Executive Director's Report 2009

by Arnita A. Jones

The American Historical Association began the year 2009 on a high note. The 123rd Annual Meeting in New York, with nearly 6,000 in attendance, had the highest registration in recent memory. With more than 1,500 historians participating in sessions, panels, posters sessions and other events, it was also the largest program we have had. We continue to expand the kinds of formats available, offering opportunities for historians to present their research as well as well as opportunities to interact on professional issues. A particular highlight was a day-long workshop for K-12 teachers, organized in cooperation with George Mason University’s National History Education Clearinghouse, a Department of Education supported effort to extend the reach of the Teaching American History grants. With the economy in trouble it was no surprise that the number of jobs advertised at the meeting was down, but, as many departments seemed eager to finish searches already approved, activity at the Annual Meeting Job Center was surprisingly brisk. As always the AHA’s Annual Meeting serves as a marketplace of ideas and information as well as networking among members of our profession.

At 15,055 members, AHA membership also reached a new high last year, perhaps related somewhat to the high attendance at the New York meeting. Because it includes historians who study and teach all fields and time periods in history, our membership routinely reflects changes in the composition and interests of the profession. The retirement of a large older generation of historians trained in the 1960s and early 1970s means that AHA’s membership is relatively young, with 4,073 graduate students and 6,592 members who received their highest degree since 1990. Their interests have changed as well, with religion replacing cultural history as the most frequently identified field of interest. Older fields, such as political and diplomatic history, have also gained some ground recently.

Each year, as is our custom, fifty-year members receive a letter from the executive director, thanking them for their steadfast support of the Association and offering them a complimentary life membership. It is a particular joy to read their responses, often reflecting upon the rewards of a lifetime devoted to the study and teaching of history and a useful reminder that, while we rightly celebrate the achievements of a few highly creative scholars, most of our members spend their days quietly going about the business of preparing classes, counseling students, developing public programming, keeping up with their fields, and doing the necessary administrative work at the institutions where they are employed. They do not make a big splash but they do the critical work of the profession and so does the AHA as it facilitates their efforts.

The institutions where our members work are changing, though, and so are the conditions of their employment, creating problems and issues that the AHA has sought to address in several ways during the past year. We have, for example, appointed a new ad hoc Technology Advisory Committee. A primary focus for this group will be the improvement of the Association’s web site, with a view to upgrading its technology but also engaging in strategic thinking about the organization’s goals and purposes. Specifically that will include a review of the Association’s electronic publishing programs, assessing the current fit between technology, staffing, and services in an effort to determine if we are making the most effective use of available technologies. We also hope to develop suggestions and guidelines for the future of our electronic publishing programs in a way that will allow the AHA to better fulfill its mission of promoting history to an interested public while also serving the interests of its membership.

With the constitutional changes adopted by the AHA in 2007, the work of the Association’s three divisions is now more thoroughly integrated into that of the Council. The Professional Division, for example, is now working with the Disability History Association in a joint task force to gather information about the concerns of historians with disabilities and to propose concrete, practical solutions for as many of them as possible. The Professional Division is also part of a joint task force with the AHA’s long-time affiliated Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, working to gather information about the concerns of LGBTQ historians and propose concrete, practical solutions for as many of them as possible. The task force has begun its work with a survey of best practices and policies at other professional associations.

A Two-Year College Task Force began its work with an analysis of AHA’s existing membership working in this sector of higher education, with a view to better understanding their needs. The Teaching Division, which oversees this effort, will also focus on upgrading the Association’s existing web page on “Resources for Two-Year Faculty,” organizing forums and other events for two-year faculty at upcoming annual meetings, and exploring the possibility of our providing staff development activities for community college faculty.

The Association’s Research Division has as part of its charge the oversight of most AHA prizes and awards. In 2009 the Division was pleased to announce the new Martin A. Klein Prize in African History. This long overdue prize was initiated five years earlier, and despite the good efforts of dozens of fundraising committee members and contributors, we were still well short of the funds needed to endow the prize until August 2009. Thanks to a significant and very generous contribution by Dr. Mougo Nyaggah of California State Univ. at Fullerton and his wife Dr. Lynette Nyaggah, we were finally able to reach our fundraising goal. At Prof. Nyaggah’s suggestion, the prize has been named for Martin A. Klein of the Univ. of Toronto, in recognition of Dr. Klein’s mentoring, guidance, enthusiasm, and commitment to the research and teaching African history.

