The President's Preface 2005
By James Sheehan
The first thing newly elected presidents of the AHA learn is that the Association is much more complex and multifaceted than they realized. The second thing they learn is that its operation largely depends on the skill, energy, and commitment of the AHA staff. A pope was once asked how many people worked in the Vatican, to which he is supposed to have replied, “About half of them.” Every AHA president would agree that at 400 A Street, everybody works—and does so with extraordinary dedication and effectiveness.
To take one example of what I have in mind, consider the Annual Meeting: Seen from the inside, the Annual Meeting appears to be a miraculous combination of scholarly imagination, commercial calculation, and logistical skill. Intensive preparation for each meeting goes on throughout the year; the planning process for future meetings looks a decade or more ahead. Behind those four days in January, which are so essential for the Association’s institutional vitality and its fiscal well being, stand thousands of hours of hard work and shrewd decisions. As in so much else, the president presides at the Annual Meeting, but the meeting’s shape and character depend on the labor of an extraordinarily gifted and energetic staff as well as the volunteer efforts of the Program and Local Arrangements committees. This same combination of professional staff and volunteer committee work sustains the Association’s many other activities: gathering information, producing publications, supporting teaching and research, and advocating historical understanding in many forms.
Let me now turn to three developments during my term that seem worthy of note: two have to do with the inner life of the AHA, the other with its relationship with the larger world.
The Association is governed by an elected Council and three divisions—Research, Teaching, and Professional—each led by a vice president, and including one Council member and three other elected representatives. Recently, several officers have worried that this structure is too fragmented. This June, the Council and the Divisions met simultaneously, which allowed them to have a common meeting and to share a meal. While this posed some serious organizational and staffing problems, it represented an important effort to integrate and coordinate the activities of the Association’s most important elected bodies.
The second internal development was the formation of a Working Group on the Future of the AHA, which was planned during my term as president and then created by Linda Kerber. As Arnita Jones points out in her report, this group has been charged with thinking strategically about how the AHAshould respond to the challenges posed, for example, by changes in the structure of the profession and in information and communication technologies. This will be a difficult but essential task which, like everything else the Association does, will depend on the collaboration of staff and volunteers.
The final issue I want to raise concerns the relationship of the AHA to publics beyond the profession. In the past several years, the Association had worked closely with the National Coalition for History to influence policies affecting historical research. It has also formed a partnership with the National History Center, which seeks to make historical understanding more prominent in public discourse and political debate. During my year as president, the Association also sought to use its influence to protest government restrictions on the exchange of ideas and the movement of scholars. We protested, for example, the State Department’s denial of visas to Cuban scholars so that they could attend a meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, efforts by Turkish politicians to interfere with a scholarly conference on minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and the American government’s refusal (without explanation) to allow Waskar Ari, a Bolivian citizen with a PhD from Georgetown University, to enter the United States and assume his position as assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska. As the primary institutional advocate of historical knowledge, the AHAhas no more important obligation than to defend scholarly freedom, which is as necessary to intellectual inquiry as oxygen is to life.
How the AHA effectively combines its many important aims—of serving its members, of fulfilling performing intellectual and public roles, and of promoting the study of history while being fiscally responsible—becomes evident as you scan the pages of this annual report.
James Sheehan (Stanford University) was president of the AHA in 2005.