Medieval Academy of America rocked by resignations of Executive Directors

Medieval Academy of America rocked by resignations of Executive DirectorsWilliam Chester Jordan said it was “shocking” to see Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto, the joint Executive Directors of the Medieval Academy of America, walking out of the organization’s business meeting in Knoxville last month. This was soon followed by their resignations, leaving many asking about the future of the academic organization that supports medieval studies in North America.

Another question that is being asked is why did Gardiner and Musto abruptly resign? After interviewing various people, including Gardiner and Musto and Academy President Richard Unger, two narratives have emerged – one that suggests that personality clashes emerged between the Executive Directors and some of the members of the Academy’s council; while another that seems to show a serious disagreement emerging over the structure of the Academy and how much freedom the Executive Directors should have in running the organization.

Attempts were made to ask many of the people currently or recently involved in the Academy’s leadership, although in several cases requests for comment were declined or not answered.

President Richard Unger, who is also a Professor of Medieval History at the University of British Columbia, states that he and other members of the academy’s council were surprised by the resignations. He explained, “it was not obvious to me or any of us that there were critical and contentious issues which were cause for the resignation which we received. Certainly none of us thought any matters of difference insurmountable but the departing Executive Director apparently thought they were.”

Meanwhile, in an occasionally harshly-worded email, Gardiner and Musto suggest that for the last few years there has been undue interference by current and previous presidents with the work being done by Executive Directors.

They write about “our strong objections — in email communications and at both Executive Committee and Council meetings going back to the 2011 meeting in Arizona — to changes in the nature of the Executive Director position and to what we publicly termed the “toxic” plan to review the Executive Director’s performance every year in a four-month process (half of the academic year) and whether they recall our objections in light of the ensuing distractions from such duties of the Executive Director as the audit, budgets, annual meeting planning, editing Speculum, supervision of staff and office operations, implementing appropriate roles for graduate students and regional centers in the organization, revival of the MAA publications programs, our Taxonomy of Medieval Digital Resources, international conferences, and other strategic initiatives.”

Gardiner and Musto explain their dismay at the “repeated refusal of the presidential officers to initiate a strategic planning process to provide the Executive Directors with substantive guidance, and instead their insistence on an annual Executive Director review process that lasted four months and focused solely on anonymous and unsubstantiated complaints. The Council’s (board’s) failure to acknowledge its responsibilities to the organization were indeed “critical.”

The dispute seems to have been intensified by some level of personal animosity between Gardiner and Musto and President Unger. Among the statements that the former Executive Directors aim at Unger they ask “what administrative fiat he believes he actually has, having essentially been nominated by one of his predecessors via a presidentially appointed nomination committee, running in an uncontested election, with no announced agenda, and receiving the votes of only 21% of the MAA membership for a one-year office.”

William Chester Jordan, who is one of the Vice-Presidents of the Academy, acknowledges that the personalities of those involved aggravated the dispute that had been ongoing for at least several months.

Gardiner and Musto sent their resignation to the Academy on April 9th, just a couple of days after the dramatic events at the Academy’s annual meeting, which was held in Knoxville, Tennessee. In a message posted on the Academy’s website the presidential officers wrote that “members of the Council had written to them earlier, asking them to reconsider their decision, but they did not.” When those efforts failed, their resignation was publicly announced on April 19th.

The former directors state “the Council never officially communicated with us. Instead, a series of surrogates approached us as individuals — none claiming to represent the Council — and most in an apparent effort to sooth the supposed emotional issues around our resignations, not addressing our very clear letter of resignation over policy and structural issues and the factors involved in it. It is ironic that the current president and the other presidentials who presume to speak for the Council and all Medieval Academy members in all other matters failed to communicate directly with us throughout this process — except to accept our letter of resignation — and left it to unofficial surrogates and vague expressions of sympathy.”

Once the resignations were announced, several medievalists went online to speculate on what had happened and question the future of the Medieval Academy – for example, see In the Middle,, and Medieval Histories.

Richard Unger counters that the “short term future of the Academy is bright.” On May 1st, Lisa Fagin Davis took on the role of Acting Executive Director. Unger lauds her efforts as well as those by other staff members. He goes on to write, “The long term future is harder to predict.  The Academy had already at the Knoxville meeting in April undertaken a planning process to examine how it might better serve members and the profession.  Part of that task will be deciding how the various programs and activities of the Academy will be handled in the office and by the various volunteers who do much of the work of the organization.  Once an effective structure is in place then the opportunities created by the financial health of the organization will allow the luxury of exploring new ways to assist all medievalists from graduate students to mature scholars.  Discussions are underway to explore what might be the best role for the Academy in the emerging digital age.”

~ Peter Konieczny

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