Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s Rejoinder

We appreciate Michael Bérubé’s engagement with our resignation letter. But we would like to provide three key clarifications to his response.

First, Professor Bérubé’s representation of Resolution 2017-4 (the “Bérubé Resolution”) omits crucial information. He admits with some regret that the AAUP definition of academic freedom used in Resolution 2017-4 is “US-centric” and thus does not extend to Palestinian academics. But he fails to recount that there was actually an opportunity to expand that definition presented at the Delegate Assembly debate so that the proposed resolution would, in fact, include the right to academic freedom for Palestinian, and indeed all other non-US academics. Former MLA member and past President Margaret Ferguson proposed to include language from the United Nations’ definition of academic freedom. Using the UN’s definition was more appropriate for the MLA, she argued, than the AAUP definition because the MLA is, by its own definition, an international organization. That proposal was shot down, purely on the argument that we could and would not be beholden to the United Nations’ definition. Hence our comment that this resolution smacked of the US-centric and anti-international character of the Trump administration.

While Professor Bérubé protests that the AAUP has no jurisdiction outside of the US and that changing the definition to the UN definition would have weakened the resolution, this is a moot point since MLA resolutions are expressions of sentiment and not action; it is further mooted by the obvious fact that as supposed masters of language we could have easily crafted a statement on academic freedom that did not simply mimic preexisting ones but that rather reflected most accurately the sentiment of our own organization. To default to others’ definition of our sense of freedom is patently contradictory, no?

Instead of revising the language, Bérubé and others argued against it. The result was that the Delegate Assembly passed one resolution affirming the academic freedom of scholars in the US and the other affirming the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, even though the academic boycott is aimed against institutions, not individuals, and despite the fact that what was proposed by the proboycott resolution was simply a nonbinding expression of support.  But even that was sufficient to motivate Israeli organizations to leap to aid the antiboycott faction, tip the process by violating MLA procedure, and for antiboycott advocates to spread misinformation and stifle any expression of support for academic freedom that does not make US and Israel the arbiters of its “ideal.”

Let us not argue about intent, here, but only about effects. While it may not have been Bérubé’s intention to carve up the territory of academic rights between the US and Israel, the maintenance of the nation-specific limitations of the AAUP definition did, indeed, have that effect, and that was not an unavoidable consequence but, we assert, a calculated one.

Two other clarifications are in order. First, when we referred to the version of academic freedom offered in Professor Bérubé’s resolution as “ahistorical,” we did not mean that it violated the AAUP’s definition as it has existed since 1940. But the insistent reiteration of institutional precedent at all costs is itself a problem of historical interpretation we take up throughout our letter.  Circumstances change, and it is well within our duties as scholars to test out whether time-honored traditions continue to be useful, or if modification is necessitated by contemporary moral and ethical concerns.  Need we mention the voting and housing rights that did not exist for black citizens in 1940?  What notion of “freedom” should we employ today?

While the chance to modify our definition of academic freedom to suit the demands of the present was presented by Professor Ferguson and others, Professor Bérubé and others voted instead to preserve the AAUP definition as if nothing of historical importance—say the Nakba of 1948 that ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes–had occurred.  Much less the military regime that replaced civil juridical institutions in the new, Zionist state of Israel. In contrast to this decidedly selective version of history, we tried to articulate another one in our resignation letter. We argued for the use of the past—that of prior definitions of academic freedom and free speech—for the exigent purposes of the present, but only insofar as they were open to critical reassessment–something again that is foundational to any intellectual or academic enterprise. Our description of Resolution 2017-4 as “ahistoricist” was not meant to suggest that it was inconsistent with the history of the AAUP’s definition but rather that it failed to adapt that definition for the demands of the present.

Second, Professor Bérubé disregards our use of the term “deracinated” as “one that is not doing” what it meant to do well. For clarification, we refer Professor Bérubé to the latter portion of our letter, in which we suggest that the political struggle within higher education must be based in solidarity with those populations that are most vulnerable within it. We write that: “we can no more treat the crisis of adjunct labor in the absence of the knowledge that particular bodies and populations are more likely to end up in those insecure forms of employment than we can treat the crisis in academic freedom as one in which certain bodies and populations are systematically denied access to it.” The fact that adjunct instructors in the US and Palestinian academics in the Occupied Territories are subject to the violence of racialization, as well as gendering, are facts that need to ground our definitions of academic freedom, not be erased by them so that the most general, and yet most partial, definition hold. In contrast, an “ideal” of academic freedom that cannot be extended to international scholars in an international organization is entirely consistent with the label “deracinated.” The form of Resolution 2017-4 that passed the Delegate Assembly and the membership resolutely fails to provide a vision of academic freedom that adequately responds to international instances of racialized violence that deny Palestinian academics their right to academic freedom.

