The MLA & the Radical Caucus


lesko-300x225by P.D. Lesko

Adjunct Advocate has enjoyed the support of the Modern Language Association for well over a decade. This should come as no surprise, particularly in light of the MLA’s recent study “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English.” The upshot of the MLA’s study is that there are (no shock) currently scads and scads of temporary faculty teaching English and foreign languages. In addition (no shock), these part-timers are paid poorly, and salaries for part-timers have been (ahem) “flat” for the past 8 years. MLA researchers concluded that “professors who are fully part of campus life and who help design the curriculum should be teaching.”

Ok. So how about a resounding MLA recommendation that part-time faculty at every college and university in the United States be fully integrated into the departments in which they teach, be invited to participate fully and equally in governance, and be required to serve on faculty committees that oversee curriculum? Heck, why not just come out and say that part-time faculty need to shoulder the same administrative, curricular, advisory and governance responsibilities that full-time faculty are expected to shoulder? Of course, then, part-time faculty would be paid to shoulder those additional responsibilities, just as the full-time faculty are paid to do so. At some colleges, union officials argue that full-time faculty deserve their higher per course pay because they shoulder such responsibilities.

The MLA leadership and study got blasted by Dr. Cary Nelson, AAUP President, here. Blasting the MLA is, I think, a blood sport among those within higher education. The organization’s leadership is damned if they do a study on the use of part-time faculty, and damned if they don’t do a study on the use of part-time faculty.

At the recent MLA meeting in San Francisco at the Delegate Assembly, MLA Delegate Assembly members approved the creation of a standing committee on adjuncts. Adjuncts will populate the committee and come up with strategies to improve the way part-timers are treated. (Please see my suggestions, above.) While I am tempted to breathe a sigh of relief and mutter, “Well, it’s about time!” I know better. Why do I know better? Well, another happening at the Delegate Assembly presented a perfect example of the reality that is higher education. After haggling, dragging their feet, mewling and puking for longer than it took Moses to get the Jews across the desert, the MLA Delegate Assembly created a “committee” on adjunct faculty. At that same meeting, the Delegate Assembly voted on a resolution made by Dr. Grover Furr, the leader of the MLA’s so-called Radical Caucus. Professor Furr asked MLA delegates to vote to have MLA oppose the war in Iraq and to make a public statement that the MLA “endorses teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture, supports members who come under attack for pursuing such work, and expresses solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture.”

After reading the MLA’s study concerning the use and abuse of adjunct faculty, and watching the Delegate Assembly form its first “committee” on adjunct faculty, Dr. Grover Furr, and other leaders of the Radical Caucus, the Radical Caucus, pushed to have MLA endorse teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture. At Montclair State University, where Dr. Furr teaches, the AFT affiliated union contract—the affiliate represents both full-time and part-time faculty—calls for adjuncts to be paid $3,300-$3,600 per course. By 2011, per course pay for part-time faculty will top out at $3,600-$3,750. Pay for full-time professors, such as Dr. Furr, tops out at $143,000 per year in 2008. Needless to say, full-time faculty represented by the union, such as that rascally “radical” Dr. Furr, will enjoy obscenely inequitable pay raises. By 2011, full-time faculty salaries at Montclair State University will top out at $153,000 per year.

So, while adjuncts at his own school are getting the shaft from the union that represents the faculty, Dr. Furr is doing nothing radical for his own colleagues at Montclair State University. In fact, in a posting  at, Dr. Furr writes:

“Today we have 29 fulltime faculty, and each of us teaches one section of Freshman English every 2-3 years! Why the change? 100% of the reason: BUDGET CUTS by the State. Fewer faculty, twice as many students, so more…classes are now taught by low-paid, super-exploited adjuncts who do not get even a living wage and, of course, no benefits. If the fulltime faculty taught all the Freshman English courses, as was the case 35 years ago, then the adjuncts would have to teach the literature courses, staff the English Major, General Education, Honors, and other courses that must be taught here as in every college or university.”

So why not give the literature, English major courses, general education courses and honors courses to the adjuncts? That would be radical, don’t you think? Why not protest, twist and shout, and otherwise vehemently insist that the union leaders divide the total amount of money allocated for faculty salary hikes more equitably. If the union did this, part-time faculty at Montclair State University would enjoy pro-rata pay and benefits. That would be radical.

There was a long discussion at the MLA’s Delegate Assembly concerning just how “political” the MLA should be. Here’s my suggestion: MLA delegates, such as Grover Furr and the Radical Caucus, have no business insisting that the Modern Language Association make blanket statements on behalf of all members concerning domestic or international politics. I’m a member of the MLA, and I have my personal opinions about politics. Ask me, and I’ll tell you about them. I belong to the MLA because I have an interest in the mission of the Modern Language Association. Furthermore, as the MLA serves disciplines that are populated by huge numbers of faculty off the tenure-track, it seems a better use of the organization’s time and money—given the conclusions of the most current study—to have as a major policy shift and focus on reversing the exploitation of adjunct faculty. In Grover Furr’s case, as both a union member and MLA delegate, he benefits directly financially and professionally from the exploitation of part-time faculty.

If the handful of scholars who belong to the MLA and who teach Palestinian literature and Palestinian studies so desperately need the attention and support of the MLA’s Radical Caucus and MLA’s membership, shouldn’t MLA members extend a hand to the tens of thousands of MLA members who hold appointments off the tenure-track? These scholars suffer economically, professionally and personally every day for no other reason than they chose to accept appointments off the tenure-track.

Here are a few radical ideas: The MLA Nominating Committee should identity part-time faculty members for positions of leadership within the MLA’s Executive Committee, and that 50 percent of the 276 MLA Delegate Assembly slots should be reserved for faculty off the tenure-track.

Finally, faculty off the tenure-track should run to serve on the Executive Council. At the end of 2009, the terms of no fewer than 7 of the 14 members of the MLA’s Executive Council will expire. If you are a faculty member off the tenure-track and a member of the Modern Language Association, become a Delegate or run for the Executive Committee. If you have questions about how to get involved in leading the MLA, email the MLA staff liaison Carol Zuses.

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