Publication Date

September 1, 1988

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

AHA Topic

AHA Initiatives & Projects

At its May 8–9, 1988, meeting, the Council of the AHA considered the Report of the on the Future of the AHA and ordered its publication in Perspectives. Bracketed comments following each recommendation in the Report indicate Council action.

At the AHA Council meeting in May 1987, member Richard H. Kohn proposed that the Association engage in a study of the future of the historical profession and the AHA’s role in it. The Council approved a preliminary investigation; Mr. Kohn and the late John Benton, also a Council member, agreed to draw up a proposal for consideration by the Association’s three divisions in the fall. All three divisions—Professional, Research, and Teaching—reviewed the proposal at their October meetings. Finding considerable merit in the proposal, the divisions recommended that the Council appoint a special committee to address both assessment of the profession and evaluation of the Associations goals and priorities.

At its December 27, 1987, meeting, the Council discussed the proposal and the three divisions’ recommendations and authorized the appointment of an on the Future of the AHA. The Council asked Louis R. Harlan, president-elect of the AHA and faculty member at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Mr. Kohn, a public historian and chief of the Office of Air Force History, to co-chair the committee. Each division also appointed a representative to the committee: John J. TePaske, Duke University, from the Professional Division; Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia, from the Research Division; and Julia Stewart Werner, Nicolet High School, from the Teaching Division. AHA President Akira Iriye then appointed two at-large members: Anna K. Nelson, Tulane University, and Gerhard Weinberg, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Thus constituted, the committee largely reflects the diversity of the AHA, including both U.S. and non-U.S. specialists and individuals involved in precollege teaching, postsecondary education, and public history.

The on the Future of the AHA convened in Washington on Sunday, March 6, 1988, for a day and a half meeting. It began its deliberations by reviewing the last planning and assessment effort undertaken by the AHA—the study by the Review Board in 1970–73 that led to adoption in 1974 of the constitution and bylaws under which the Association now functions. The committee reviewed the changes that were made in the AHA at that time and assessed what has occurred in the interim. Essentially, the found the structure established under the 1974 constitution still sound a structure that, as the Review Board envisioned in 1972, “will guarantee that the Association has a viable means of airing … differences, debating priorities, planning policies, and administering programs.”

But the committee concluded that the full potential of that organizational restructuring has not been fully realized. While all committee members agreed that the Association has made considerable progress in the past decade and has much to be proud of, they still urged that the AHA provide more leadership and firmer direction. Rather than adopt a purely reactive stance, all agreed that the profession and the Association should make an effort to shape their future. We need to assess where we are now and what direction we should take to strengthen the profession and the AHA’s role in it.

The then addressed the question of how to go about this assessment and planning. After investigating long-range planning, a management technique commonly used by learned societies and professional organizations, all agreed on the necessity of avoiding a prescriptive or restrictive plan that will unnecessarily bind the Association in the future. Instead the committee decided to propose to Council a series of recommendations that it feels will significantly enhance and strengthen both the history profession and the AHA.


Who is in the history profession and what is the AHA’s role in it?

The recognized that, before it could assess the AHA’s goals and priorities, it must first define the profession that the AHA serves and the AHA’s role in it. After considerable discussion and debate, the committee concluded that the history profession should be defined as those individuals who have graduate degrees or some formal training in history and who practice or have practiced history either in teaching or research or both. Both teaching and research are used in the broad sense established in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. Teaching, according to the statement, encompasses a wide range of efforts at communication and dissemination in varied settings—museums and historic sites as well as classrooms—and involves the use of visual materials and artifacts as well as words. The committee also endorses the definition of research used in the statement, “the uncovering and exchange of new information and the shaping of interpretations …. The profession communicates with students in textbooks and classrooms; to other scholars and the general public in books, articles, exhibits, films, and historic sites and structures; and to decision-makers in memoranda and testimony.”

In other words, the committee believes very strongly that the work setting and the particular activity do not necessarily define either the historian or the profession and that self-identification is central. While recognizing that historians with Ph.D.s will remain the Association’s core group and primary focus, the recommends a broader and more inclusive definition of the profession that will enable the Association to extend its reach not only to faculty at smaller colleges and junior colleges, but also beyond the academy to the broader history community. At the same time, the committee emphasizes the importance of focusing on the profession—that is, people who make their living in whole or in part by teaching, researching, writing, or otherwise providing or disseminating historical knowledge and understanding—as opposed to amateurs and buffs. While amateur historians have been and should continue to be welcome, the AHA’s priority should be meeting the needs of its professional members.

