Monday, April 22, 2013

"a principled resignation in protest": more on the MAA controversy

by J J Cohen

If you have been following the aftermath of the resignation Friday of the Executive Directors of the Medieval Academy of America, Eileen Gardiner and Ron Musto, you will want to read this morning's piece from Insider Higher Ed on the controversy. The key quotation is, for me, in the middle of Scott Jaschik's article:
Gardiner and Musto said it was unfair for [MAA President Richard] Unger to imply that they made the decision to leave. "He and two other members of the council are also well familiar with the immediate circumstances leading up to that letter, having been present at the culminating events in Knoxville," they wrote. "Suffice it to say that a principled resignation in protest means that there was something to protest, but -- for the sake of transparency -- it is for President Unger to publicly disclose his perspective on, and address directly, the issues raised in our letter of resignation."
Given that we now know for certain what many of us strongly suspected -- that the resignations came in protest, and that a larger story than the MAA letter announcing those resignations conveyed exists  -- I urge President Unger to release the letter of resignation to the members of the MAA so that we can better understand the context within which these resignations unfolded. 

(And yes, he will receive that request in writing this morning.)


Jeffrey Cohen said...

President Richard Unger did respond to my initial letter yesterday and emphasized that the choice to leave was Gardiner and Musto's. He offered that he has nothing but speculation, and to provide such would not be productive. He closed by emphasizing the Council's wish to maintain momentum.

This is obviously a complicated story.

I wrote back:

Dear President Unger,

Thank you for your response.

Considering that today's article in Inside Higher Ed indicates that the resignation letter itself would cast light on the circumstances of the departure of Gardiner and Musto, I would like to request that you release the letter to the membership.

I understand very well the desire to maintain momentum, but know that you would not want to do so at the expense of the Academy members' right to understand better the situation surrounding the resignation so that we can maintain confidence in the MAA's future.

Jeffrey Cohen

Eileen Joy said...

For me the bottom line of this whole thing, regardless of specific circumstances surrounding Gardiner's and Musto's resignation [and I'm sure they are richly various, yet except in the case of being deeply personal, which I doubt, they should not be secret], is simply one of transparency. The MAA ought to want such transparency, and if the departure of Gardiner and Musto had anything to do with various future directions of the MAA, in terms of its initiatives, management, etc., then that should be an issue for the larger membership to have some sort of input into; otherwise, this is not an organization that represents its membership's interests/desires, nor can it claim to be open in its management. There is nothing to be lost in this sort of honesty, as it only creates goodwill and a sense of shared purpose, even while there may be difficult issues/questions to sort through, and not everyone will agree. To say that he has nothing but "speculation" to offer, re: Gardiner and Musto's departure, given their remarks to Inside Higher Ed, appears disingenuous. The MAA is an academic, scholarly organization, and doesn't need to hide anything: if there were tensions over how to steer the MAA forward, why not be open about that? Or is the MAA something like a benevolent patriarchy now? [We'll let you know what you need to know when you need to know it; otherwise, assume everything is fine.] Ever since Rick Emmerson promised great changes for MAA, then left early because he wanted to return to teaching [which I understand and believe, but ....], and then Paul Szmarach's departure [which seemed unexpected and was never explained, to my knowledge, although I never thought of him as someone who would bring progressive change], and now this, the one lesson I glean, regardless of all the circumstances [known or not] relative to the last 3 directors' tenures [meaning: did they feel as if they were able to implement their vision?], is: this organization lacks a clear vision at this point and seems to have been stumbling for a while now. So that's one general question for the MAA: what is your vision at this point? Where are you headed? Why has it been so difficult to inaugurate change and/or to simply steer forward without so much loss of hands on deck?

