Scholarly Associations Defend Tenure and Academic Freedom in Wisconsin

The Modern Language Association has joined other associations in the American Council of Learned Societies in issuing the following statement about tenure and academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin.

The American system of higher education is the envy of the world. It’s not perfect; few things are. But at a time when many Americans fear their nation may be falling behind competitively, U.S. colleges and universities continue to be universally regarded as the best in the world. The University of Wisconsin system, in particular, is noted for its standards of research and teaching excellence, with the Madison campus recognized among the top fifteen of American public universities by U.S. News and World Report. The University of Wisconsin is a critical contributor to the state’s economy that provides exceptional value with its thirteen campuses serving over 180,000 students. With $1.2 billion of state investment, the system generates over $15 billion of economic activity.

The undersigned associations of scholars across a wide variety of disciplines are gravely concerned with proposals pending in the Wisconsin legislature that threaten to undermine several longstanding features of the state’s current higher education system: shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom.

By situating the locus of control inside the institution, in a partnership between faculty and administrators, the U.S. system of higher education has generated an unmatched diversity that enables students to find the educational environment that works best for them. And by granting faculty tenure after an appropriate period during which their work is rigorously evaluated, we have ensured the continued intellectual vitality and classroom independence so essential to innovation, dynamism, and rigorous scholarship.

Academic freedom is the foundation of intellectual discovery, including in the classroom. It nourishes the environment within which students develop critical habits of mind through encounters with diverse perspectives, experiences, and sources of evidence across disciplines. Our democracy depends on the educated citizens that this system is intended to produce: wide-ranging in their knowledge, rigorous in their ability to understand complicated questions, and dedicated to the public good.

Wisconsin in fact helped pioneer the concept of academic freedom for the entire United States when its Board of Regents declared in 1894 that they would not terminate the employment of economist Richard Ely even though his research and teaching on the benefits of labor unions had offended one of its own members. The Regents’ report in the wake of that controversy remains one of the most ringing endorsements for academic freedom in the history of American higher education: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere,” they wrote, “we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

The policies recommended by the Joint Finance Committee and included in the 2016 budget pose a direct threat to academic freedom by expanding the circumstances under which tenure can be revoked (beyond dire financial emergencies and just cause) while simultaneously removing its protection under state statute. Tenure is a linchpin of vigorous shared governance and independent rigorous scholarship. This assault on the structure of Wisconsin’s model arrangements poses a threat to the university’s stellar reputation and international leadership in research and education—and it betrays a celebrated Wisconsin tradition that began with the Ely case in 1894.

Since 1904, the “Wisconsin Idea” has stood as an inspiring educational model for the entire nation, demonstrating the immeasurable benefits of a robust partnership between the state university and state government predicated on intellectual independence and active engagement by students and faculty members with the wider world. An earlier draft of the current budget bill sought to remove language about the Wisconsin Idea from the mission statement of the university. This most recent draft now poses no less a threat by undermining several of the most important practical pillars of shared governance and academic freedom that have made Wisconsin a beacon among its peer institutions around the world.

Rather than making the University of Wisconsin system more fiscally nimble, the Joint Finance Committee recommendations threaten to damage, possibly irreparably, the distinguished educational system that has justifiably been the pride of Wisconsin residents for more than a century and a half.

Signed,

American Academy of Religion

American Anthropological Association

American Comparative Literature Association

American Folklore Society

American Historical Association

American Society of Comparative Law

American Society for Environmental History

American Sociological Association

American Studies Association

Association of College & Research Libraries

Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies

College Art Association

German Studies Association

Modern Language Association

National Communication Association

National Council on Public History

Oral History Association

The Shakespeare Association of America

The Sixteenth Century Society and Conference

Society of Architectural Historians

World History Association

An Introduction to the New Forum Structure

Dear MLA Members,

It is our pleasure to announce that the Executive Council has approved a proposal for a new division and discussion group structure starting with the 2016 convention. As cochairs of the working group that developed the proposal over three years, with broad-based consultation among individual members, numerous MLA committees, and the Delegate Assembly, we are delighted to introduce the new structure and to invite you to become involved in implementing it. We know you will have lots of questions, and you will find answers to many of them here.

This extensive review was the first in forty years. It aimed to respond thoughtfully to intellectual changes that have occurred since 1974, which have affected the kinds of work done in long-established MLA fields while also contributing to the formation of new fields.

Several priorities guided the multifaceted review process:

  • a commitment to the deep study of language, literature, and their histories
  • the protection of small fields, including the study of less commonly taught languages
  • the attempt to minimize hierarchies and exclusions among fields, large and small
  • the aim to lessen the divide between English and foreign languages in the MLA
  • the desire to add new fields in emergent areas

As you review the new structure, you will find much continuity as well as a number of significant changes.

