Sunday, December 30, 2007

MLA on supporting Ward Churchill: Let's not and say we did

In a comedy piece titled "A Moderate MLA," Inside Higher Ed covers the organization's vote, at its just-concluded annual convention, on stances toward Ward Churchill and critics of Israel:

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 yhrough 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. . . .

Surreal, all right. Ladies first:

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. . . . 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. . . .

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.

You wish.

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. . . .

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
,” he said.

And critics of Israel?
[Grover] Furr [of the MLA's Radical Caucus] 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.
This line got a paragraph all its own, as well it should:
Defenders of the original version faulted Nelson’s version for being even-handed.
Update: Israpundit focuses on the Israel section of IHE's piece.

Update II: According to the blog Free Speech at CUNY, these are the texts of the two resolutions put forward by the Radical Caucus of the MLA:

On Zionism and its critics:

“Whereas some organizations and individuals have urged that faculty, writers and speakers who criticize Zionism and Israeli policies be denied tenure, disinvited to speak, speak only when “balanced” by a pro-Zionist speaker, or be fraudulently called “anti-Semitic”; andWhereas this constitutes a serious danger to academic study and discussion in the USA today,

Resolved that the MLA defend the Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel.”

On Ward Churchill:

“Whereas, upon criticism of Professor Ward Churchill for his remarks concerning the 9/11 attacks, the University of Colorado initiated proceedings against him, and investigations of his scholarly work, and removed him from his directorship of the Ethnic Studies Dept. and subsequently from his tenured teaching position, andWhereas such acts of retribution threaten free expression in the university setting, particularly against those in historically marginalized disciplines,Be it resolved that the Modern Language Association condemns this action of the President and Regents of the University of Colorado.”

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