The Cost of Doing Business

John Coatsworth and Sandria B. Freitag, May 1995

Editor's Note: The AHA has paid a total of $165,682.90 (including a small amount in legal fees) to settle damage claims made by five Cincinnati hotels after the Association cancelled plans to hold its January 1995 meeting in that city. The AHA moved its 1995 meeting to Chicago after Cincinnati voters passed a referendum to amend the city charter to delete protections against discrimination for gay and lesbian citizens. The Cincinnati hotels settled for far less than the cancellation penalties stipulated in their contracts, according to AHA Executive Director Sandria B. Freitag.

AHA President John H. Coatsworth appealed to AHA members and friends to help the Association make up the loss. "Many members have been waiting until we completed negotiations with the hotels to send in their contributions. Now is the time," he said. A preliminary effort to raise funds at the time of the Cincinnati decision early last year took in only $8,771, mainly from members of the AHA Council and the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession. That sum also included individual contributions in response to appeals published in Perspectives and in the newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History.

"At a moment when the AHA is moving to expand member services, revitalize its programs, and launch important new initiatives, members' contributions to defray the Cincinnati costs are vital to the Association's success," Coatsworth said. "The AHA needs only $10 from each member to ease this burden. I hope every member will contribute, even those who had misgivings about moving the meeting site," he added. All contributions to the AHA are tax deductible.

At its January 1994 meeting, the AHA Council decided to cancel plans to hold the Association's 1995 meeting in Cincinnati in response to petitions from hundreds of members and the recommendation of its Research Division. The Council's decision was ratified by an overwhelming vote at the annual business meeting the next day. The Council also adopted new guidelines on the selection of annual meeting sites, stating that the Association will not hold meetings "in locations where its members reasonably believe they would be subject to discrimination on the basis of age, gender, marital status, national origin, physical ability, race, religion, or sexual orientation under state or city laws."

The agreement with the hotels includes a proviso that "as soon as it can reasonably be demonstrated that the laws of the City of Cincinnati comply with American Historical Association policy ... its Executive Director will recommend to the American Historical Association Council that its next available annual convention be held in Cincinnati and the existing members of the Council will in good faith attempt to secure the approval of the then-existing Council." (See page 37 of this issue of Perspectives for information about the status of the Cincinnati Human Rights Ordinance.)

In the negotiations with the Cincinnati hotels, the Association was represented by AHA Counsel Albert Beveridge and by the law firm of Beveridge & Diamond, most of whose services were provided pro bono. The favorable outcome was helped by support from the American Council of Learned Societies. Freitag supervised the negotiations in active consultation with the Association's Finance Committee.

The cost of moving the Association's 1995 annual meeting from Cincinnati to Chicago came to $165,682.90. (See AHA Activities for details about the Association's settlement with Cincinnati hotels.) This is less than half the penalties specified in the AHA contracts with the Cincinnati hotels, but it is still a huge amount for the Association to absorb.

The magnitude of this loss seems even greater when it is compared with the potential cost of opportunities we could miss. Over the next year, for example, we want to computerize our operations so that we are connected to the Internet, to each other, and to our members. This technology upgrade will represent expanded services for members in terms of providing more timely and broader information about activities in the field. It will also position us to undertake some immensely exciting "publishing" experiments that will combine print and electronic dissemination for new pamphlets, the newsletter, and other material.

At the same time, the Association faces a difficult decision on the future of the building it occupies in Washington. Costly repairs and alterations can no longer be deferred. Even with major renovations, however, the building may not be able to offer adequate and efficient space. A major component of the financial planning now underway is an assessment of possible alternatives, including the sale of the building and a move to a new facility.

The results of these one-time expenditures will be an expanded AHA, even better able to actively pursue our members' interests through an effective presence in Washington and to provide new services and products for historians. Successfully positioning ourselves for the future, however, means minimizing the amounts we must pay for the past.

Council and staff are anxious to work together toward this future, and the planning we have undertaken this spring points the way. An extraordinary meeting held in March enabled the staff and the Finance Committee to lay the groundwork for Council consideration of a number of important steps. Working from a range of thought-provoking materials now being prepared by the staff for the regular May Council meeting, the Council will discuss in depth several crucially important topics, including a five-year financial plan that amortizes the one-time upgrade costs we now face; a three-phase plan for moving into electronic dissemination of information and scholarly projects; a development plan to expand membership; and a shift in accounting processes (and related accountability measures) focused on cost centers for the member service activities we have identified as the most important work the Association does (including the journal, the annual meeting, publishing, membership services, the governance committees, the divisions, etc.).

Funds diverted to Cincinnati penalty fees thus present an obstacle, and one we hope our members will help us move past. We want to see these planning processes as a new opportunity, a way to begin envisioning how history will be practiced in the 21st century, and to begin charting a singular role for the AHA to play in making that practice a vibrant and important contribution to society.

—1995 AHA President John Coatsworth

—AHA Executive Director Sandria B. Freitag