The publications program of the AHA has been focused, as other parts of the organization, on finding ways to do more with fewer financial and personnel resources. This past year saw the completion of an online Directory of History Departments and Historical Organizations, further development of recent additions to the web site, including Fortnightly News and the blog. We continue to be pleased with our relationship to the University of Chicago Press for publication of the American Historical Review. This partnership provides AHA with additional expertise on international marketing as well as copyright and technology issues.

One of the most important services AHA provides to its members representing the historical profession on public issues, usually through coalitions or in cooperation other historical or higher education groups. We undertook one very important example of this kind of work last March, when the Association agreed to be the lead organization in an amicus brief before the ninth circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in California regarding a challenge from the Association of Christian Schools to University of California’s policy of not accepting for credit toward admission high school coursework based on “providential” history. There has been no decision in this case to date.

Federal records have been a focus of AHA’s advocacy efforts from its earliest years. In 2009, with the advent of a new administration in Washington, new advocacy groups focused on records access issues, and our continuing substantial support of the National History Coalition, those efforts have begun to pay off. The Coalition, which provides regular weekly updates on federal policies and appropriations to its sixty plus members, as well as a monthly column for AHA’s Perspectives on History, along with special communications as needed, has played a major role in encouraging the Obama administration to take unprecedented actions on issues related to access to presidential records, the enormous backlog of classified records, and freedom of information requests. Lee White, the Coalition’s executive director, also tracks appropriations for several major agencies and programs, including the National Archives, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Teaching American History grants at the Department of Education.

The AHA also participates in the National Humanities Alliance, an advocacy coalition dedicated to the advancement of humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. NHA is supported by nearly one hundred national, state and local member organizations and institutions, including scholarly and professional groups, higher education associations, organizations of museums, libraries, historical societies and state humanities councils, university-based and independent humanities research centers and colleges and universities.

Last year the NHA sponsored a special Alliance Task Force on Open Access and Scholarly Communication, which completed an influential study, supported by the Mellon Foundation, on the future and economic sustainability of scholarly journal publication in social science and humanities associations. Its annual advocacy day this past year featured the public introduction of the Humanities Indicators Project, an effort sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to compile and analyze existing data on the state of the humanities in order to better inform researchers as well as policy and decision makers about needs and issues in the field. AHA’s Assistant Director Robert B. Townsend has served as a key resource for the Academy on this effort as well as on its Departmental Survey project, which will be published this year. Modeled after the National Science Foundation’s Science Indicators, this effort should equip researchers and policymakers at universities, foundations, public humanities institutions, and government agencies with better statistical tools for answering basic questions about undergraduate and graduate degrees in the humanities, employment of humanities graduates, levels of program funding, public understanding of the humanities and other areas of concern.

Those who work in advocacy efforts at AHA are particularly encouraged by the Obama administration’s decision to appoint David Ferriero, a highly qualified professional and former research director of the New York Public Library, to lead the National Archives and Records Administration. Jim Leach, long a champion in Congress of the National Endowment for the Humanities, should also provide excellent leadership for that agency. Also good news for AHA members is the appointment of historian and AHA member Myron Gutman to be assistant director for the National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate. In a meeting with representatives of the Consortium of Social Sciences Associations (COSSA, a group of which AHA is a founding member) Gutman noted that his background in history and demography has made interdisciplinary scientific work hugely important to him.

Robert Townsend and I have also devoted substantial time during the past year to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a group of higher education and disciplinary associations as well as faculty organizations committed to working on issues related to deteriorating faculty working conditions. The CAW has over the years collected and disseminated information on conditions of work for full- and part-time faculty not on tenure-track appointments, and examined the implications of this trend for students, parents, faculty members, and institutions. In January 2010, the CAW published and disseminated a major issue brief on this subject.