A preliminary survey suggests that the history profession thus defined encompasses over 76,000 individuals. That includes 21,300 with Ph.D.s in history, only 70.3 percent of whom are presently employed in colleges and universities. The remaining 29.6 percent are employed in two-year colleges, elementary and secondary schools, business and industry, government, and non-profit organizations (including museums, libraries, and archives) or are self-employed as independent scholars. We also know that since 1949, 78,870 individuals have received master’s degrees in history, including, we assume, the 21,300 who went on to doctorate work. That means another 57,670 individuals with graduate degrees in history who should be included in our profession defined by education.

Admittedly we have probably lost a number of these individuals to other professions, but a substantial number are employed in the same range of occupations noted above for Ph.D.s. From the National Council for the Social Studies, for example, we know that of their 25,000 members, 46 percent of those indicating an area of interest checked history as their specialization. The American Association for State and Local History estimates that there are about 17,600 individuals employed in museums and historical agencies in the United States, approximately 47 percent of whom have graduate training in history. And the Society of American Archivists reports that there are approximately 7,000 archivists in the United States, nearly half of whom have graduate degrees in history. A substantial number remain unaccounted for, but it still seems reasonable to conclude that the profession encompasses at least 75,000 individuals, only 13,000 of whom are AHA members.

What is the AHA’s role in the history profession?

The began with the mission statement included in the 1889 act of incorporation: “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history, and of history in America.” The committee also discussed the mission statement in Article II of the 1974 constitution and bylaws: “Its object shall be the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication, the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts, the dissemination of historical records and information, the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public, and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.” Those statements are broad and that breadth of purpose, in the opinion of the committee, implies a special role for the AHA—as the umbrella organization for history that-in contrast to the plethora of specialized historical organizations, associations, and learned societies in the discipline—brings together and represents historians from all work settings and in all chronological, geographical, and topical specializations. In this capacity, the AHA has a special responsibility to foster unity within the history profession, to encourage a broader understanding of history as a discipline, and, as the senior and most broad-based professional organization in the discipline, to speak for the profession as a whole.

If that is the AHA’s role, then membership in it should be obligatory for all professional historians, not just 13,000 out of 75,000. All should recognize that the AHA serves the profession in a way that other specialized organizations cannot. The committee noted for example, the Association’s leadership in developing profession-wide ethical standards, its international activity as the recognized representative of the discipline in the United States, its leadership in advocacy at the national level, and its attention to the problems of teaching in the schools. In short, historians should recognize that without the AHA the profession would have no center, no focus.

But how successful has the AHA been in fulfilling this role? The committee discussed at length whether the AHA is in reality an umbrella organization uniting the profession or whether its membership is drawn from and its programs focused upon a narrow segment of the profession—those who have Ph.D.s and teach at the college or university level. The committee found tension between the Association’s role as professional organization with broad responsibilities and as a learned society focused on scholarly research. While the members of the felt that the AHA has made significant gains since the previous study ended in 1974, all agreed that important problems of direction remain to be addressed. Within that context, the committee proposes to the Council the following recommendations.

To strengthen the AHA’s role as the umbrella organization for history.

