. That is why I have been urging MLA members to turn to another body of their elected representatives, the Executive Council. The council meets three times a year, and it can vote electronically at any time to authorize the president to make a statement. The council includes members from every echelon of the profession, from a wide variety of institutions and disciplines. Any member of the association can ask to have an item considered by the council. Indeed, many of the council’s actions and statements over the past few years have come at the prompting of individual members, members with a deep understanding of the history of the MLA and a vivid sense of what it means to be a member of a scholarly society.

Over the past ten years, both the Executive Council and the Delegate Assembly have had rigorous, searching debates about the MLA’s advocacy efforts. If you’re so inclined, please join those debates: communicate with delegates or with council members on a matter that concerns you. The MLA is your association, and within the bounds set by our constitution and the laws of the land, it can and should respond to all its members’ concerns.

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Michael Bérubé
2012–13 MLA President Michael Bérubé
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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.