Publication Date

February 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director


My December column urged all members of the AHA to consider various ways in which they might participate in the Association’s activities, even at the most elementary level of voting or attending a bus­­iness meeting. On Sunday, January 4, nearly 200 colleagues took me up on the invitation, resulting in roughly ten times the normal attendance at a business meeting. The published agenda, however, was not the attraction, not even the promise of stirring annual reports to be delivered by the executive director and the vice presidents. What drew a crowd was the spreading word of resolutions to be introduced from the floor addressing the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

These resolutions differed from the one to which I referred in my December column, and were brought forth by another member. The initial petition had not satisfied two of the five requirements established in AHA bylaws for resolutions seeking consideration at a business meeting:

Such resolutions must be received in the office of the executive director not later than November 1 prior to the annual meeting, to allow time for publication. They must be in proper parliamentary form; must be signed by at least fifty members of the Association in good standing; must not be more than three hundred words in length including any introductory material; and must deal with a matter of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.

As I noted in the December issue of Perspectives on History, the initial petition bore the signatures of an insufficient number of AHA members in good standing, and the resolution went beyond matters “of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.” The two new resolutions were conveyed to the AHA on December 22 by Van E. Gosse of Franklin and Marshall College, and satisfied each of the requirements save their submission seven weeks beyond the deadline. After being informed by then AHA president Jan Goldstein that the submission had failed to meet formal requirements, Gosse requested that Council, at its scheduled meeting on January 2, place the resolutions on the agenda of the business meeting that would take place two days later. After a thoughtful discussion, Council did not take action on that request. As I explained at the business meeting, Council had two concerns relating to the request’s timing: many members already had travel plans that could not be altered at such a late date; and given the seriousness of the issues involved, members ought to have time to explore and certify the many allegations of fact in the two resolutions.

This left one avenue open for the resolutions to be considered at the business meeting on January 4: a motion from the floor to suspend a specific rule in the bylaws, in this case the requirement for submission of a resolution by November 1. An appropriate motion was offered and seconded; debate focused solely on whether the rule should be suspended. Did the imperative for discussion of an important issue trump the intent of the bylaw to provide adequate time for members to plan their schedules and prepare for the discussion? The members at the meeting decided it did not. By a vote of 144–51 (with three voting present), the assembly declined to suspend the relevant bylaw, leaving the floor closed to new resolutions.

This skeletal narrative leaves much of the story unexplained, of course. Why, for instance, does the AHA lean so heavily on codified formalities, whether the letter of the bylaws or the procedures specified in Robert’s Rules of Order? Why couldn’t the group just have a conversation about the issues raised in the resolutions without having to take a vote, and hence without having to suspend the bylaws? What did Council actually think about the content of the resolutions, which, after all, should be what matters?

These are only a few of the questions that arose at the time or have arisen since. Moreover, like any simple narrative qua timeline such as the one offered here, the historian makes decisions about what to include and what not to include—decisions that are inherently interpretive. I will no doubt receive e-mail asking why I left out this or that element of the story. As always, I will reply to all e-mail from members.

But a few responses here. The AHA adheres strictly to rules so that everyone knows before and during a meeting what will happen there, or has an opportunity to learn the process. Some know the process more thoroughly than others and come to the table with that advantage. (Anyone who watched Sam Irvin 40 years ago knows how a shrewd participant with full knowledge of the rules can benefit from that expertise.) We evened the playing field as best we could by distributing digitally in advance to all members, and then again on paper at the meeting, a nontechnical summary of procedures, written by AHA parliamentarian Michael Les Benedict of Ohio State University. Our goal is to maximize fairness by using the same rules for each meeting, regardless of the issue before us. Although some organizations have put Robert’s aside in the interest of informality, the AHA has instead pushed it further by adopting careful rules in the spirit of Robert’s even for Council’s e-mail deliberations. A great virtue of Robert’s is its ability to anticipate just about any possibility combined with its capacity for moving a meeting towards a decision without denying minority factions their opportunity to be heard.

These rules are what made it impossible, after the motion to suspend the rules, to just stop the process and have a conversation about the substantive issues in the resolutions (which at that point were still not on the agenda). As the parliamentarian explained, once a motion has been made and seconded it belongs to “the meeting.” The discussion must be germane to the motion. Without that rule, a conversation with no specified focus could throw the meeting into chaos with no end—an impossible program for people with busy lives, of which an AHA business meeting is just one piece. Informality is nice, but there are times when both democracy and efficiency tilt in favor of a consistent set of procedures known to all beforehand.

I hope this narrative, bare-bones as it must be, provides some understanding of what happened in New York and why. Council felt strongly that members had not received enough notice to include important and controversial new business on the agenda. That decision was informed by conversations with members ­beforehand, which is as it should be: Council ­represents the membership. But the notion that one side or the other effectively tipped Council’s inclinations and hence kept something off the agenda through the exercise of influence, or succeeded in “squelching” debate, has no basis in fact. Because much of this lobbying was directed at me (and at then President Goldstein) I will reiterate here what I said to everyone who contacted me with substantive arguments: my opinion on the content of such resolutions is irrelevant. My job is to work with the staff and the president to assure a fair and transparent process. This is what I did in New York and what I will do in the future.

Finally, let us all remember that we are an organization of historians, with a mission to promote historical thinking and historical work. If we don’t inject both into public discourse, we are derelict in our responsibility to our discipline. Hence the decision by incoming president Vicki L. Ruiz to devote three “presidential” sessions at the 2016 annual meeting to topics relating to the three resolutions that had failed, for one reason or another, to come before the business meeting. More important, Ruiz and I encourage all members to consider proposing sessions that bring the voices of historians to the table on important issues, from voting rights in the United States to pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and the Middle East; from conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis to disputes over Tibetan sovereignty; from climate change to water rights. Everything has a history.

Not all sessions at our annual meeting have a contemporary valence. But there’s plenty of room for those that do. Ruiz’s decision regarding presidential sessions guarantees that at least a critical mass of panels on this particularly divisive issue will include diverse viewpoints, and this is why I support her decision. That spirit ought to infuse other proposals as well.

is executive director of the AHA and tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.