We are not the first to call attention to the fact that systemic violence affects equal access to academic freedom. Nor are we the first scholars to suggest that the AAUP definition of academic freedom has had disempowering effects for dealing with structural problems in institutions of higher education.[1] To say this is not to say that we are ungrateful or forgetful of the history of academic freedom, for which Bérubé chides us. It is, however, to say that academic freedom is a concept subject to uses and abuses, one that, no matter the “safeguarding” by the AAUP, is subject to interpretation and must be open to critical scrutiny.  Again, need we mention that the world of 1940 thought little of homophobia, misogyny, racism, sexism, as things that needed to be accounted for and addressed?  Since these injustices were not mentioned by the AAUP in 1940, does that mean we should not mention them now? Of course not. But somehow, the moralistic indignation of those who feel as Professor Bérubé does, about such decidedly important issues as adjunct labor, does not extend to a group whose denial of academic, educational, and other freedoms the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israeli human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and others have pointed out. Our fundamental question is—why do we rush to protect our academic freedom when the historical record shows the deprivation of educational rights to Palestinians and others has much more dire consequences?  Do we need academic freedom to improve the life chances of the members of the MLA as much as certain populations in Asia, Africa, Latin American, the Middle East, and elsewhere need the right to education?

Our use of the term deracinated to describe Resolution 2017-4 was meant to describe the ways in which a version of academic freedom that is at once nationalist and idealist fails to consider racialization, in this case, that of Palestinian scholars by the state of Israel, as a limit to the right of academic freedom. The passage of Resolution 2017-1 only further compounded this limit by affirming a non-internationalist and quietist version of academic freedom on the heels of Resolution 2017-1 passing. In our view, any version of academic freedom that cannot attend to the structural conditions of racism, here and abroad, that make that right available or not available to faculty is, indeed, deracinated. Lastly, we close simply by emphasizing, as we did in our resignation letter, that the simultaneous defeat of a BDS resolution and passage of the Resolution 2017-4 highlights the contradictions of academic freedom that are elsewhere now being fought over the meaning of free speech on campuses across the US.

The questions Fred Moten asked in his statement of support for BDS are appropriate as critical points by which to move the discussion about academic freedom forward: should “Israeli academic freedom—or, for that matter, any state-sanctioned, state-protected academic freedom but also the very idea of academic freedom insofar as it must be state-sanctioned and state-protected if it is to exist—should be subject to constraint. What if academic freedom is defined precisely by the fact that it is a thing that can be enjoyed by peoples such as the Israelis and not by peoples such as the Palestinians? What is academic freedom that it can be exercised by Israelis and not by Palestinians and why would Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, want it? . . . What does academic freedom cost those who are said to enjoy it?”

Ultimately, the question is not one of Palestinian rights being excluded but of a humanistic organization that acquiesces to such a narrow set of concerns masquerading as “global.”  To do so simply sharpens the hypocrisy that is a malignancy on the academy. Why should we deserve academic freedom if we use it so poorly, or not at all?

[1] See Christopher Newfield, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980 (Durham, N.C., 2004), where he cites the AAUP definition of academic freedom in his discussion of the uses of that protection to develop anti-democratic modes of faculty governance.


Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu



Filed under MLA

10 responses to “Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s Rejoinder

  1. The Unbearable Obviousness of Antisemitism

    Academic freedom in Malaysia, a relatively moderate Muslim nation: “As the only philosophy department in Malaysia, we were under constant suspicion. One day, the rector declared, without consultation, that philosophy was an unIslamic discipline. All staff were to be transferred within 24 hours to the department of revealed knowledge, their research and teaching were to be Islamicised under dec4pal supervision. I was shocked to see my colleagues praise this decision. I was informed that I was no longer allowed to teach but could research on “a topic that has no implications about the truth of The True Religion”. The dean decided that I should be permitted to investigate the Dead Sea Scrolls. I resigned, no longer a defender of the faith. Freedom is a precondition of profundity: no wonder philosophy has no place in the cultural life of Muslims.” https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/shabbir-akhtar/103102.article?storyCode=103102&sectioncode=26 http://voiceofdharma.org/books/foe/ch28.htm

    Academic freedom in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation: “Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community should be barred from university campuses, a minister has argued. ‘There are standards of values and morals to uphold. A university is a moral safeguard,’ Technology, Research and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir said on Sunday as quoted by Antara news agency. According to Nasir, the LGBT community corrupts the morals of the nation, while a university should be able to uphold moral values and the values of the ancestors of Indonesia. … Recently, pamphlets distributed by LGBT groups around the campus sparked outrage from some students, who accused the university of letting the seeds of LGBT grow unchecked. The situation also invited criticism from the government, with legislator and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) politician Nasir Djamil stating that the LGBT community was a serious threat to the nation.” http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/01/25/lgbt-not-welcome-university-minister.html

    Talk about “a humanistic organization that acquiesces to such a narrow set of concerns masquerading as “global.”” Talk about the “hypocrisy that is a malignancy on the academy.”

