Academic Politics as a Fluid Concern

— Richard E. Vatz

I just returned from my annual convention of the National Communication Association (NCA), my main academic organization. I went with concern, because not only does my national professional organization have a history of being liberal, it also has a history of a prevailing bias against conservatives, conservative ideas and conservative writing, manifested in its political structure filled with liberal interest groups, its tendency to publish mostly — and in an earlier time exclusively — liberal positions in its journals and its favoring by an astonishing ratio liberal or “progressive” submissions for its conventions.

The backdrop for the convention did not assuage my concern. There was a radical liberal attempt by some far left NCA members to effect a boycott of the hotel at which we stayed because the owner gave funds to support California’s Proposition 8, which is intended to outlaw gay marriage. No matter that both 2008 presidential candidates oppose gay marriage; no matter that the NCA had planned the convention 5-6 years ahead of time with all of the consequences a successful boycott would have had, and no matter that those with disabilities indicated their outrage that these NCA members wanted them to leave the hotel which has multiple accommodations for the disabled.

The power hierarchy of NCA had so feared the success of the hotel boycott, which could have led to a folding of the convention, that the president — a good man, but a weak leader — had publicly written a letter indicating his understanding and condoning of the outrage, if not the boycott, of the protesters.

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Fast forward to last week: the protest fizzled; the listserv majority that had railed in uncivil rhetoric against the hotel (which has a history of pro-gay policies) and its owner, was revealed to be an unrepresentative, tiny minority of the NCA; and the convention hosted a record number of NCA members for a California convention.

When the Legislative Assembly (LA) of the NCA met on the first day of the convention, I anticipated similar irresponsible liberal craziness. The LA, of which I am a current and past member, was going to vote on the NCA’s officially taking a position against the United States’ use of torture and solitary confinement.

The proposal was a “Resolution Regarding Extended Solitary Confinement and Torture” which, in my opinion, would have certified the NCA as a primarily political, not academic, organization and which would have opened the door to endless other irresponsible resolutions (e.g. nuclear disarmament, foreign policy initiatives, taxes, etc.), perhaps indelibly identifying NCA as a (radical left) political organization. My motion to table the resolution failed 54-53, but the original resolution was defeated by voice vote (according to my informal estimation) by about 75-25. Very surprising…also surprising was the number of Assembly representatives who told me they changed their mind pursuant to the ensuing debate and didn’t want the NCA to relinquish and sully its reputation as an academic organization.

A surprisingly satisfying, if not definitive, happenstance to be followed by the failure of an untoward, unjustifiable boycott, a boycott threatening the support for freedom of speech by the National Communication Association, formerly the Speech Communication Association.

Plus ça change, plus ça change.

Richard Vatz is a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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