Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Green, Newhauser and Voaden: An Open Letter to the Medieval Academy of America

[reprinted with permission of the authors, who have resigned from the Tempe program committee]

An Open Letter to the Medieval Academy of America

On July 26 and 27 the three of us, faculty members of Arizona State University, resigned from the program committee planning the 2011 conference of the Medieval Academy of America in Arizona.  We did so because we could not in good conscience be involved in planning a conference in our own state when our commitment to human rights demands that we support the boycott of Arizona, in protest against its recent immigration law, SB 1070.  There are clear financial, political, but above all ethical reasons for the Medieval Academy to join this protest by moving the venue of the 2011 conference to another state or cancelling the meeting next year, but still we struggled with our decision to resign from the program committee, not wishing to desert our colleagues.  While some provisions of the legislation were struck down by a federal judge on July 28, the governor of the state is appealing that decision, and all indications are that this will be a long court battle that may not be resolved before the time of the Academy's meeting in 2011.  We therefore urge the executive committee of the Academy to reconsider its decision to continue planning the 2011 conference for Arizona and we urge the members of the Medieval Academy of America to support the boycott of Arizona until SB 1070 is repealed or confirmed to be unconstitutional.

The most effective way to influence unjust legislation is to exert economic pressure.  This was demonstrated in 1992, when after a number of years of a boycott that resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, voters in Arizona finally approved the designation of Martin Luther King Day as a public holiday.  In the case of SB 1070 many events, including academic conferences, have moved to other locations to protest this legislation.  The National Urban League cancelled its 2012 conference in Phoenix, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity moved its meeting from Phoenix to Las Vegas this year, and the groups who have called for a travel boycott of Arizona include the American Educational Research Association, the Society for Applied Anthropology, and the Presbyterian Church (see for more:  Boycotts have been proven to be effective, but they take time to work and some sacrifice.  It is understandable that the Academy wishes to avoid the costs involved in cancelling its hotel reservation, especially given that a mere 33% of those responding to a recent poll of the membership were willing to help defray the cost of canceling the meeting in Arizona, whereas 65% said they were unwilling to do so.  But that 33%, to which the three signees of this letter belong, also includes at least one person who has pledged up to $1000 to help the Academy avoid financial loss.  Others are sure to help as well.  If the Academy stands to lose little or nothing by moving the conference to a different state or cancelling this year's conference, and may in fact experience a loss of revenue if the conference is held in Arizona anyway because of those members who will not want to attend a conference here, what compelling reason is there for the Academy not to do what it can to resist injustice?

The appropriateness of making collective political statements might be raised as an objection to having the Academy take at stand on the issue of SB 1070, but the passage of the law itself erases that argument.  Having made the debate on immigration so polemical, the law forces everyone to chose sides:  in such an atmosphere, not opposing the injustice of SB 1070 is almost equivalent to supporting it.  Nor is the issue only a matter of immigration policy, but one more in a series of attempts to use border security as a wedge issue to motivate partisan politics.  As Roll Call reported on July 29, 2010, there are plans to force votes on border security issues this fall at every opportunity (p. 13).  By not supporting the boycott, the Academy has not avoided making a collective political statement; it has tacitly approved one that others have made for it.

And that statement is clearly one of intolerance and injustice.  If all parts of the law are upheld in the appeals process, it will lead to widespread civil rights violations.  It stigmatizes an entire community.  The fact that plans for the Academy's conference now feature keynote speakers and special sessions on immigration and displaced persons is some indication that the membership of the Academy does not support the legislation and is aware of the injustice it will perpetrate.  Yet writing and speaking about injustice in the academic world are no substitutes for acting in the real world.  We feel this all the more intensely because it is in our names, as citizens of Arizona, that the state legislature has said it acted.  Ultimately, our conscience would not allow us to participate in the planning for a conference in Arizona.  We feel that we have no choice but to use every opportunity to protest legislation which violates both civil and human rights.  To this end, not only have we resigned from the program committee, but as long as SB 1070 is the law in Arizona or is in the appeals process we will also find it impossible to attend the meeting of the Medieval Academy in our own backyard.

There are moments when we are all called upon to make moral decisions, no matter how uncomfortable they might be, no matter how much they force us to chose between supporting the groups we work with or supporting our allegiance to the greater community of humankind.  For us, the question of the Academy's unwillingness to oppose the injustice of SB 1070 is just such a moment.  We hope it will prove to be one for you as well.


Monica Green, Professor, School of Historical, Religious, and Philosophical Studies, Arizona State University (
Richard Newhauser, Professor, Department of English, Arizona State University (
Rosalynn Voaden, Associate Professor, Department of English, Arizona State University (


Patricia Ingham said...

Wow! Great letter. I'm feeling hopeful again. Jeffrey, do you think it's too late to continue the pressure on the MAA Executive Committee? Hopeless?

This is a powerful letter that seems to me to open the question again.

Anne Clark Bartlett said...

Great letter, Monica, Richard, and Ros. Thanks!

LanglandinSydney said...

All the better for being from someone in Arizona. The letter from the Nineteenth Century Studies Association that Jeffrey posted earlier ( shows that the team in Arizona there "very generously agreed to work alongside" the convenors of their relocated conference in Albuquerque; it's nice to see at least some of the Arizona medievalists being public about this! --Lawrence Warner

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you so much to Profs. Green, Newhauser, and Voaden for writing this letter. You have, simply by expressing what you do here, given aid to those who need it most in this situation: the Latina/o and Hispanic communities of Arizona, and beyond.

jennifernbrown said...

I really appreciate this letter and its sentiments.

Holly Crocker said...

Great, great letter! Thank you, Professors Green, Newhauser, and Voaden.

Christina CT said...

I love this beautiful, compelling letter. As an educator, how can one not react to such legislation, which negatively impacts many of our students' lives?

Karl Steel said...

Great letter!
Christina, the standard arguments are: virtually no reaction by an academic can do any good; no one can act unless they are morally upright in all areas if their life (the 'cast no stones' argument); action would only be a way for academics to show off their good conscience and to condemn others; etc. I won't bother to list the reasons of those who believe the laws to be just.

I know you meant your question rhetorically, but I think it's important to repeat these points.

Karl Steel said...

My sense, also, is that arguments in favor of the laws &/or for the MAA to meet in AZ tend to forget that some academucs are Latin@.