Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Dog days at Wayne State

A few links and thoughts on the ongoing administrative assault on faculty tenure (and the corresponding status for academic staff) at Wayne State University (full disclosure: I was a tenure-track assistant professor in the Wayne State English Department and Linguistics Program from 2008 to 2011):



  • The administration’s July 17 proposal unambiguously guts tenure protections. It gives the university president sole discretion to initiate the termination process (section B.2) for an explicitly unlimited range of reasons (section B.1.a; “shall include but not be limited to” is the key phrase), as well as to hear and decide any appeals (section B.3). The July 17 proposal contains no provision for peer review or any other faculty involvement in the detenuring and termination process.
  • The administration is nonetheless adamant that its proposal does not do away with tenure. This may be true, in a narrow, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose sense. That is, the university can keep the tenure process for faculty in place while eliminating all of its protections and guarantees: junior faculty would still have to earn “tenure” in order to keep their jobs, but would be at-will employees every step of the way. This is tenure in name only. It is also a useful demonstration of the difference between lying and dishonesty: the administration can say truthfully that it is retaining tenure for faculty, while omitting the fact that it is seeking to rob the term of all recognized meaning.
  • The rationale for the proposed change is ever-shifting between a desire to terminate “unproductive” faculty and a desire to eliminate faculty in unpopular or otherwise undesirable programs. The two goals are entirely independent: faculty “performance” is wholly unconnected to the matter of program offerings. The two are nonetheless rhetorically linked by the administration, in a classic bit of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down polemical sleight-of-hand: some faculty are bad, thus we must be able to fire any faculty member at any time for any reason.
  • Bound up with the rhetoric above is a persistent effort to preemptively marginalize anyone who might question it. Despite the lack of any checks on its firing power in the July 17 proposal, the administration assures us that it is only going after bad apples. The Detroit News opines, in its editorial linked above, that “Faculty members who do good work have little to fear from the changes.” And the only reason to oppose warrantless domestic surveillance is the fear that your own misdeeds will be exposed, right? This is a rhetorical staple of oppressive regimes; the administration and its champions in the local press should be embarrassed to touch this argument with a ten-foot pole.
  • A detail not much remarked on in press accounts: section B.1.c of the July 17 proposal lists as grounds for termination “forcibly interrupting the normal daily teaching, research or administrative operation of the University or directly inciting others to engage in such actions”. In other words, going on strike or engaging in any other sort of traditionally protected act of protest (or encouraging others to do the same) would be grounds for detenuring and termination.
  • Finally, the local press’s unconditional support of the administration’s position can be traced at least in part to its framing of the university as a business (a frame reinforced by the new university president’s past as an auto executive). In this frame, administrators are viewed as business managers who need business-like control over every aspect of the university. Anything less undercuts their authority as managers; their managerial wisdom is taken for granted. Wayne State, of course, is a not-for-profit research university and a public institution supported (less and less) by taxpayers. If its administrators were viewed not as business managers but as government bureaucrats, they might come in for less-than-total sympathy from the media. We might instead hear calls for the university to rein in and minimize its substantial administrative overhead costs in order to concentrate its resources on teaching and research, the latter especially being an area in which academic peers, and not administrators, have the relevant “managerial” wisdom.

As noted above, the administration’s July 17 proposal has likely been amended in the negotiating process, though we don’t know the details. It is, however, hard to see how anything other than a full withdrawal of that proposal’s section B (or other changes amounting to the same) could reasonably preserve tenure protections for Wayne State faculty (and the corresponding protections for academic staff). If anything like the above-linked language is put in force, it will likely spell the end of Wayne State as a viable research university, as “productive” faculty depart for institutions that grant them the rights and protections they need in order to do their work unmolested by administrative caprice. The continued existence of those protections at other institutions, of course, can’t be taken for granted: as Coleman Young memorably put it, “Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” We appear to be in for a long fight.