The National History Center, created as an AHA initiative in 2002 to help historians reach out to broader audiences by providing the historical context necessary to better understand contemporary events, continues to expand its programming. In addition to a series of congressional briefings, joint lectures with the Council on Foreign Relations, and a series with Oxford University Press designed to increase public understanding of how and why historians “reinterpret history,” the Center in 2011 will launch a new weekly history seminar on international and national affairs with the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson Center. The National History Center will also continue its efforts to expand the role of historians in the formulation of history education policy by cooperating with the Department of Education funded National History Education Clearinghouse at George Mason University. The Center has also received an additional $1.457 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue its highly successful international summer seminars for young scholars focusing on decolonization in the twentieth century.

The American Historical Association’s financial situation mirrors conditions in the profession, and as economic conditions worsened throughout 2009 we all felt the impact. Employment opportunities for historians shrunk, with job ads in Perspectives on History down by 58 percent in September of 2009. By the end of the year, though, as more departments were able to make hiring plans, that figure had changed to about 30 percent when compared to the same period in 2008. 2008 job ads, however, were about 27 percent lower than 2007. We do not, of course, know how long this downward trend will continue but expect that it may be at least another year. Travel budgets for colleges and university departments have also been negatively impacted by the recession as well as the budgets of university presses. These trends make for very difficult times in the historical profession but that also affects the Association’s revenues as well. We are fortunate in that our arrangement with the University of Chicago Press, one of the largest publishers of scholarly journals, has brought stability to our income from institutional subscriptions for the American Historical Review.

The audit for fiscal year 2008-09, which ended June 30, 2009, shows a modest surplus of $166,190, less than the year before, but a comfortable margin nonetheless. This has allowed the Association to invest in a long-delayed and much needed upgrade of the management system it uses to track information about members, subscribers, and purchasers of publications as well as financial and other transactions. The current system, which dates back to 2001, is increasingly inadequate as the technology for tracking such information has evolved, making it ever more difficult to integrate our business transactions with our membership database.

The work of the new Finance Committee, including two volunteer professionals from the investment sector--Charles Booth and Thomas Rugh, has been especially helpful, allowing the AHA to more expertly assess and direct the performance of its new investment company, TIAA-CREF. At close to the end of 2009 our total investment portfolio had grown from $2,995,314 to $3,514,048.

Heading into the 2010 Annual Meeting in San Diego, the AHA faced a number of challenges. Many of our partners—history departments, university presses, and other historical institutions, as well as individual historians—were hit hard financially by the current economic recession. Added to the mix was dissatisfaction about our decision not to break a contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel and thus incur nearly $800,000 in penalties, because the hotel’s owner was an early and substantial supporter of California Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage. Officers of the Association regularly communicated about this decision with our members.

Despite the difficulties surrounding the decision to continue with the Hyatt hotel as our convention headquarters, I remained convinced, and proud, of the efforts in 2009 to bring historical research to bear on the important public policy issue of same sex marriage in the form of a special thread of sessions on marriage over time and space for the San Diego meeting. We sought not to persuade or convince but, as historians always do, to provide context and perspective. We hoped that citizens engaged in this debate found it helpful, and we look forward to gathering the papers from this conference into a publication, which can then inform a wider public. I appreciated the efforts of those who created this and other parts of the program for San Diego as well as the steadfast support of officers in the face of efforts to disrupt our meeting on the part of a union that does not represent workers at the hotel and is not making an effort to organize them.

For more than ten years I have had the privilege of serving as executive director at the American Historical Association. It has been a decade of change but also a decade of building. We have modernized our governing structure, expanded dramatically the size and scope of our annual meeting, kept abreast of new technologies that relate to the organization and the profession. No one does this job without a lot of help. With a fine staff willing to learn and change with the Association’s needs, dozens of volunteer officers, and hundreds of volunteer committee members we have seen the AHA reach out to new constituencies and coalitions without compromising the standard of excellence for continuing efforts like the AHR and Perspectives on History, the work of the divisions on professional, research and teaching issues. The AHA has many challenges to confront going forward, but it has also many strengths and assets and I am optimistic about its future of the AHA.