  2. Resist the Anti-Semitic Conflation of Jewishness and the Crimes of Israel

    Associating Jews with Israeli has long been a strategy of anti-Semites.

    Common sense says we should oppose the anti-Semitic conflation of Jewishness and the crimes of Israel.

  3. MLA is about Serving Power

    The delegate assembly’s support of racist policies couched as concern for academic freedom is either negligent or utterly dishonest. Michael Bérubé’s opposition to R1 followed by his absurd trumpeting of R-4 isn’t out of character for him, and it demonstrates his and the MLA’s strategy of appeasement under the guise of “action.” While MLA’s policy of inaction on contingent labor is hidden by a sham promotion of alt-ac and some inept ad hoc committees, the association’s tacit support of a colonial regime masquerades under a pathetic ruse of academic freedom.

    MLA is about serving power. The organization has a set of dedicated scholars, nearly all putative leftists like Michael Bérubé, to do its bidding. If you want activist, progressive policy on any issue, look elsewhere.

    • Yes Antisemitism

      Unbearable Obviousness up there asks some very good questions, which are part of the reason that this whole topic is so hateful and absurd. Is MLA in fact a global ranking organization of academic freedom in all countries? As even these authors point out, although in a very roundabout way, the operant definition of “academic freedom” that most MLA members go by is one that was deliberately crafted by a US organization to fit into US laws and legal principles. If someone wants to do global academic freedom indexes, more power to them. If someone wants to form global academic freedom advocacy organizations, more power to them. MLA is a professional organization, almost entirely based in North America, for teachers of literature, period. that’s all it does. if all the members want to pass resolutions on other matters, that’s their business, but the amount of heat and invective this issue continues to generate, and the fact that there is so little interest in the many parallel situations around the world, suggests something else entirely is going on. The fact that Drs. Palumbo-Liu and Hanson seem unable to recognize that there might actually be *many* MLA members who strongly disagree with them, *and* that MLA has to represent ALL teachers of literature, not just the ones who agree with them, is pretty striking. There are many organizations that support the Palestinians. I don’t ask them to support teachers of literature because that’s my particular interest. and vice versa.

      • Antisemitism YES because (All Jews) + (I say so) = Israeli colonial crimes

        “the fact that there is so little interest in the many parallel situations around the world, suggests something else entirely is going on.”
        –Beyond your Anti-Semitic fusion of Israeli crimes and Jewishness, what exactly?

        “The fact that Drs. Palumbo-Liu and Hanson seem unable to recognize that there might actually be *many* MLA members who strongly disagree with them, *and* that MLA has to represent ALL teachers of literature, not just the ones who agree with them, is pretty striking.”
        –Surely reasonable people who support or oppose any topic vital to the profession would be open to discussion about it. Or no, wait; that’s not what’s happening here. Maybe what you allude to would be better—a dictatorship that silences anyone who does not speak to the party line.

        “There are many organizations that support the Palestinians. I don’t ask them to support teachers of literature because that’s my particular interest. and vice versa.”
        –I ask teachers of literature to support academic freedom for Palestinian teachers of literature. Sorry this does not meet your standard of approval.

  4. Nothing. More.

    The irony of Bérubé’s platitudes seems lost to him.

  5. Well, of course. That’s the way irony works. To which platitudes might you be referring, Nothing. More.? (If that _is_ your real name.)

  6. Yes Antisemitism

    “Associating Jews with Israeli has long been a strategy of anti-Semites.”

    that’s some mighty twisted logic and redefinition of words you have to do to make that make any sense at all.

    does Israel radically oversell antisemitism in order to press through its increasingly right-wing militancy?


    does that preclude the fact that there is a huge amount of un-self-reflective, and sometimes awfully explicit, antisemitism in the pro-Palestinian community?

    not on your life.

    and it isn’t just me: pro-human rights, pro-Palestinian writers like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein even say so.

    the world focuses so much attention on this situation because the world still hates Jews. So do tons of Arabs. Anyone who denies that is as bad as white supremacists in the US who continue to deny that the Civil War was about slavery or that blacks are oppressed. The “funny” thing is that people who are often highly sensitive to the second fact are completely blind to the first. (interestingly, African-Americans seem less susceptible to this problem than some others.)

    i’d urge anyone who thinks otherwise to turn to the partition in India. very similar to the creation of Israel in many respects: hugely violent, so many people expelled from their homes, religious violence, sense of mission. tons of oppression. accusations on both sides of bad dealing, terrorism, refusing to make peace, and much more. a terrible thing; everyone acknowledges that.

    yet look how different world discussion of India/Pakistan is to Israel/Palestine. that difference has a name, and it is antisemitism, or to be clear, hatred of Jews.

    look in your own heart. I suspect if you are willing to be honest with yourself you’ll find what I’m talking about there. and throwing antisemitism (gasoline) onto an already burning fire is making the situation worse, not better.

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