From the AHA Activities column of the April 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
Final Report and Recommendations of the Working Group on the Future of the AHA
William H. Chafe, April 2008
Note: At its meeting in January 2008, the AHA Council accepted the report of the Working Group on the Future of the AHA. To ensure that the wide-ranging recommendations made in the report would not languish, AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel appointed a subcommittee of the Council to review the issues raised by the report, set some priorities about whether and in what order the tasks outlined should be undertaken, and consider the level of financial and technical support for their implementation. This committee will be chaired by President-elect Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who will be joined by Elise Lipkowitz, Frank Malaret, Trudy Peterson, and Larry Wolff. Arnita A. Jones, AHA's executive director, and Robert A. Schneider, editor of the American Historical Review, will serve as ex officio members of the committee.* We hope all members of the Association will review the recommendations of the committee with care, and submit their comments and suggestions to the committee's staff at Robert Townsend.
After meeting three times during the past year, the Working Group on the Future of the AHA makes the following major recommendations: (a) To secure its future, the AHA must reach out to a broader membership and become more diverse and inclusive while preserving its core constituency of history PhDs who teach at research universities and liberal arts colleges. Specifically, it should adopt policies designed to recruit AP high school teachers, community college instructors, and the broad category of practitioners often labeled "public" historians. Some of these policies will involve special dues packages and additional staffing, while others will involve further reforms to the annual meeting. (b) The AHA needs to improve its use of the internet to provide member services, including blogs, chat rooms among subdivisions of the Association, and special instructional sessions at the annual meeting on how better to incorporate information technology into our teaching mission. (c) The AHA should refine its advocacy efforts on behalf of historians to become more proactive rather than reactive, and should consider greater collaboration with peer organizations like the OAH on a variety of outreach activities. (d) The AHA should pursue the development plan espoused by incoming president Gabrielle Spiegel, refining that plan in consultation with outside consultants to make personnel costs affordable, and to determine what the most effective means is (such as a new building or a leased structure) to achieve greater space. (e) The AHA should revisit the structure of its relationship with the National History Center, focusing on the fiduciary responsibilities of the AHA and the desirability of the NHC becoming a "support corporation" of the AHA.
Issues of Membership
The AHA has experienced a remarkable period of stability in both membership and budgetary viability. Reflecting excellent leadership and board management, the Association has expanded to almost 15,000 members, and regularly runs a small budgetary surplus. Its journal and newsmagazine remain the gold standard in the field, while the annual meeting continues to be the central gathering place for historians of all ages, whether these be graduate students, candidates in the job market, or senior professors. The core of the Association (approximately 67 percent) continues to be faculty members and students at research universities and liberal arts colleges.
Despite this stability, the fact remains that only one quarter of the history PhDs teaching in these universities and colleges actually belong to the AHA. It is not unusual for younger historians to drop out after securing their first teaching positions. While all those interested in history benefit from the AHR and Perspectives, these membership "perks" can be secured at no cost through university and college libraries, or via the internet. Thus there is a large, untapped constituency even among those who remain the core of the AHA's membership. Furthermore, the apparent stability of the "core" membership disguises some disconcerting realities. In fact, history departments have grown substantially over the last decade. Thus, while the number of members from research universities and four-year liberal arts colleges may have remained constant, the actual percentage of potential members joining the AHA has declined.
A far larger potential constituency lies outside that core. There are the thousands of high school teachers (as many as 190,000) who are instructors of Advanced Placement history classes in the nation's high schools. An additional 9,000 people teach history in community colleges. "Public" historians who work in government offices, archives, museums, or as independent contractors belong to the AHA only in small numbers, and although most of those historians are Americanists, we need to do more to recruit them to the AHA. The same demographic (an Americanist bent) is true of the thousands of people who belong to state and local history societies, but they too need to be encouraged to participate in AHA activities.
In all of this, there is also a generational divide taking place, with more and more younger people—products of the IT and digital revolutions—forgoing participation in formal professional associations. In reality, our influence and "reach" have grown substantially over the past decade, largely due to our open-access publishing policies. Thousands of people read AHA publications online everyday—many times the number who read our material when we were just mailing out print publications fifteen years ago. As a result, our articles are used more extensively in the classroom, and we are also providing substantially more information to future historians. But we pay a price for this in two forms: (a) the expense of developing online services and (b) the diminished core membership that has accompanied this expansion of open access to our materials. Ironically, therefore, the success we have experienced through technology in extending our influence has also helped undercut our recruitment of new members.
