Staff Salaries Aren’t the MLA’s Real Problem

May 19, 2014

Stung by the revelation that Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, pulls down a $300,000 salary (an amount that many administrators on many campuses would expect to feed the families of 15 or 20 contingent faculty members), a group of MLA members put together a petition to cap salaries for all of the association’s executives.

They suggested the median eight-course earnings of adjunct faculty (about $24,000) as a benchmark, proposing that MLA staff members earn no more than four times that figure, or $96,000 a year. One reasonable intended effect was to goose the association toward greater activism and lobbying: As the salaries of the poorest-paid rose, so would the executives’. If contingent faculty earned a median of $50,000, for instance, MLA executives could earn $200,000. In essence the adjuncts were saying: The problem isn’t your salary; it’s your insufficient attention to mine.

The petition’s 750-plus signers include adjunct faculty and tenured activists. Many of the signers expressed anger and frustration at the level of the organization’s commitment to their issues. "A generation of adjunct professors are being exploited to death" while the MLA is "stuffing its own face," wrote one. Several others had quit the organization.

On balance, signers who commented agreed that the differential between majority faculty earnings and MLA executive pay "was too lopsided to ignore," that MLA salaries "should be reined in for both symbolic and material reasons," and that keeping the salaries to the level of the average tenured professor "would be fair."

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I think the most cogent point of difference with part of the petition has come from Michael Bérubé, a past president of the MLA. Noting that apart from Feal, 10 other staff members earned $125,000 to $200,000, he argued that those are perfectly appropriate salaries for New York City-based senior executives. I agree, and I’ve previously written in The Chronicle that underpayment at the bottom is generally the issue, rather than overpayment at the top.

But that response isn’t enough, because it raises several questions, such as: Does the MLA need to be based in Manhattan? Can the organization be consolidated or restructured to save money? Are all of those senior executives necessary? Furthermore, the majority of MLA-field faculty members living in the New York area are forced to get by on a lot less. And Bérubé ducks their main point, which isn’t about executive salaries at all, but is a call for action from members of the profession disappointed about the way the MLA has represented their interests.

Feal’s core supporters are members of the MLA executive council’s compensation committee, which determines her salary. Posted to the petition site by Feal herself, the committee’s response was astonishingly tone-deaf, including the extraneous observation that many of "you who signed the petition aren’t members." (Um, because they quit or lapsed? And tracking down the membership status of several hundred signatories is a good use of staff time?)

Their defense of Feal amounted to the claim that plenty of other nonprofit heads pulled the same salaries or better. They say her salary and the pay of contingent faculty are apples and oranges, arguing that "the association itself is not an academic institution, nor does it employ adjuncts." The committee directs members upset about pay to take it up with the "executive officers at institutions where you work." While I agree that direct action and collective responses are essential to actual change, the petitioners deserve more and better attention from the MLA.

The petition organizer, Robert Craig Baum, is dean of academic affairs at Lebanon College, in New Hampshire. When we talked recently, he called the MLA’s record on advocacy "laughable" and the committee response "defensive, unhelpful, and typical."

Baum, who describes his own career as from "migrant intellectual to administration," is no knee-jerk radical. He simply doesn’t share the MLA’s rosy view of its own accomplishments: "The MLA knows about the struggle but does nothing about it beyond endless paperwork, website updates, and speeches." He added, "there’s a Grand Canyon-sized gulf" between the needs of contingent faculty and the MLA staff’s willingness to act.

My own view is that Baum is right. What Feal’s defenders don’t acknowledge is the petitioners’ underlying goal. Quite reasonably, they want what my comrades wanted in 1994, and what grad students and other contingent faculty wanted a generation before that: They want the organization to become far more active in defense of a collapsing profession.

The compensation committee’s response, casting about for some evidence of MLA action, could come up with only the claim that the dues were pretty low, and the availability of very modest travel grants for the impoverished. It also pointed to the MLA’s "Workforce Advocacy Kit," which consists largely of links to reports and articles written before 2010 of varying quality, plus links to materials prepared by the American Federation of Teachers. There are no direct links to the AAUP or any union besides the AFT, no current bibliography on academic-labor issues, no organizing materials, no media kit for various audiences. There’s no staff support for self-organization, and little lobbying and public-relations outreach by the association specific to workplace issues.

The "advocacy kit" is little more than "here’s some random stuff we pulled together—good luck and see ya later!"

Both the late Phyllis Franklin, a former executive director of the MLA, and Rosemary Feal told me in interviews that defending tenure and the economic well-being of the membership is not the MLA’s job. Complainants are sent off to the American Association of University Professors, unions, and the like. "I’ve been to Washington," Feal told me. "They just don’t want to listen."

But if you flash back to the creation of the executive-director position as a permanent staff line, one explicit, leading motivation for doing so was to address the "jobs crisis" and engage in lobbying activity. Both Franklin and Feal largely ducked this responsibility in favor of making the organization itself (very) fiscally healthy. Feal has traveled around MLA conventions with public-relations consultants in her wake, but it seems that their job is largely to protect the organization’s image, not create an advocacy strategy.

Feal seems to spend more time defending the association from imaginary enemies within than directing resources toward influential media outlets. She spends way too much time tweeting the members—and tweet-heckling those who disagree with her—rather than getting sit-downs with journalists and politicians.

Right now, what the MLA staff members contribute to the situation of contingent faculty is hand-wringing, not advocacy. If the MLA did more for the future of the profession, nobody would complain about the leaders’ salaries.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University.