Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

I agree with much of Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s critique of the anti-BDS resolution passed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) last year. Although I cannot speak to what happened in Executive Council debates on the issue (since I am not a member of the EC), and though I do not support BDS (or the Occupation, for that matter, or Israel’s increasingly unhinged and draconian responses to BDS), I believe Hanson and Palumbo-Liu make three incontrovertible arguments.

One, resolution 2017-1 should have been a motion from the outset because it directed the MLA to take an action—or, in the words of the resolution, to “refrain” from taking an action. This is a minor procedural point, but it opens out onto a larger issue of some consequence: once the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, the anti-BDS resolution should have been withdrawn because it makes no sense to direct the MLA to refrain from taking an action it is not taking. Had I been a member of the council when the resolution came forward from the Delegate Assembly, I would have argued not only that it should have been a motion but that it was, under the circumstances, out of order.

Two, Hanson and Palumbo-Liu are right to say that the proponents of the anti-BDS resolution engaged in questionable conduct, going well beyond compiling the email addresses of MLA members; their mailings did indeed suggest some level of official MLA/EC endorsement of their position. This further inflamed what was already an acrimonious debate, and, since the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, it did so gratuitously.

Three, and most important, I agree with Hanson and Palumbo-Liu that the resolution was “both censorious and disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of the MLA membership into the future.” I would add only that it is also disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of current MLA members. Current and future members of the association should be able to revisit this question as a matter of principle: no scholarly organization should attempt to shut down debate permanently on any contentious subject, let alone a contentious subject whose contours change from year to year, as conditions in the Occupied Territories worsen and Israel adopts the posture of a garrison state. That is why I signed the petition opposing the resolution.

All that said, I want to direct attention to the letter’s reference to “the Bérubé resolution,” which Hanson and Palumbo-Liu describe as “protecting our [MLA] members’ academic freedom from attack from the Trump regime.” They characterize its passage as an action that “offends every notion of the ‘humanities’ we hold dear—including but not limited to free speech, open debate, and a critical understanding of these terms.” This part of Hanson’s and Palumbo-Liu’s letter is regrettable and woefully mistaken.

It is unfortunate that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu do not explain, or even provide a link to, the resolution I proposed. So let me explain what it was, and what it was trying to do. (It is available here.)

On 9 November 2016, the leadership of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement, “Higher Education after the 2016 Election.” The MLA resolution was an expression of support for the AAUP statement. Nothing more, nothing less. Which means, among other things, that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s dismissal of what they call the “ahistorical, US-centric, anti-international and deracinated version of academic freedom” in that resolution is a dismissal of the principle of academic freedom as the AAUP has defined and defended it over the past hundred years. This is why this aspect of their letter is so misguided. It may also be why Hanson and Palumbo-Liu never make clear that the object of their critique is the AAUP itself, leaving instead the impression that some awful thing called “the Bérubé resolution” contains an anemic sense of academic freedom that offends every notion of the “humanities” they hold dear.

The charge that the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is “ahistorical” is itself ahistorical because that definition has been revisited time and again (as all principles, including BDS, should be) since its inception. The AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is decidedly not anti-international, since it covers every person teaching in a university in the United States, regardless of citizenship status or national origin. It is, however, “US-centric,” as my previous sentence acknowledges, because despite our fondest wishes, there is no supranational entity that safeguards academic freedom worldwide and enforces a unitary and universal standard of academic freedom in China, Cameroon, Chile, and California. And I am not sure what work the word “deracinated” is trying to do in this context, but I am sure it is not doing it well.

It should be painfully clear, then, that the allegedly inadequate idea of academic freedom derided by Hanson and Palumbo-Liu is in fact identical to the academic freedom they enjoy. Hanson and Palumbo-Liu castigate “the selfish protection of the convenient, familiar, and particular that the Bérubé resolution embodies.” Very well. Let me elaborate on what convenient, familiar, and particular principles they are ostensibly rejecting. If you teach in a reasonably respectable institution of higher education in the United States—that is, a college or university that is not run as a private fiefdom—the policies in your faculty handbook were either written by the AAUP or are based on the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. And if you have tenure at an American institution of higher education, your intellectual freedom and your due process guarantees, underwriting your right to continuous employment with termination only for cause (with a standard of clear and convincing evidence), were won by the AAUP. AAUP policies, practices, and intellectual traditions simply are what academic freedom means in the United States.

