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Thursday, January 05, 2006

MLA post-mortem: the NYU emergency resolution debacle, part two

I’ll start by lifting the remarks of my friend and former colleague Cary Nelson out of the comments section of the previous post, and letting him kick things off here:

When the MLA Executive Council agreed to make a statement supporting the NYU grad employees before—after kicking and screaming—they accepted my argument that it was unnecessary to give the NYU administration a chance to reply because the administration had already explained its anti-union policy and tried to justify it in public. In other words, MLA was not commenting on mute events. Both sides had repeatedly elaborated their positions in print. That is one rational model for a context in which emergency resolutions are acceptable—in which both parties have articulated their positions. It should have worked for the Del Assembly this December.

Ah, I do miss Cary.  And I regret that our periods of service on the Executive Council overlapped by only one year, 2002.  “MLA was not commenting on mute events”: quite true.  The proposers of the NYU emergency resolution were saying more or less the same thing when they pointed to NYU President John Sexton’s November 28 email and said, “here’s NYU’s response, folks.  You don’t need anything more than this; here’s Sexton himself, in his own words, threatening union members with loss of stipends.”

But there are two important differences between the speech act Cary persuaded the EC to perform, and the speech act contemplated (but never carried out) by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee last month.  One: the EC was not operating by means of the resolution process, which is, as many have noted, cumbersome and still under construction.  In a roundabout way, Cary reinforces my point (thanks, m’fren’!) about why it’s easier to bring urgent matters to the EC, even if it involves some kicking and screaming on the part of individual Council members.  The EC can make a statement about an issue—with regard to the crisis at NYU, or with regard to graduate employees in general—simply by discussing it around the table and voting in favor, and then asking one or two of its members to draft the statement.  That’s what we did in our February 2004 meeting, when we opposed HR 3077, which called for a Federal “advisory board” (made up entirely of political appointees) that would have the power to oversee all Title VI international studies programs (and even, in the original language of the bill, to investigate the “activities” of individual grant recipients, whatever “activities” might mean).  Which brings me to number two: the EC was not dealing, as was the DAOC, with a specific set of charges brought before them by one party to a labor dispute.  It was, instead, making a statement of general principle, which is actually an easier thing to do.  To repeat a point from yesterday’s post, the fact that I believe those charges are true is irrelevant to the procedure called for by the MLA constitution, namely, the determination of whether those charges merit a response from the party so charged.

However, having said all that, I return to something else I said yesterday, namely: I believe the first resolution, which spoke of the NYU administration’s threats and reprisals, was the kind of thing that merited a response (I’ll say plenty more about that in a moment, when I get to Cynthia Young’s argument about Yale in 1995-96).  But the revised resolution, which simply noted that NYU had recognized and then de-recognized the union and that there was now a strike in progress, and asked the MLA to reaffirm the right of graduate students to form unions, seemed to me to be stating facts about which there could be no meaningful dispute.  Other people disagreed with me, in good faith, believing that at minimum NYU might be asked why it de-recognized the union and whether it recognized the strike as a strike as a result.  But I thought that because the resolution narrated the recent history of the dispute at NYU without touching on the question of threats of reprisal, there wasn’t anything substantive for NYU to reply to.  In that case, then, I would agree completely with Cary that the MLA was not commenting on mute events, and that it would be appropriate to say something like, “there is a strike at NYU.  It is a distinctive strike, in that it involves a union that was once recognized but now is not.  The MLA supports graduate student unionization and urges all universities to bargain with graduate employee organizations in good faith.”

Now let me deal with two meta-issues that frame this entire thing.  First: why take this matter to the Delegate Assembly at all?  Second: if such matters are to be brought before the Delegate Assembly, how can we avoid another procedural train wreck like this one?