It is our belief that the AHA can thrive in the future only if it does two things simultaneously: (1) retains and increases its core constituency and (2) substantially increases its outreach to diverse new constituencies. To that end, we suggest the following steps:
a. Hire a staff person specifically assigned to coordinate efforts to reach new constituencies, including high school and community college teachers, public historians, and members of state and local history societies. This is our highest priority as we consider potential new staff positions (e.g. hiring a development staff person, or a person specifically committed to advocacy work, would fall further down the list).
b. Create special dues categories and benefits to attract high school teachers, community college teachers, public historians, and members of state and local history societies to the AHA. These dues categories should be significantly lower than those now applicable to the AHA's "core" constituency.
c. Develop discounted (10–20 percent off) five- to eight-year memberships for "early career" professionals (where younger member often drop their memberships when they face the large dues increase from their earlier subsidized student rate) in order to encourage "core" historians who are in new, often underpaid teaching positions, to retain their memberships. Given the importance of increasing our "core" constituency, even as we reach out to newer constituencies, this initiative is of particular importance.
d. Redesign the annual meeting so that up to 25 percent of all sessions are dedicated to programs targeted toward these new constituencies, e.g. teaching sessions focused on bringing new technologies into the classroom, etc.
e. Consider joining with the OAH in publishing a Magazine of History for all historians, not just those who focus on America.
f. Entertain other possibilities of outreach, including regional conferences for teachers, which would make the AHA relevant for historians at every level.
We believe that a concentrated effort to expand the constituencies served by the AHA holds the best potential for ensuring that in 2025 the Association remains as vibrant and vital as it is today.
Maximizing Use of the Internet
Clearly, a new generation is using the internet to communicate in ways that older members of the profession may not be accustomed to. Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium. The AHA needs to use the internet not only for more effective communication, but also for creating effective professional standards for using the internet in areas such as scholarly publishing and social networking.
There are numerous opportunities for making the AHA relevant to members who are in the forefront of the IT revolution. One is to sponsor a series of blogs that focus on specific issues, e.g. the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. The possibilities of hosting blogs are endless and were the AHA to become known for facilitating such activities, it would increase substantially its utility to members (and non-members) with particular interests. By setting up pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space—and by facilitating posting onto other Web 2.0 sites—the AHA can open up communications and participation. In an age when it is likely that fewer people will rely on the printed page for either research or news, becoming known as an organization at the forefront of the information revolution will be pivotal to the AHA's continued prominence.
The annual meeting can also become a site where on a regular basis, members can be exposed in a hands-on way to new methods of teaching and learning, bringing their own laptops to sessions in a wireless environment where they can participate actively in the exchanges being conducted. We encourage future program committees to have as a regular feature a sequence of introductory, intermediate, and advanced sessions on how to incorporate internet technology into the classroom, as well as frequent digital poster sessions and workshops for directors of graduate studies and undergraduate studies.
We also encourage the AHA staff to redesign its web site to appeal to a new generation of potential users, particularly those new constituencies we hope to cultivate, highlighting the special programs and benefits that the Association will offer to those who are part of the internet world. Once the AHA becomes known as the home for a number of history blogs, and provides gated discussion forums for members on specialized subjects, it will help expand substantially our ability to be a magnet for members of diverse backgrounds.
In sum, we need to seize the opportunities made available by the new technologies, simultaneously reaching out to a broad, cross-generational audience that now uses these technologies as a matter of course, and also targeting more segmented audiences of people with specific aptitudes and specializations. One of the vital challenges we face is to transpose the traditional gatekeeper functions of a broad disciplinary society onto a very different information landscape. As the Web flattens out qualitative distinctions and opens the information arena to many other competing voices, the amount of intellectual "noise" out there vastly increases. Our task is to take this as an opportunity to provide an authoritative voice that can help historians sort through the "noise," consistent with our basic mission to define best practices for members of the profession.
