Thinking about the Future
Arnita A. Jones, November 2000
From the Executive Director's column in the November 2000 Perspectives
When I became the executive director a little more than a year ago, I thought my agenda would primarily be about managing change. By that I meant managing new challenges—offering publications and other membership services on the Internet, for example, as well as finding solutions to disquieting problems such as the downsizing going on in colleges and universities. I knew that we had to work hard to meet the challenges of change. Was that an accurate assessment? Certainly. But within that fabric of change, there were more threads of continuity than I had first anticipated, threads that provide stability and strength to the AHA.
Our strengths are many. We are a well-established professional association with a stable income (now $2.5 million annually) and membership, a healthy endowment (slightly more than $4 million), a headquarters building we own in an ideal spot just a block from the Library of Congress, and, not least, a good and seasoned staff. Our basic services—publications, an annual meeting, and advocacy work on behalf of history—are highly valued by our members. "New" 50-year members, on receiving my letter that the AHA will henceforth reward their longtime commitment with a complimentary membership, often share with me warm memories of a lifetime of participation in the activities of the Association and affirm their continuing devotion. "Even in retirement I wish to learn and support my profession and I appreciate very much the information you share about it," wrote one. "I value that membership today no less than I did half a century ago," declared another. So what is there to worry about?
Regular readers of Perspectives know that the AHA continually grapples in many ways—alone and in coalition with other organizations—with the issues that affect the historical profession. But AHA members may wonder how all our work fits together. Are the AHA's efforts to meet new challenges a mere patchwork of ad hoc solutions or is there a unity of purpose and action? That is a good question, one that even the AHA staff often struggles to answer, as numerous good causes and special interests make demands on our time and resources. But beneath the seeming lack of focus is an extraordinary degree of coherence that comes from remarkable continuities of structure and goals that eventually shape the AHA's programs, the long-term and the short-term alike.
The structural continuities are derived from the AHA's constitution, now nearly 30 years old, which created our professional, research, and teaching divisional structure.
New initiatives and ongoing efforts are overseen and regularly reviewed by one of these divisions, each of which is headed by a vice president who is in place for three years and who thus gets to know the AHA's strengths as well as the constraints under which it operates. Additionally, projects that involve substantial expenditures of the Association's own or grant monies have to pass inspection by the Finance Committee, and all new initiatives must be approved by the Council. This regular reporting to elected representatives forces serious evaluation of our priorities and capabilities in maintaining our commitment to balance teaching, research, and professional needs. Yes, this arrangement does involve negotiating through a formidable structure of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I found that we can move speedily as well as deliberately here when we need to.
How does this system work in practice? How do we ensure that as we sustain ongoing commitments while taking up ad hoc efforts that address special problems or opportunities, we maintain the necessary coherence? We are able to do so, because we are always guided by the AHA's overarching goals—as set out in its founding charter as well as in the various policy declarations made in the 116 years of our existence.
We are now, as we have been for many years, engaged in a variety of efforts to improve history teaching at virtually all levels—from elementary schools through graduate and professional training. Almost always, our work at the K–12 level involves building coalitions with allied organizations, for what we do best is offer content and connection to historical scholarship and scholars. We have for many years published pamphlets and other materials for teachers, and we have fostered and publicized collaboratives involving history teachers from elementary, secondary, and higher education, as well as public-history institutions. More recently, special funding from NEH and several other foundations allowed us to create space on our web site for digitized materials and links to documentary databases for history teachers. This project should position us well to continue providing the services to teachers we always have, in a new technological environment. We have also recently focused on two areas of teaching that appear to be in need of special attention: graduate programs and two-year colleges.
