Faculty

Rosemary Feal to Step Down as Executive Director of Modern Language Association

February 24, 2016

Jon Benjamin
Rosemary Feal says she has not decided what she will do after she leaves office at the MLA. But, she says, she "is not the retiring type" and expects "to be involved, in one way or the other, in the field of higher education."
Rosemary G. Feal plans to step down next year as executive director of the Modern Language Association of America, ending a 15-year tenure in which she won praise for helping the group adapt to changes in the academic work force but often came under pressure to do more on that front.

Ms. Feal publicly told the group’s members of her decision on Wednesday, after tipping off the MLA’s Executive Council, which intends to appoint a search committee to find her successor when it meets this week. She plans to stay in the job until the summer of 2017, the end of her third five-year term at the helm of the group, devoted to the study and teaching of languages and literature.

"Fifteen years is a long time, and while I have enjoyed every moment, it’s now the right move for the association to plan for a smooth leadership transition and for me to pursue new opportunities," she said in a written statement announcing her departure. In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Feal, who is 60, said she had not decided what she would do next. But, she said, she "is not the retiring type" and expects "to be involved, in one way or the other, in the field of higher education."

“Fifteen years is a long time, and while I have enjoyed every moment, it's now the right move for the association to plan for a smooth leadership transition and for me to pursue new opportunities.”
Under Ms. Feal’s leadership, the 26,000-member MLA has ended up in exceptionally strong financial shape for an academic association, mainly as a result of big strides it made in digital publishing. About half of its annual revenue comes from the MLA International Bibliography, which houses 2.6 million records dating to 1926 and provides access to books, articles, and websites. All told, its publications account for about two-thirds of the money it takes in annually to pay for its administration and program services.

"The MLA was well ahead of where it needed to be to make sure its publishing wing remained viable," said Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and a former member of the association’s Executive Council, in an interview this week.

In recent years, however, the group’s fortunes appear to have ebbed slightly. It had roughly $15.5 million in revenue in the last fiscal year, down from more than $16.1 million the year before. Attendance at its annual meeting has declined to about 6,500 from about 8,500 four years ago.

Faculty Frustrations

On other fronts, the MLA has made substantial strides in seeking diversity — more than half of its Executive Council’s 18 members are from racial or ethnic minority groups. Moreover, non-tenure-track faculty members and graduate students hold more leadership positions in the association than they did before, and the group has sought to better represent their interests.

Among steps it has taken to deal with upheaval in the academic labor market, the MLA has called for doctoral programs in literature and languages to shorten the path to a Ph.D. and to prepare more students for jobs outside academe’s tenure track. The group has sought to be more inclusive of writing specialists, who are more in demand than their literature-focused colleagues in today’s academic job market but who typically have gravitated to other organizations more focused on instruction in composition and rhetoric.

Her departure 'represents an opportunity for the organization to hire someone who is truly committed to the reform of academic working conditions.'
Despite such efforts, Ms. Feal and other MLA leaders have continued to draw fire for not doing more on behalf of scholars who are off the tenure track. Graduate students and adjunct instructors who felt out of place at the association’s annual conference began in 2014 to hold free subconferences just before the meeting.

Complaining that their economic plight was receiving too little attention from MLA leaders such as Ms. Feal, who earns an annual salary of more than $300,000, a group of adjunct instructors that year petitioned to cap the salaries of the association’s executives at levels tied to adjuncts’ median earnings.

Demands that the MLA be more representative of non-tenure-track instructors have become part of candidates’ platforms in MLA elections.

Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Emory University and past member of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly who has criticized Ms. Feal’s advocacy, on Wednesday said her departure "represents an opportunity for the organization to hire someone who is truly committed to the reform of academic working conditions."

But Elaine Showalter, an emerita professor of English at Princeton University who served as president of the MLA in 1998, said the association’s executive director labors under "a combination of responsibility and powerlessness."

“She has done a great job in a very difficult situation. This is a terrible time for the humanities in universities, and I think professional associations lack real power either in regard to universities or even their own members.”
"She has done a great job in a very difficult situation," Ms. Showalter said. "This is a terrible time for the humanities in universities, and I think professional associations lack real power either in regard to universities or even their own members."

Before taking the executive-director position, in 2002, Ms. Feal was a professor of Spanish and chairwoman of the department of modern languages and literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She had been a member of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly since 1988.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the MLA’s president and a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, said as part of the statement announcing Ms. Feal’s departure: "In a decade and a half of challenges — the explosion of nontenured faculty, new technological resources, falling financial state support, and rising hostility to the humanities — Rosemary has led the MLA’s response smartly, knowledgeably, and with great good humor. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. She will be sorely missed."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.