  • For the sake of democratization and simplification, the distinction between discussion groups and divisions has been eliminated in favor of the single category forums.
  • The forums are grouped under nine rubrics, which are meant to enhance the legibility of the new structure while allowing intellectual exchanges within and across categories. Forums are arranged alphabetically within these nine rubrics:
    • Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
    • Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies
    • Genre Studies
    • Media Studies
    • Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies
    • Language Studies and Linguistics
    • Theory and Method
    • Transdisciplinary Connections
    • Higher Education and the Profession
  • Forums will be reviewed every five years and will thus have regular opportunities to study their histories and their plans for the future.
  • Each forum will have a group site on MLA Commons for year-round communication.
  • Many new forums have been preapproved by the council and can hold sessions as early as 2016.
  • Members may propose additional new forums starting with the 2018 convention.
  • A new kind of convention session, the three-year seminar, is geared to specialized topics that call for sustained attention beyond that which is offered by the special session format. They will be introduced for the 2018 convention.

As we introduce this new structure, we are keenly aware of the many negotiations and imperfect compromises that produced it. The discussions in which we have engaged with many of you during these last three years have been both invigorating and humbling. We are grateful for the time and thought you put into your comments. We learned from them all, and they led us to think hard and in new ways about how to negotiate among many differing ideas and stakes in the future of the MLA.

Beginning this process, we knew that we could not actually complete it, if completion meant devising a structure that would stand unaltered for decades. We hoped to provoke a conversation among members about the shapes and priorities of our fields. This conversation has certainly occurred, and it has produced a structure that includes, as a constitutive element, a process of regular review.

With this letter, we happily announce that one phase of the conversation has concluded, and we look forward to the new phases that will occur at MLA conventions, in MLA committee meetings, and on MLA Commons. Our thanks go to the working group (Srinivas Aravamudan, David Bartholomae, Brent Edwards, Carla Freccero, Mary Louise Pratt, Richard So, and Patricia Yaeger); to members of the Executive Council, who gave us much advice; and to all MLA members who commented on the various drafts circulated over the past year. We also thank Rosemary G. Feal, who encouraged us at every step of the way, and the many MLA staff members who contributed to the revision process and who will now be working with the membership on implementation. We can’t wait to see how members use the new structure to expand their interests at the convention and on MLA Commons.

Sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson, President
Marianne Hirsch, Immediate Past President

Related Materials

Draft Statement on Letters of Recommendation

Thank you to all the members whose thoughtful feedback helped the Executive Council and me revise these guidelines. The final statement is now available on mla.org. I hope you will share these guidelines with job seekers and other colleagues involved in the hiring process.

I welcome your frank opinions on a new MLA document that would, if approved by the Executive Council, outline some best practices for those who write, request, or read letters of recommendation for graduate students seeking employment or postdoctoral fellowships in MLA fields.

Background

For some time now, I have had conversations with graduate students and faculty members about the difficulties in requesting and writing recommendation letters. In the current stressful and often enigmatic competition for academic jobs and fellowships, students wonder how many letters are really required (perhaps over and above the number stated in a job advertisement), about what an effective letter looks like, and about who will write them the most effective letter. Faculty members also wonder what makes a letter effective. Even the term effective is enigmatic in the present network of academic social relations, as a comparison of current letters with those written in the past dramatically shows. The genre has a long and multicultural history; from what I have been able to reconstruct of it, the (almost always male) letter writer typically knew whether his letter was effective by whether its recipient did or did not give the recommended candidate the position or service respectfully requested on his or her behalf by the letter writer. Today, in contrast, institutions require multiple letters and typically delegate tasks of judgment to committees with several members who read dossiers that contain the candidate’s self-recommending letter along with letters from several knowledgeable (but not disinterested) faculty members, and there are very few ways for the writer to gauge the value of his or her letter—or even to know what systems of value are at stake.  It is no wonder that some faculty members find the work of writing letters time-consuming, perplexing, and sometimes unrewarding; they know that a single negative phrase can harm a student’s application for a job or fellowship, but they have little evidence that entirely positive letters help students achieve their goals.

Moreover, when departments request (or simply accept) six or more letters for each applicant, faculty letter writers (who are of course also often readers of job dossiers) cannot help being aware that the labor and time of writing letters are out of sync with the labor and time devoted to reading them (especially at the early stages of a job search). Recognizing that the terrible academic job market is at the root of many problems that faculty members encounter as they attempt to help their advanced PhD students gain an academic position, I think that the MLA can make some useful suggestions for best practices in this small but important arena of academic work.

The following draft proposals distill some of the arguments presented in a longer and more historical form in an article I wrote for the special topic Work in the October 2012 issue of PMLA, coordinated by Vicky Unruh, and incorporate suggestions from an Executive Council discussion in May 2013. The recommendations are modeled in part on those in the document entitled “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions.” Prepared by the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession, that document has been sent to department chairs, university administrators, and MLA members who are graduate students and professors in both tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the committee’s suggestions are bearing fruit in some places.