New York Times headline editor fails to

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, with the state’s Republican voters set to pick which member of the assholocracy they’d like to see take on Barack Obama, the New York Times runs the following headline:

Iowa, the Early Decider, Still Hasn’t

The English syntactic process that leaves a gap after the negative auxiliary hasn’t in the headline above is called verb phrase ellipsis (VPE). The idea behind VPE is that a sentence like the one in the headline above is derived from a structure in which the verb phrase in question is present: Iowa, the early decider, still hasn’t decided. The details of how one gets from this fully articulated structure to the VPE’d headline above differ among frameworks and implementations, but everyone more or less agrees on this basic premise.

VPE is a relatively well-understood process. We have known at least since the classic treatment of Hankamer and Sag (1976) that there are syntactic (as opposed to merely pragmatic) constraints on where the missing verb phrase can find its antecedent. One such syntactic constraint prohibits the antecedent (of, e.g., decided) from being found in a morphologically related noun (such as decider): this is, in the terminology of Postal (1969), an anaphoric island. Moreover, even Ward et al. (1991), in their thorough debunking of the idea that anaphoric islandhood is anything other than a pragmatic phenomenon, note that do so anaphora, a close cousin of VPE, is systematically/grammatically unable to find its antecedent in an anaphoric island.

All of this is to say that the headline above is not merely awkward, or stilted, or too-clever-by-half. It is ungrammatical. It is ungrammatical for the same reason that it is ungrammatical to call those who produce the aforementioned paper printers of all the news that’s fit to; and for the same reason that, if the Super Bowl gets cancelled, it is ungrammatical to describe that circumstance by saying that This highly anticipated happening didn’t; and for the same reason that it is ungrammatical to say, of the author and editor responsible for the headline above, These presumably-native English speakers nonetheless can’t. Forget about split infinitives: this is honest-to-goodness ungrammaticality we’re talking about here. Perhaps if this campaign without end ever does, the NYT can turn its attention to English syntax.

Update, Jan. 3: Perhaps I have been a bit hasty. It seems that there is a difference in acceptability for some speakers between examples like the headline above, where the anaphoric island for VPE is contained in an appositive/parenthetical phrase, and the ones I made up, where the anaphoric island is more fully integrated into the clausal syntax. Consider the following pairs:

1a. ? Iowa, the early decider, still hasn’t.
1b. * The early decider still hasn’t.

2a. ? Presumably native English speakers, these people nonetheless can’t.
2b. * These presumably-native English speakers nonetheless can’t.

It thus seems that being in an appositive/parenthetical phrase mitigates the anaphoric island effect for VPE somewhat, providing a linguistic antecedent that might be analyzed as outside of the clausal syntax proper. Put differently, these data suggest that clausemate anaphoric islandhood is truly deadly for VPE, but intersentential anaphoric islandhood is a bit less bad; cf. also the following, which seem to me to be equal in acceptability to the (a) examples immediately above, and not as bad as the (b) examples:

3a. ? Iowa is the early decider. Its voters, however, still haven’t.
3b. ? These guys are presumably native English speakers. All the more surprising, then, to find that they can’t.

There are undoubtedly further details to be unraveled here; for example, I would not be at all surprised to find that the choice of auxiliary affects the acceptability of anaphoric-island VPE (aspectual haven’t sounds better to me than modal can’t in the examples above). The syntactic complexity or argument structure of the anaphoric island and ellipted VP may also affect acceptability (i.e., the relative simplicity of decide vs. the greater complexity of speak English).

Thanks to Andrew Garrett for bringing the discrepancy in judgments discussed here to my attention.

Hankamer, Jorge, and Ivan Sag. 1976. Deep and surface anaphora. Linguistic Inquiry 7:391–428.
Postal, Paul. 1969. Anaphoric islands. Chicago Linguistic Society 5:205–239.
Ward, Gregory, Richard Sproat, and Gail McKoon. 1991. A pragmatic analysis of so-called anaphoric islands. Language 67:439–474.