For graduate students, we have for many years provided basic information about job opportunities and maintained a place to interview at our annual meeting. But with a tight job market that appears to have become a permanent condition for our field and the heightened emphasis given by many colleges and universities to improvement of teaching skills, we had to develop new programs. Several years ago, the AHA appointed a Task Force on Graduate Education to represent the concerns of graduate students in history. This last year we were able to secure foundation funding for a three-year project to examine all aspects of graduate training in history. With generous support from the Carnegie Foundation, we will survey graduate departments, initiate a conversation with graduate faculty and students about our findings, and ultimately offer recommendations that we hope will stand a good chance of being implemented. A complementary effort, undertaken in conjunction with several other disciplinary organizations, is the Preparing Future Faculty initiative. It is designed to connect students in graduate programs in research institutions with two- and four-year colleges where they are likely to seek employment.
In the case of two-year colleges, we listened carefully to the concerns of our members from this very large and growing sector of the higher education community and worked with them to provide what they told us they needed: expanded opportunities for research and collaboration with other historians. Last year we cosponsored a project with the Library of Congress and several area studies associations for community college historians to work with senior scholars in the discipline and to take advantage of the vast resources of the library to engage in their own research, thereby reinvigorating their teaching.
Most of our publishing efforts, including the American Historical Review, are overseen by the Research Division. The challenge here has been to develop the technological expertise needed to continue providing traditional services to our members in the new digital environment. Some of this work involves upgrading the skills of existing staff and the reallocation of resources to this end in both the Washington and Bloomington offices. Staff of the Review, Perspectives, and other publications have benefited enormously from the Gutenberg-e project, which allows us to cooperate and share expertise with Columbia University Press, a leader in digital publishing. The creation of the History Cooperative—a collaboration between the University of Illinois Press, the Journal of American History, the American Historical Review, the National Academy Press and, most recently The History Teacher—inaugurates a new and ambitious agenda. The Cooperative, of which the AHA is part, is intended to be a safe space for us and for those involved with other history journals to experiment, to explore the opportunities of online publishing and to figure out how better to use the new technology to meet historians' needs. The commitment of resources needed to support the Cooperative required careful review by a special task force whose recommendations were, in turn, carefully scrutinized by the Research Division.
Advocacy and professional issues also represent a mix of ad hoc and sustained efforts. The AHA was a founding member and remains a regular supporter of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History as well as the National Humanities Alliance. These advocacy coalitions monitor historical programs within the federal government as well as federal funding and regulations that affect research and teaching in history and provide a constant flow of needed information that allows us to keep our members up to date on governmental policies that affect their professional lives. They also offer us a significant opportunity to leverage the modest resources we can devote to lobbying and advocacy work.
The development now commonly referred to as the corporatization of the university has had as significant an impact on history as on other disciplines. With a membership drawn largely from college professors, the AHA cannot help but be alarmed at the erosion of resources, both human and material, in history departments. An extensive effort to educate boards of trustees, state legislatures, accrediting associations, and the general public about the shortsightedness of decisions to replace permanent with part-time and temporary faculty is beyond the resources that the AHA can command, but we hope to make a good start in this direction by joining forces with other disciplinary associations that are similarly anxious about these trends. With timely support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (and by pooling resources) the Coalition on the Academic Workforce has recently completed a study documenting the nature and extent of temporary and part-time faculty teaching in the American higher education institutions. We plan to release this information in a report later this fall and hope it will focus public attention on this critical problem.
Such information gathering—an essential prelude to effective engagement with the problems of the profession—is again an example of the way in which the AHA's constitution and other statements of intent initiate and guide our actions. It is the AHA constitution that charges the Professional Division, for example, with the responsibility for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information about the profession. The division also has the responsibility for trying to ensure, among other things, that recruitment of faculty is conducted fairly and that faculty are treated according to the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. It is the spirit of such policies that inflects the initiatives that the division takes—such as the attempts to improve the working of the Job Register or to formulate guidelines for spousal hiring or to secure diversity in the AHA's election process.
We have a full agenda, but officers and staff at the AHA are aware of the need to maintain a balance between the core activities that have served our members so well for many years and new initiatives designed to address a particular problem or take advantage of a unique opportunity. We must do both to assure a healthy organization—and a healthy historical profession—in the future.
—Arnita A. Jones is executive director of the AHA.