Like Matt Gabriele, I feel that the MAA either is, or could be, hugely important to the future of medieval studies, given their large membership and the fact that they are the only group that purports to represent medieval studies as a whole north American [corporate] body, and that *could* be a powerful tool for advocacy for medieval studies within the university and general public at large. But from my vantage point, and in the course of my own short career, they've never represented forward movement, and they have never depicted an INclusive, egalitarian, non-hierarchichal, progressive, open, welcoming field. Have they promoted and disseminated some of the best scholarship in the field, while also firging some sort of community? Yes. Have they been open and welcoming along the way? No. Rick Emmerson and Gardiner/Musto promised otherwise, then did not stay long enough to fully deliver. It's disappointing, but I gave up on the MAA a long time ago [for me, personally, as a place where my own work would be welcomed or where I would find work that was theoretically interesting, but that's just ME]. But I'm a pluralist and believe medieval studies is strengthened by having all sorts of different and differently-purposed organizations in active and vibrant service. Which is my way of saying:

MAA: get your act together. PLEASE.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Eileen: YES. Ditto to everything you've just said. I'm a member of MAA (mostly for the practical reason of being able to access the book reviews in Speculum, to be frank) and I admit I haven't felt much "buy in" into the MAA *as an organization* -- it has always felt corporate and distant to me. (NCS by contrast seems to foster a culture that's open, transparent, and [hyper-]democratic.) When it comes down to it, it's really this general lack of transparency that disheartens me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Bonnie Wheeler asked me to post this letter she emailed to Richard Unger Friday:

Dear Dick (and Bill),

Your mailboxes must be overflowing. I'm afraid I am only going to add to them.

I write not only for myself but for the several members of the MAA who have deluged my mailbox since your message today. Eileen and Ron had, in my view, brought a happier vision to the MAA than we had seen for many years. As a former councillor, I was delighted that the MAA recruited and supported them in their efforts to reach out to wider groups of medievalists. The sparse note we received today answered no questions but raised others. It seems to return us to a darker period of secret and problematic negotiations within the MAA. I am confident that is not your intent nor that of Council, but let me be among those who urge you to send the membership a full and transparent statement as soon as possible.

Many thanks for your work on behalf of all of us.

Bonnie Wheeler
Director, Medieval Studies Program
Southern Methodist University
Dallas TX 75275-0432 USA

[Bonnie also sent Unger's response, and I will provide her summary: "The question of transparency is sadly not answered"]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I have not been able to secure permission to publish the letter which Eileen Gardiner and Ron Musto sent to President Richard Unger when they resigned as Executive Director of the Medieval Academy. I've obtained the letter from multiple sources, though, and can tell you that it states that their resignation was due to disagreement over the course along which the MAA was pushed, with a reversion to its previous and dire situation possible in the future; and that there was aggressive, bullying behavior involved that needs to be addressed for any future executive director to be able to succeed in this job.

Those seem to me grave charges. Let's hope that MAA President Unger releases the letter at this point and clarifies the situation for the membership.

Dorothy Kim said...

Eileen is right. Why exactly has there been 3 different directors that have left, resigned, etc. in so many years. What is happening to the MAA that it cannot retain great people to run it and give any sense of vision, goals, purpose, and stability? Do they want to be an inclusive organization (though as Eileen points out, it seems much to patriarchal and silent, and that's not including the whole question of welcoming members who are not white and speak with either an American or British accent)? Do they want confidence from their members about their direction? Is there something going on about the move to online, digital, etc. that seems to have been brought up on Medieval Histories with a comment from Dot Porter? What are the changes they are resisting? Is it about printed book vs. digital (or as Dot accurately points out, this is a luddite-like question since it's not an either/or but rather a continuum)? Is it about inclusive, transparent, and open governing principles and professional organizational strategies (like indemnification)? Why have none of the membership been given information about their vision, goals, etc. for the future?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I'm only following this on and off so someone else might have already raised this point -- but does it seem to anyone else like this is just exquisitely infelicitous timing to have a "medieval power struggle" of any kind? The MLA is considering the possibility of reducing the number of divisions representing the pre-Shakespeare period to one (from its present three -- Old English, Middle English excluding Chaucer, and Chaucer). There was a volley of ISAS communication over the last two weeks concerning it, and I'm sure similar conversations among Chaucerians and late medievalists (though I've not been following those listservs lately).

It's never good to have such issues with transparency and open-ness -- and I'm really worried for the field right now. We're stronger when we stand together, and we can't do that when one of our foremost scholarly associations seems to have so many problems that we aren't having explained to us. But let's look at the larger context too, and the larger damages -- surely this isn't going to do much for our case with those outside our field. And at the end of the day, aren't those the colleagues we're going to have to answer to about our "power struggles"? Granted, MAA does represent an interdisciplinary group of medievalists, where MLA divisions are in literature and language. But I can't imagine how *this* conversation won't impact the one at MLA.

Rick Godden said...