First question first.  As I’ve argued before, the strategy of taking urgent matters to the EC has some advantages, insofar as the EC meets three times a year (in two-day sessions) whereas the DA meets only once a year for an afternoon.  Furthermore, if it’s an issue about which the EC is not in session but is unanimous (as was the case with the Cuban scholars’ visas and the University of Southern Mississippi in 2004), then the only delay in a collective EC response involves the length of time it takes for Council members to reply to email.  And—I’m going to put this one in boldface italics, because it is apparently so little-known—any MLA member can ask the EC to put an item on the EC’s meeting agenda.  The item won’t necessarily appear on the agenda, if it turns out that it falls under another committee’s purview: for example, last year someone contacted me and asked the EC to address the growing problem of unethical job offers, one version of which involves asking candidates to propose their starting salaries and then making the offer contingent on a successful salary proposal.  (I have now heard of four different universities engaging in this.  You can see, I imagine, that it amounts to a competitive low-bidding system for academic positions.) The MLA staff suggested that this one be referred to the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities rather than the EC, and that’s where it is right now.  But it is simply not true that the EC is some kind of remote Council of Elders who can only be addressed by very august MLA members who have slaughtered a chicken before appearing in our presence.  If you want the EC to take up a question, all you gotta do is ask.

However, as Bill Mullen (and others) have argued, this strategy has its down side.  Procedurally, it bypasses the Delegate Assembly, which is the larger and more representative body; and politically, it prevents issues from being debated in public on the floor of the DA (where they can be covered by Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education and anyone else who wants to subject him- or herself to a four- or five-hour meeting in a hotel ballroom).  Time and again over the last two years, people have said to me, “it’s all very well and good that the EC did these things, but we never knew about it.” This always makes me sigh.  “Sigh,” I sigh, “we report these things in the MLA newsletter, and of course the minutes of the EC meetings are available in PMLA.” Don’t get me started on how many MLA members actually read the announcements in the newsletter or the EC minutes in PMLA.  Suffice it to say that when we announced our pony giveaway program in fall 2003, we only had two takers.  (No, there wasn’t really a pony giveaway program.  But somebody ought to announce one in the newsletter this year, just to see if anyone’s paying attention.) And then there’s the argument—as one person phrased it at the 2004 convention—that it’s all very well and good for the EC to write to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to protest the denial of visas to Cuban scholars, but it’s not as if Secretary Powell ever wrote back, or reversed his position as a result of our protest.  “Ah, well then,” I thought at the time.  “If it’s effectiveness you want on that score, then DA resolutions and EC actions are in a dead heat.  No Cabinet official has ever replied to either one.” Actually, I found that argument especially astonishing for another reason: overwhelmingly, the reason people bring resolutions and motions before the DA is not to build support for their enactment into federal law, but to ask their disciplinary organization, the Modern Language Association, to go on record as being for or against X.  No expects the DA to pass a resolution calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act (which we did in 2003) and then go out and repeal the Patriot Act.  It seems unreasonable to expect that the EC would be any more effective on that front.

But I agree that public debate is to be valued as a good in itself, particularly when it involves matters that affect the entire profession.  That’s one of the reasons the DAOC enacted yet another reform, the “open discussion” period of the DA meeting.  This year we set two topics for discussion:  one, service expectations, and two, contingent labor.  Next year we’ve proposed (get this!) “activism and the MLA,” and the DAOC will take suggestions for the other topic.

And this brings me to Cynthia Young’s argument that DA actions on resolutions don’t really have to wait (as I’d claimed) eight to eleven months to have an effect.  Though she didn’t use these words, Young argued that DA actions can have a powerful perlocutionary effect in and of themselves, and she pointed to the 1995 DA vote censuring the Yale administration for its response to the GESO grade strike.  Speaking on the DA floor, she said—and I won’t quote her directly, for fear of getting the exact phrasing wrong—that she vividly remembers Yale professor Peter Brooks running up and down the aisles of the DA ten years ago, trying to stop the passage of the emergency resolution on Yale, so don’t even try to claim that these votes don’t take effect for another year or so.