Going Forward

I hope to bring a revised statement to the council in October 2013, incorporating your suggestions. I would be grateful for your comments on the recommendations below as well as for your suggestions for other possible recommendations. During the council’s discussion in May, there were differing views on limiting the number of recommendations (outlined in point 7), so I also invite you to comment specifically on that issue. Documents recommending changes in professional behavior are most likely to be read if they have been debated and revised in the process of being produced. I hope you will participate in that process now!

Thank you, and all best wishes,

Margaret Ferguson

First Vice President

Proposed Recommendations

  1. Faculty letter writers should consider whether the length and content of their recommendation are appropriate in relation to the student’s letter of application. Some faculty members who write letters of more than three pages may be offering descriptions of the student’s intellectual project that compete with, rather than support, the student’s account of his or her project.
  2. Graduate students should ask faculty members for letters of recommendation well in advance of going on the job market so that letter writers can visit graduate students’ classes to gain firsthand knowledge of their teaching practices. The corollary of this recommendation is that faculty letter writers, especially but not only dissertation directors, should be able to comment knowledgeably on the students’ syllabi, student evaluations, and classroom practices. Many postdoctoral fellowships require some teaching as well as a strong intellectual project, so faculty letter writers, especially dissertation directors, should be prepared to write an informed letter that speaks to both pedagogical and scholarly issues.
  3. Directors of graduate studies should consider reviewing all letters of recommendation written for students going on the academic job market. Alternatively, graduate directors or department chairs could ask a trusted faculty member to perform this service, which could include proofreading as well as fact-checking (e.g., how many courses the graduate student has taught) or discrepancies in projections about important matters such as the dissertation completion date. Reviewing of students’ recommendations was a standard practice in many departments and other academic units before electronic uploading of individual letters became the norm. Some departments may have found ways to continue the reviewing practice in the digital age. (If your department has done so, please describe its process in your comments.)
  4. Hiring departments (and deans who oversee departmental hiring protocols) should consider requiring letters of recommendation only for finalists or semifinalists in a job search rather than for all applicants. With electronic communication resources, there is no longer a need to have all parts of a dossier submitted at the same time. Many faculty readers of dossiers say that they don’t read letters of recommendation carefully until the applicant is at the “long short list” stage of the selection process. (Note: It’s my sense that faculty members could tailor their letters more effectively if asked to comment at a later stage of the hiring process—but I don’t want to make the possibility of such tailoring, which involves extra work and which some of us already do, a linchpin for this general recommendation.)
  5. Deans and provosts should consult with department chairs in language and literature departments before making decisions (or delegating them to human resources administrators) about adopting a platform that has an automatic limit on words or on characters for uploaded letters of recommendation. Setting automatic length limits requires extra work from recommendation writers, who submit many letters for many students applying to different institutions. Academic administrators should also consult with their counterparts in other institutions about how the rapid and unstandardized changes in the reception of job search materials are affecting the labor time of faculty members in fields where detailed narrative evaluations are the norm.
  6. Administrators in agencies and foundations that award postdoctoral fellowships should consider changing automatic word or character limits for recommendations if such limits have been set for the convenience of the staff or of outside reviewers. Stating clearly in the directions to letter writers that letters should not exceed two or three pages is reasonable; cutting off letters automatically is not. To find that your letter must stop in midsentence (or midword!) creates bad will and a collective loss of faculty time. Moreover, if faculty members think carefully about the above proposal, concerning the appropriate length for most letters, the automatic cutoffs introduced by electronic uploading procedures may become unnecessary. That is, fellowship administrators can join a field of negotiation and debate rather than allow technology to decide on an issue that has not yet been adequately discussed in the profession.
  7. Hiring departments should consider limiting the number of required letters of recommendation to three (four, perhaps, when the position requires competence in more than one area). At present, there is considerable confusion on the part of graduate students about how many letters are “really” needed; some students are asking for—and receiving—as many as nine or ten letters while other students (especially those going on the market for the first time) feel doomed to failure because they have letters coming only from their dissertation committee members and perhaps from someone else who will write a “separate” teaching letter. If letter writers adopt a holistic approach to their letters and if students request letters in advance, allowing letter writers time not only to observe classes but also to comment on job search materials and writing samples, departments could at least have a robust discussion of how many letters are “really” needed for candidates for a certain job. Once such a decision is made, departments could give it heft by stating clearly in their MLA Job Information List advertisement that the search committee will read only the first (three? four?) letters in any dossier.
  8. Faculty members who write letters of recommendation for graduate students (or undergraduates or colleagues) should carefully consider the legal opinion that “recommendations should be written on the assumption that the subject will read the letter.” This opinion, formulated by lawyers employed by the University of Alabama, Huntsville, occurs in a document that examines, among other things relevant to faculty recommendation writers, a student’s right, granted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to read statements about him or her. While students may waive this right on the letter of recommendation form, faculty letter writers should understand that such waivers may not hold up in a legal proceeding. (Note: Confidentiality is also a vexed issue in external review letters; some states prohibit public universities from keeping letters of evaluation confidential. That issue might be taken up in these proposals.)