Category Archives: MLA

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



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Margaret Ferguson’s MLA Letter of Resignation

9 January 2018

To Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the MLA, and to the Officers and other members of the MLA Executive Council


Dear Colleagues,

I write with great regret to tell you that I have decided to resign from the MLA. My decision was long and hard in the making. No other past president has taken such a step, to the best of my knowledge, and I am not at all sure it is a step that will bear fruit. Please let me explain why I am leaving.

By passing Resolution 2017-1, which closed the door in a constitutionally unprecedented way on future debate about the Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the Association has sent a message to the world that it wants protests about the conditions of teaching and learning in Palestinian universities off the table. Because the resolution misreepresents the MLA’s purpose in its opening clause, leaving out the Association’s long-standing efforts to advocate for humanities educators’ rights; and because the resolution prohibits future discussion of an issue of public concern, twelve past presidents with different views on boycott asked the Council not to treat the resolution as business as usual at its meeting last February. The decision to do just that means that the Association has gone on record as wishing to prevent further discussion of  infringements of educators’ rights in the Occupied Territories; instead, the Association agrees that its proper business is with more pressing matters closer to home—home evidently defined as the United States that gives massive financial aid to Israel.  But the MLA’s multilingual members, both teachers and students, come from at least 104 nations; and MLA members of Palestinian descent have testified repeatedly to losing their freedom of expression and movement when they seek to enter the Occupied Territories in order to teach and do research.

As a member of a small, unofficial group of MLA members who visited West Bank universities in the summer of 2016, at the invitation of a member who works at the University of Bethlehem, I saw firsthand how teachers and students are prevented daily from doing their work of teaching and learning.  My experience in Israel-Palestine, detailed in this report, is one of the many reasons I am giving up my membership in an organization I have participated in and learned from for over 40 years—long enough to acquire the privileges of “life membership.” Those privileges are now a burden to me. I relinquish them to give myself a chance to speak out through a symbolic gesture of separation after having exhausted the means of protest available to me as a member.

My decision to resign is painful for many reasons. One is that my mother, Mary Anne Ferguson, served on the MLA’s Commission on the Status of Women in the late 60s and early 70s. She saw the Association, as I did then too, as a site in and from which humanities educators could work to effect social change, including improvements in what the current mission statement calls “workplace equity.” The question is whether “equity” will be interpreted narrowly or broadly. With the passing of Resolution 2017-1, the Association has opted for an interpretation eerily consonant with President Trump’s doctrine of “America First.”

In the years when I first joined the MLA and my mother was working on the Commission, the Association did vote after “divisive” debate to intervene in a public arena that was both national and international by making a statement against the U.S. Government’s conduct of  its war in Vietnam (for a discussion of this historical statement, see my  Presidential Address of 2014). Those were the years when the Delegate Assembly itself was created as a “voice for members” and as a structure that would enable the Association to become more representative (although that remains a difficult concept in the MLA’s documents and election practices). Since the Assembly was formed, the MLA has certainly become more open than it had previously been to the scholarly, pedagogical, political, geographical, and economic concerns of its members, most of whom do not work at the elite, East Coast American institutions from which the Association’s founders hailed in 1883. But the Association has evidently not become more open to discussing what I, and many others, consider to be one of the major assaults on access to education and academic freedom in our time. If the Association could amend its bylaws to affirm its commitment to allowing debate on all issues of public concern to members, I would eagerly rejoin.

For the time being, the MLA has taken an extreme and ethically untenable position by endorsing the idea, promoted by a group of members who were openly “assisted” by outside groups, that it is illegitimate for professional groups to protest Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian subjects. This despite the fact that the Executive Council clearly does not accept the narrow definition of the Association’s mission given in Resolution 2017-1 when it comes to speaking out about other communities of educators whose academic freedom and freedom of movement are threatened, whether in Trump’s America (see Resolution 2017-2) or in Erdogan’s Turkey.  Having spent part of the last year in a university in South Africa, I am acutely aware that the organization I was honored to serve was dishonorably silent about the South African regime’s apartheid policies.  At a watershed moment when even the mainstream press in the U.S. describes the creation of apartheid “bantustans” in Jerusalem neighborhoods just outside the “separation” wall, I find that I must leave an Association that has chosen again to remain silent, this time by actively proscribing debate.

Torn as I have been about what to do in the wake of Resolution 2017-1, I have found myself thinking hard about how another former MLA President, Edward Said, might have viewed these matters as he pursued his long effort to balance pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. Because he is dead, I cannot ask him for counsel. But I can ask you to consider some words from his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives: “Memory adds to the unrelieved intensity of Palestinian exile. Palestine is central to the cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism . . . . There is no forgetting it, no way of overlooking it.” The Palestinian call for justice will keep coming, and the MLA resolution enjoining deafness to it will be questioned from within and from outside in the coming years.

As the MLA’s elected leaders resume work after the 2018 Convention, where members in many sessions engaged with President Diana Taylor’s theme (#States of Insecurity) by exploring its premise that “the academy cannot be separate from the political, economic, and ideological turmoil of our time,” I hope that there will be robust discussion in your meetings about how, why, and to whose benefit the Palestinian call for boycott was deemed officially unspeakable by the world’s largest association of teachers of the humanities.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson

Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, University of California at Davis


Read more letters to the MLA here and here


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