She was right, of course. The 1995 vote was bitter and dramatic, and Yale fought it—kicking and screaming, one might say.  It marked a kind of watershed for the MLA, especially since the organization was still reeling from the previous year’s disastrous Bennington vote, and many people in the association believed we had no business taking action in response to crises at individual institutions.  I thought about Cynthia’s remark the rest of the evening of December 29, not least because she was one of the leaders of that strike, and Cary and I worked with GESO from afar in those days.  And much later in the evening, after I’d dined with Janet and some friends and then stopped by Walter Benn Michaels’s party in honor of Jerry Graff’s election to the post of MLA second vice president (which means he’ll serve as president in 2008), it finally occurred to me why people—but especially union organizers and their supporters—invest so much hope in the Delegate Assembly meeting.  The 1995 Yale vote was something like the MLA’s version of the Tennis Court Oath: it not only rebuked Yale specifically (at the time, administrators were threatening to expel strikers from their graduate programs, and especially dedicated faculty members were turning in their own teaching assistants for disciplinary hearings, as Sara Suleri-Goodyear did with Cynthia Young herself) but served notice to the entire ancien régime that the MLA would, from this point on, take a far more active stance with regard to labor issues in the profession.  Before 1995, nothing; after 1995, thanks chiefly to the Graduate Student Caucus (led by Marc Bousquet) and Cary Nelson, a series of resolutions culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1999, when the organization passed almost a dozen resolutions and motions on academic labor, from a resolution supporting the “right of all academic employees—full- and part-time faculty members, graduate employees, and support staff—to engage in collective bargaining” to a motion asking the MLA to conduct a comprehensive survey of wages throughout the profession and to issue a report (which was completed during Cary’s tenure on the Council, as he helped to finish the job he and the GSC began in 1999) recommending, among other things, minimum per-course wages for part-time faculty.

But the 1995 vote had other consequences, as well.  Most immediately, it led the MLA to publish a twelve-page booklet written by four Yale faculty members, and to distribute the booklet the entire membership in February 1996.  Four months later, I wrote an essay for Social Text in response to that booklet (and to the Yale crisis more generally), and if you’ll forgive my quoting myself at length, here’s what I thought at the time (speaking, of course, only for myself on this one):

If ever an institutional crisis demanded the attention of professional organizations like the MLA, this is it.  But the MLA’s response to the strike at Yale has been somewhat less than encouraging.  Six weeks after the Delegate Assembly passed the resolution censuring Yale in December 1995, the MLA conducted its mass mailing of the letters of Homans, Patterson et al., introducing its twelve-page document with the words, “we write to initiate a new procedure” (1).  The chief purpose of the mailing was to circulate to the MLA membership the views of Yale faculty opposed to GESO, the grade strike, and the resolution.  No views sympathetic to GESO were included.  In subsequent communications, the rationale for the mailing became clear:  the GESO forces had had their say during the MLA convention, and, according to Margaret Homans, Yale faculty had not been able to respond sufficiently to the resolution at the time it was proposed:  “if the MLA sees itself as representing and honoring diversity of opinion,” Homans wrote, “the process by which the resolution was pushed through gives the lie to that claim” (10).  (Homans and Brooks were both present at the Delegate Assembly, though Homans’ letter does not indicate as much.) The MLA staff dutifully investigated the charges that the resolution had been improperly introduced, and found, in the words of executive director Phyllis Franklin, that “the assembly’s action was valid” (1).  So much for Homans’ precarious sense of proper procedure.  Nevertheless, the mailing itself quite clearly seems to accept Homans’ charge that “diversity of opinion” was not honored at the convention; no other explanation will account for the MLA’s curious decision not to seek opinions sympathetic to GESO for the purposes of the mailing.  As a result, the claims of Yale faculty were allowed to stand utterly uncontested—including Homans’ unsubstantiated and grossly misleading “procedural” complaints that “the most basic standards of evidence were not adhered to in the formulation of the resolution” (regarding the status of faculty as “replacement workers") and that “the resolution violates several of legal counsel’s criteria for acceptable resolutions:  it is factually erroneous, slanderous, and personally motivated” (10).