I am sorry that so few people working in US higher education care (or know?) about any of this. I am sorry, too, that of the 1.5 million people teaching in US institutions of higher education, only 45,000 are AAUP members. (And unlike the MLA, we try to serve the entire profession, including the 1.455 million people who are not AAUP members. That is why we investigated and censured the University of Illinois over the “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita, regardless of the fact that Salaita was not a member of the Association.) In my twenty-five years of AAUP membership, I have heard many dismissals of the organization, though none quite so vehement and uninformed as Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s claim that the AAUP definition of academic freedom “could similarly have provided the basis for a MLA resolution that instructed its members to refrain from expressing solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid boycott, or Cesar Chavez’s grape strike, or the Montgomery bus strike.” Fortunately, this claim is utterly groundless, which is why they do not bother trying to make a plausible case for it.

There is another issue at stake here, as well. Over the past fifty years, AAUP membership has dropped markedly among faculty at elite private universities, no doubt because they believe themselves to be secure from contingencies like the depredations of the Trump administration. In recent years, some of those faculty have awakened from their states of complacency, as when Yale formed an AAUP chapter partly in response to the challenges to academic freedom faced by their colleagues on their Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. But for the most part, faculty at elite private universities have forgotten, or are completely unaware, that the principles of academic freedom in the US stem in part from Arthur Lovejoy’s outrage that one Mrs. Leland Stanford could have Stanford economist Edward Ross summarily fired because she didn’t like his advocacy of labor rights.

Some proponents of BDS have argued that it is hypocritical to defend the academic freedom of faculty working in US universities but not the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. But this argument makes sense only if one presumes that BDS (and only BDS) somehow promotes or safeguards the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars, such that a vote against it is a vote against those scholars’ academic freedom. As yet, no supporter of BDS has explained precisely how a boycott of Israel helps to sustain academic freedom for Palestinians.

Most of all, I am sorry that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu think so little of the traditions, and the organization, that created the conditions of possibility for their own work. Nonetheless, the AAUP will always be ready to defend the academic freedom of faculty—including faculty who do not value or understand what the organization stands for.

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Pennsylvania State University


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3 responses to “Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

  1. Joerg Tiede

    A brief historical comment regarding the claim that the AAUP definition of academic freedom “could similarly have provided the basis for a MLA resolution that instructed its members to refrain from expressing solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid boycott, or Cesar Chavez’s grape strike, or the Montgomery bus strike.” The AAUP’s annual meeting in the 1980s endorsed divestment from South Africa, a position that the Association considered not to be the equivalent of an academic boycott.

  2. Grace

    I’m puzzled. Surely Donald Trump is delighted that MLA has muzzled a critique of Israeli universities.

    Is Resolution 2017-4 just to distance MLA from Trump, because the MLA and Trump have the same position on critique of Israel?

  3. I think I can clear up the puzzle. I have heard many theories about the relation between the support-the-AAUP resolution and the BDS resolutions. The AAUP resolution has been read as a deliberate distraction from BDS, an attempt to compensate for BDS, and (as here) a cynical political-positioning ploy to distance the MLA from Trump while aligning with Trump’s policy on Israel.

    The reality is this. I wrote that resolution in November, long before the Delegate Assembly voted on the BDS resolutions. Obviously, I had no idea how the DA would vote weeks after I submitted my resolution– and for the record, I believed the pro-BDS resolution would pass.

    The above comment assumes that the support-the-AAUP resolution was proposed and passed with the knowledge that the MLA membership would oppose BDS. But I could not have known, in November, that the MLA membership would approve the anti-BDS resolution (a resolution I opposed) in June.

    So, short answer, no.

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