While we remain very pleased with the work of Lee White on behalf of the AHA and a coalition of history organizations, we are also very conscious of how much remains to be done in the area of advocacy, particularly at a time of increased attempts by various levels of government and others in the general public to politicize and regulate curriculum and dictate the content of classroom instruction. The existence of these efforts at federal, state, and local levels makes all the more crucial that the AHA have a person committed full time to advocating the interests of historians. It is particularly important that AHA advocacy should not simply be a reaction to initiatives by others, but rather be proactive, seeking to promote action that is supportive of historians' rights. We hope that if the efforts to enhance the AHA's strength—as reflected in earlier recommendations—are effective, there will be adequate resources to support the hiring of an additional person to do full-time advocacy. However, it is our view that this additional staff person should be considered only after the organization has grown, and that the chief priority in allocating staff resources should be a person to coordinate the effort to increase our outreach to underserved constituencies.
We support the emphasis given by incoming president Gabrielle Spiegel to fundraising. More and more professional organizations have focused on development. The work of the Association is severely limited by the space constraints at AHA's headquarters consisting of just a modest townhouse on Capitol Hill. It is critical that the AHA find more spacious accommodations without losing the advantage of having a headquarters close to the centers of power in Washington. It thus makes sense to at least consider raising funds to purchase a new building or office complex.
On the other hand, the working group believes that the cost of mounting a full-scale development effort will be substantial. A development officer will need staff. Any fund-raising campaign will extend over many years. We anticipate that this would mean at least a budget line of $250,000 per year.
Given this assessment, we propose the following steps: (a) hire a fundraising consultant to analyze the potential donor base, determine whether it is realistic to have a $10 million development goal, and project what the staff costs will be of mounting such a development operation; and (b) have a detailed discussion of the real estate analysis report prepared last year to decide how many square feet a new office complex should be, and whether it makes more sense to lease this space or purchase it.
While we believe that a fundraising drive is essential, we also recommend a careful look at what volunteer activities might achieve, especially if the AHA were to rely on an annual fund drive rather than six- or seven-figure gifts from individuals.
In any event, we believe that any major investment in fundraising staff should be a secondary priority. We should await the reports of consultants before acting. We also believe that allocating staff resources for development should occur only after monies are committed to the staff coordinator for outreach to underserved constituencies, and to further work on advocacy.
Relations with the National History Center
The working group has been impressed by the public policy programs initiated by the National History Center, and by the ambitious agenda of its board and president. We believe that the AHA and the Center have complementary goals and programs.
On the other hand, we are concerned with the ambiguity of the present relationship between the Center and the AHA. It is our belief that the AHA is and should be the primary organization, and that the Center should function as a "support corporation" to the AHA. What does this mean? Largely, that the AHA is the sponsoring source of governance, and that while the "support corporation" has autonomy vis-à-vis its own budget and agenda, it operates with a board approved by the parent organization and according to rules and procedures outlined in the legal arrangement that exists between the two.
We recognize that the Center has its own strengths and its own agenda. But ultimately, those strengths and that agenda must be accountable to the AHA as a parent organization. To that end, we recommend clarification of the existing relationship between the Center and the AHA, using the model of the Center as a "support corporation" of the AHA to develop new legal and constitutional rules for the relationship of the two organizations. We understand that recently the Executive Committee of the AHA has proposed that the three vice presidents of the AHA serve as ex officio members of the National History Center Board. We endorse that proposal.
In the end, we see the future of the AHA as positive. We do not envision the need for fundamental structural change. On the other hand, we believe that if the AHA does not aggressively seek to enlarge its base, its core strength will dwindle. The status quo, however viable today, should not, and will not, persist ad infinitum. The AHA must grow—in its diversity, its communication technology, its use of the internet, its ability to incorporate the perspectives of thousands of history practitioners now outside its membership boundaries.
We believe that the proposals contained here provide a basis for that kind of growth, and we look forward to the response of the AHA Council and membership.
—Submitted on November 15, 2007, for the Working Group.
Working Group on the Future of the AHA
William Chafe (Duke University), chair
James Grossman (Newberry Library)
Lynn Hunt (UCLA)
Earl Lewis (Emory University)
Danielle McGuire (Rutgers University-New Brunswick)
Paula Michaels (University of Iowa)
Stefan Tanaka (University of California at San Diego)
Arnita A Jones (AHA), ex officio