(The full essay is available in .pdf form right here, and hey, while we’re revisiting the 1995-96 Yale strike, I can’t help reminding my friends at the Baffler that this was the essay their magazine called “wildly misguided,” full of “blindspots” that testify to the “notorious academic misapprehension of ‘real world’ relations of power,” in the course of accusing me and other pro-union faculty and graduate students of writing for the special Social Text issue on Yale partly in order to pad our résumés.  No fooling!  As if I somehow enhanced my chances of being hired at Yale with that essay.  Suffice it to say that the Baffler has had better moments.  As have I: my response to the Baffler essay was so thoroughly pissed off that it wound up being probably the least rhetorically effective thing I’ve ever written.)

Now, I happen to think the Yale booklet presented anti-GESO faculty in quite a poor light, and may paradoxically have helped to win passage of the emergency resolution when it eventually went out to the full membership for a vote later in 1996 (the vote in favor, when it was finally taken, was overwhelming).  But the immediate point is this: the 1995 Delegate Assembly vote did, in fact, precipitate a crisis in the MLA, and the pro-Yale booklet was the association’s first response (a “new procedure,” indeed).  And perhaps that stunning DA vote has served as the model for pro-union MLA action ever since: you want to snap people to attention, you want to get administrators up and running, you bring an emergency resolution to the floor of the Delegate Assembly.  That’s just how it’s done. Perhaps that’s what was going on with the 2001 Yale resolution as well, the one that was withdrawn by its proposers after the Delegate Assembly had approved it—which, as I mentioned yesterday, was one of the things that led the EC and the DAOC to conclude that the emergency resolution process simply had to be remedied so as to allow named parties to reply to charges brought against them.

So, at long last, what is to be done? Two things, I think.

If I’m right that the 1995 Yale vote serves as a model for what people wanted this year in response to the NYU strike, and that the strategy of asking the EC for action is deemed inadequate partly for that reason, then union members and their supporters should get in touch with the DAOC as far in advance of the convention as possible.  The list of members is right here, though of course you should note that everyone whose term concluded in 2005 (including mine) is no longer on the committee (the list will be updated to reflect recent elections).  The timing of the NYU strike (like that of the Yale strike) was unfortunate for MLA procedures, because it began two weeks after the October meeting of the EC and DAOC, and could only be addressed by means of an emergency resolution.  The trick in such cases, then, lies in getting resolution proposers and DAOC members (with the advice of the parliamentarian, who, by the way, is quite rigorous and unflinchingly fair) to hammer out language that will make it to the DA floor without—and I can’t stress this part strongly enough—having to be redrafted on the fly at the convention itself.  Again, I apologize to GSOC for suggesting resolution language that would have put the MLA in the position of voting on whether to reaffirm previous actions.  I think that prohibition came as news to most members of the DAOC, actually, but still, we could have avoided that impasse with a little more lead time.

Alternatively (this is still thing one), proposers could have drafted a statement in support of GSOC in advance of the strike, before the MLA’s October 1 deadline for resolutions.  (Or, for that matter, proposers could have come up with a motion calling on the MLA to censure NYU.  What’s the difference between a resolution and a motion, you ask?  Good question!  A resolution is an expression of sentiment; a motion calls on the MLA to do something.  Resolutions are limited to one hundred words in length; motions aren’t.) Although such a resolution obviously wouldn’t have had the chance to address President Sexton’s November 28 email (with all it entailed), it could have asked the MLA to support the right of GSOC to bargain collectively with NYU despite the NLRB’s 2004 ruling; after all, the MLA is already on record, in Motion 2004-1, as being opposed to the NLRB ruling and committed to reversing it.  My point is simply that as matters now stand, an emergency resolution offered to the DAOC at the Open Hearing, 24 hours before the DA meeting, has by far the least likely chance of getting the job done.  The more lead time you give us, the more options we’ll (and you’ll) have.

The second thing is a bit broader.  As I suggested yesterday, the jury is still out on the question of whether emergency resolutions can name individuals and institutions in such a way that a response is required and can be submitted to the DAOC so as to give the DAOC time to ask for such a response.  As it is now written, the amended MLA constitution clearly implies that if the DAOC determines that a response is required, the resolution is out of order; it doesn’t say, although it conceivably could, that if a response is required, the DAOC should allow the party two weeks’ (or more, or less) time for a response.  The result is that we have some members who believe (again, in good faith) that emergency resolutions should never be able to name individual parties, and some members who believe that the MLA should be able to name individual parties if those parties are given the opportunity to represent their positions to the DA.  The DAOC (and the EC, and the MLA in general) needs to decide which way to go on this, and I imagine it would be useful for them to hear from MLA members who have opinions on the subject.  I’ll start: I think the MLA should not permit resolutions (of the ordinary or emergency variety) to be brought to the DA that involve specific allegations against parties who have not been given the chance to address those allegations.  But I believe that the recent amendment to the constitution was not intended to prevent the Delegate Assembly from responding to all institutional crises that occur between October 1 and December 28; in NYU’s case, since the MLA is already on record in support of unionization, it should be possible in principle for the MLA’s elected representatives to say so in the public forum of the Assembly.  It therefore seems to me that the “named party” amendment should be further amended to allow the DAOC to request a response from a named party within two weeks or so, if, say, an emergency resolution comes in by December 1.

Just my opinion.

Beyond that, it seems to me that the association needs to consider the question of precisely what kind of “named parties” we can respond to in any forum.  NYU and Yale labor disputes are one thing; allegations about the conversion of multi-year contracts to shorter-term contracts at UC-Davis are quite another.  Despite the fact that I oppose such conversions, I can tell you that I spent two months of my life trying to figure out whether Davis was doing what that resolution (in all its various incarnations) said it was doing (including calling the AAUP to determine the legal status of a specific claim made by a committee writing on a related matter), and was unable to.  I’ve since come to the conclusion that the MLA just doesn’t have the investigative apparatus it needs for such things.  We can issue ethical guidelines and statements of principle, and we can protest when universities are in clear violation of these things (as Southern Mississippi was), but with the UC-Davis thing (and a couple of others I won’t mention), it seems to me that what resolution proposers really want is something like the AAUP censure mechanism, which is something that disciplinary organizations are often particularly ill-equipped to wield.  On that front, look forward to my upcoming post on the AAUP, perhaps early next week.  And in the meantime, join the AAUP.

One penultimate point:  back to the role of the MLA Executive Council.  I was repeatedly asked, during the convention, why anyone should have to ask the EC to take action.  If the association already supports unionization, and there is a labor dispute involving unionization, shouldn’t the MLA simply have an immediate response?  Shouldn’t the EC take it upon itself to issue a letter of some kind to NYU, as it did to Colin Powell?  The only answer I have to this, aside from “well, yes, ideally,” is that Council members are human, and most of them are pretty busy humans.  Even when we took unilateral action (with regard to the Senate, the State Department, and Southern Miss), we did so because concerned members had brought those matters to our attention.  And while I apologize personally for not responding more actively to the NYU strike, I don’t want to see an issue this important degenerate into mutual incomprehension.  There was a bit of back-and-forth at the convention, consisting partly of “well, you never asked” and “but you never offered” (that was the angry mode) and partly of “I’m sorry we didn’t offer” and “I’m sorry we didn’t ask” (that was the conciliatory mode).  In the future, while I think it would be great for the EC to act on its own in response to academic labor disputes, I think it’s best for everyone to operate on the assumption that interested parties should bring such disputes to the Council’s attention.

And finally, for any of you who might have wondered why this humble blog would have been taken over by 9000 words on MLA protocols and procedures: I do beg your pardon for the extraordinary dryness and prolixity of these past two days.  But the MLA is a large organization (with over 30,000 members), and it contains many of my friends, some of whom are still on the DAOC and EC, and some of whom are active supporters of GSOC at NYU.  Because I’ve just completed my four-year team on the DAOC and EC, and because that term ended so badly, I thought I’d offer these two posts as a form of institutional memory and as suggestions for fixing what didn’t work.  At the very least, I hope I’ve answered Scott Kaufman’s question as to why I would have made time to meet with him and John Holbo and Amardeep Singh after the Delegate Assembly adjourned: for quite apart from the fact that I was looking forward to meeting fellow bloggers for all the bloggy reasons Scott suggests, it was a very welcome break from a great deal of MLA business as usual.

Posted by Michael on 01/05 at 03:23 PM
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