Judith Butler Must Resign as MLA President-Elect

On May 11, 2018, Dr. Judith Butler used her title as "President Elect, Modern Language Association" to intervene in a Title IX sexual-harassment investigation on behalf of the accused harasser. Dr. Butler thereby associated the Modern Language Association and its members, whom she had not consulted, with this professionally and ethically inappropriate intervention. By speaking against Title IX in the MLA's name, but without the MLA's consent, Dr. Butler has forfeited any future authority to speak for the MLA and its membership. We ask that Dr. Butler step down as Vice-President of the Modern Language Association and permit the election of a replacement.

Our profession should have no place for sexual harassment of students or junior scholars. But such abuses have for too long been tolerated in the academy, and too often perpetrated by otherwise distinguished scholars. At this moment in history, the MLA must stand clearly for all its members' rights to full consent and their freedom to pursue scholarly careers without harassment. It is disappointing that the distinguished Dr. Butler cannot make such a stand. But it is unacceptable to use the MLA's name to stand against those goals.

The May 11 letter, of which Dr. Butler is chief signatory, goes beyond defending the accused harasser to attack the accuser personally. The complainant, a junior scholar in an MLA field, is accused of "malicious intention" and of "wag[ing]" a "malicious campaign" against the professor under investigation. Such accusations would be startling even if supported by fact. But the letter openly confesses its ignorance of the investigation's results. Dr. Butler and her co-signatories seemingly require neither facts nor evidence to malign a vulnerable early-career scholar. How can any junior member of the Modern Language Association place trust in Dr. Butler now?

Dr. Butler is entitled to write on behalf of a friend and colleague, even if that effort strikes us as misguided. But she is only entitled to do so in her personal capacity. She may not arrogate the voice of our professional organization to that dubious cause, as she has done, by appending her MLA title to lend her signature additional weight. While her assertion that the contents of the "confidential dossier" she has not seen "do not constitute actual evidence" is to her intellectual discredit, as is her blanket "objection to any judgment against" the accused, these disappointing lapses do not in themselves disqualify her from leadership of the MLA.

But making uncorroborated personal attacks against a junior scholar because that scholar has filed a complaint of harassment is absolutely disqualifying. Every member of the MLA must be safe to request due process and appropriate protection. When the President-Elect of the MLA feels free to attack the professionally vulnerable, the organization's authority is deployed against its own members. Dr. Butler has attacked a powerless colleague for having the temerity to complain against a powerful one. She must resign or else be removed. The Modern Language Association can no longer trust her with power.

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