Given all the problems over the last few years and more, I wish that there could be some sort of review and evaluation of the MAA. Academic departments and programs often need to undergo external review, where knowledgeable outside parties evaluate the performance of the department/program and offer critiques and suggestions for future directions. I don't mean this as a punitive action. Rather, it could be valuable for such large and important organizations to undergo periodic review. I will admit up front that I perhaps do not have the knowledge to make such a suggestion seeing that I am not yet on the tenure-track, and have not served in such organizations.

My biggest point however is after such organizations to exist they need to serve their constituents well. I have been unable to afford financially to join all the societies that I feel I should or that I would like to be a part of, and largely I join the societies that I feel are working the most to help their members advance their individual careers and the field – for me, I also put a special emphasis on the acknowledgment of adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty (including graduate students).

As Mary-Kate points out, we are in a delicate situation right now. The MLA possibly cutting down the medieval divisions from 3 to 1 is only just one example of some of the problems we face. We need an organization that serves us, and helps us, and is waiting to see isn't going to address anything. I do also know that it is a little hypocritical of me to offer criticism when I am not yet willing to be a member who could work towards the society's betterment, but tough choices have to be made when in such a transitional career moment. I would enthusiastically join up if the MAA seemed to be the organization that medieval studies needs right now.

In fact, it would be great to see some crowdsourcing of what such an organization would look like.

ASM said...

Update: The latest missive from MAA is worse than the first. No effort to actually explain. Instead, more obfuscation and outright blame. I won't paste it here, since I'm sure you all got it, too, but in summation:

-"We" know you are sad and confused, but "WE" are sadder and more confused that you, since the letter from R&E [which we will not release] didn't explain anything.
-R&E quit, claiming that they couldn't get their goals accomplished, but everything was perfect and "we" were working together with them on Big Changes, so [it is heavily implied]this must not be the real reason [but we won't show you their letter that states what their reasons were]
-"We" will announce to you [without consulting the membership] what our new plan is, when "we" are ready.
-And, in closing, don't expect quick replies to your questions.

The best line, clearly: " We can now report that they have left and that a smooth transition has taken place." Oh, really? Is that why we all feel so happy and calm about it?

Anonymous said...

I like this letter better, even with the "but we thought everything could be worked out... we tried so hard!" stuff. It may not tell us what the actual disagreements over direction were, but the language and tone say a hell of a lot about the authors and how they deal with things.

I was honestly hoping that the last note was just clumsy. This one convinces me that that is not the case.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Intriguing (but for me not very concretely informative) that this most recent letter has three signatures, while the first only had one.

Hal Anderson said...

If they indeed resigned in protest, I think that it falls on the Gardiner and Musto to explain why. Asking Unger to explain first sounds like they're trying to bait him.

Miriamne said...

Where do I stand in all of this? Concerned. I like being a medievalist; I love what medievalists are capable of (to wit, this blog and Jeffrey's writing since at least 2000; Eileen and Myra's journal; Dinshaw's queer medievalism). I think that we medievalists have kept our various fields (esp. History and English but also Religious Studies, Art, Music, and Drama/Theater) alive and vibrant. I don't expect recognition of this among these fields, but I would like there not be so much bad behavior, scapegoating, in-fighting, and bad blood right now. Yes, as Eileen points out, MAA has not been a place I have turned to for conferences. (But once Anthony Bale asked me to be in a session, and I ended up in the halls of Yale.) Still, . . . [see all the points Eileen menitons]. Mary Kate brings up the MLA. Horrible that the umbrella organization is Othering us, and making three fields into one but, in particular, collapsing Old English into Middle English. On ISAS, one of the posters referred to MLA's erasure of Celtic Studies, so there is a history and a precedent, I guess. But how do we stop the erosion? Will we be more successful than the Ancientists? Than the environmentalists? Goddess, I hope so. Kudos to Bonnie Wheeler and Jeffrey Cohen for using the power of the pen. We can only hope that the pen works some wonders.

ASM said...

I kind-of think that we are about to get to the part of a scandal where the coverup becomes worse than the actual issue. They really should just lay it all out for the membership, at this point.

James McNelis said...

In support of Jeffrey's points: from an AAUP perspective, it is considered a given that secrecy serves the agenda of whoever imposes it. The recent new AAUP policy on administration attempts to swear faculty committee members to vows of silence relates to that: