Moderating The AAUP And MLA?

At its annual meeting, the American Association of University Professors declined to vote to criticize Israel, yet voted to condemn Iran. In December, the MLA rejected a statement defending critics of Israel and replaced it with a much-milder statement defending contentious Middle East research. They also resisted condemning Ward Churchill’s firing, and instead only objected to the manner in which his investigation was carried out. What’s next? An admission that David Horowitz might occasionally have a point?

No, something more nuanced seems underway, at least in the AAUP—a prudential retrenchment away from outre pronouncements to focus on more practical, yet still contentious, and undoubtedly political work.

The AAUP vote on Iran condemned the government’s policy of denying higher education to those of the Baha’i faith. A resolution condemning Israeli policies that have prevented students in Gaza from leaving to attend to their studies was returned to the AAUP committee for review. Critics questioned why Israel was being targeted when countless states have similar restrictions on travel and education in place.

The AAUP also voted to oppose loyalty oaths and state proposals that equated intelligent design with traditional science—understandable in each case. Another vote opposed state efforts to permit the extension of concealed carry permits to university campuses.

Now, on balance this all does seem consciously more moderate than we’ve come to expect, but when the AAUP begins to congratulate itself for its foreign policy heterodoxy it’s difficult not to grow suspicious. Inside Higher Ed reported “When the AAUP ventured into foreign policy, its votes could prove surprising for association critic David Horowitz, as Cary Nelson, the AAUP president noted.” The Iran vote, centered on Baha’i students, isn’t especially surprising, nor, in fact, is their delayed action on the Israel question. After all, in 2005, the AAUP condemned the British Association of University Teachers’ academic boycott of Israel. Yet it seems undeniable that there’s a new awareness within the organization, and others, of the harm that nakedly political declarations can provide.


These changes suit very much the instincts of AAUP President Cary Nelson, author of Confessions of a Tenured Radical but of cannier and more circumspect political opinions than many of his peers. His marquee causes have been traditional labor activism and academic freedom issues, and he’s shown a continual (and as of late, more prominent) interest in avoiding largely symbolic foreign policy questions. He’s been especially active in providing Israel fairer treatment: with the resolution this year, the reaction to the British Association of University Teachers boycott, and, in 2005, in harsh criticism of an AAUP conference on academic boycotts that included anti-Israel material.

His influence hasn’t been confined to the AAUP. He took a prominent role in watering down two contentious resolutions at last year’s MLA conference. He labeled a resolution in support of scholars critical of Israel “incredibly divisive and quite destructive” and pressed for a version condemning interference with scholarship using less specific language. It passed. When a resolution was advanced condemning Ward Churchill’s firing he offered an amendment paring down the criticism. Observing “we are not set up to judge the character and quality of that investigation”, his amendment merely criticized the way the investigation came into being. A version of his amendment passed.

What to make of this? As one blog astutely commented of the MLA, these organizations may be “moving toward an accommodation with what we might describe as reality.” Any such steps are encouraging. When the MLA resolution condemning “interference” with Mid-East scholarship is criticized for being “too even-handed” almost anything is an improvement. Yet it’s too early to rejoice yet.

The AAUP just completed a reformation, the former legal status as “public charity” has given way to a triple structure of union, professional organization, and foundation. Labor activism and explicit political activity will now be possible under the former mantle (each causes close to Nelson’s heart). At the same time, the professional organization is likely to remain closely focused on the organization’s academic freedom stance – which remains hopelessly dismissive of all criticism (their conference this year was dubbed “Scholars in Peril.”)

It’s good to see some hesitation at reflexive political radicalism at the MLA and AAUP. Even if entirely strategic, a withdrawal from ludicrous foreign policy condemnations would be a real step towards professionalism. Yet these organizations’ instinct for domestic politicization shows no sign of abating. With an AAUP that appears to officially believe that there’s no difference between injecting political opinions in a class and injecting Daniel Deronda, we’re still leagues away from reality.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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