  1. A survey of the history profession. The proposes to conduct an extensive study or survey, determining who has graduate training in history, where they are employed, and other data that will enable the AHA to understand better the profession and its needs. While we have detailed information on portions of the profession, we do not have comparable data across the board. At present we can make educated guesses about the profession but not informed assessments of its current status and future prospects. The proposes to undertake this study itself, developing a detailed survey proposal and seeking outside funding for what is expected to be a two-year project. [Approved contingent on outside funding.]
  2. Broader and more aggressive membership recruitment. The AHA needs to reach out more broadly and more effectively throughout the profession if indeed it is to be the umbrella organization for the discipline. To some extent this is an image problem. Many historians simply view the Association as indifferent if not hostile to their interests, despite considerable effort by the AHA over the past decade to be more responsive and to inform the profession of the organization’s programs and activities. Misunderstanding and misperception persist. For example, many secondary school teachers look first to the OAH rather than the AHA for support, but the latter actually has a more impressive—but little recognized—record in this area. A similar case can be made in regard to public historians, junior and community college faculty, historians at four year institutions, and other groups. While the AHA has much to offer, many academics and nonacademics alike apparently hold a negative image of the AHA—elitist, conservative, even rigid—and there is no reason to expect that image to change without considerable effort on our part. The AHA also suffers in its membership recruitment efforts because as a generalist organization it appears more remote, less essential than the myriad of specialized organizations that address more directly the particular needs and concerns of smaller constituencies. Rather than competing with those organizations, the Association should focus on its unique role as the umbrella under which the profession can address issues and concerns that cut across specializations without losing its present character of serving diverse and specific constituencies. For example, who else can better address ethical concerns or monitor the employment situation or initiate international activity? In short, membership in the AHA should be seen as an obligation for all historians. The recommends a careful evaluation of membership recruitment efforts within this context. A broader and more diverse membership will not only enhance the AHA’s influence in the profession but also provide the increase in the dues base necessary for support of programs and activities. [Approved and directed AHA staff to develop a membership recruitment plan.]
  3. More representative leadership (elected and appointed). Leadership and participation in the affairs of the Association should reflect the diversity of the profession not just a core of academic historians from the major institutions. Considerable progress in this regard has been made in recent years, but much remains to be done. More representative leadership does not mean lowering standards but rather recognizing the different ways in which individuals contribute significantly to the profession and the AHA. In the last fifteen years women historians have become more prominent in the AHA leadership; likewise, other constituencies should be recognized and recruited. The recommends that the Council take a more active role in identifying and recruiting individuals for leadership positions and that the Nominating Committee and the Committee on Committees be urged to address more consciously the diversity of the profession, including not only research interests but also gender, race and ethnicity, age, size and type of institution, and other factors pertinent to issues of representation. [Deferred until after the completion of the study of the profession.]
  4. Solicitation of more affiliated societies and development of a network of specialized organizations under the AHA umbrella. The growing “Balkanization” of the history profession is a reality with which we must deal. We now face a wide array of organizations that serve the needs of various specializations and even subspecializations. Over eighty such organizations are now affiliated with the AHA, but there are many others that we should bring under our umbrella. The recommends active solicitation of new affiliated societies, seeking to bring as many of the specialized organizations as possible under the AHA’s umbrella. At the same time, relations with affiliates should be strengthened. Collaborative projects, cosponsored annual meeting sessions, and other cooperative efforts should be encouraged. Perhaps the affiliates might be offered space in Perspectives so that they can reach a constituency broader than their membership; Perspectives might even begin a new section featuring one of the affiliated societies and its activities in each issue. In short, the recommends a more complex relationship with our affiliates, making them more a part of the AHA and its work. [Referred to the Committee on Affiliated Societies for study.]
  5. Closer collaboration with nonaffiliated organizations. This relates directly to recommendation 4, extending the AHA’s collaborative efforts to those organizations like OAH, the American Association for State and Local History, and the Society of American Archivists that are not likely to affiliate formally. In particular, the urges the AHA to continue its efforts to work with the OAH in various program areas. Together the two can accomplish what neither can alone. [Approved and referred to the divisional committees for implementation.]
  6. Extension of advocacy role. The believes that the AHA needs to enlarge and broaden its advocacy efforts, not necessarily in terms of lobbying or legislation but rather through more activity and networking at the local, state, and regional as well as national levels. For example, it is at the local or state level that the AHA can be most useful in the debates over teacher certification, textbook adoption, and curriculum revision. The recommends establishing a network of state representatives or contact people, using them not only to mobilize the profession but also to recruit new members. [Referred to the National Coordinating Committee for study.]
  7. Development of a broader Institutional Services Program. Because the AHA brings together historians from all specializations, it is the organization best able to address the concerns of academic departments, which also bring together a wide array of specialists. The Institutional Services Program provides the perfect vehicle for addressing departmental concerns, but the program lacks direction. Instead of just distributing AHA publications, ISP should engage in active programming, perhaps in collaboration with the OAH Council of Chairs, which has a newsletter and has begun to meet at the AHA annual meeting. The sees the ISP as a key factor in the Association’s claim to be the umbrella organization and urges the Council to see that it fulfills its potential. Furthermore, the recommends that the ISP be broadened to include other institutions such as archives, federal offices, historical societies, and the like. Specifically, the Guide to Departments of History should be renamed to be more inclusive and less focused on the academy. [Directed AHA staff to consult with other organizations regarding possible models and to develop a proposal for a broader Institutional Service Program.]
  8. Greater diversity of program sessions/formats at the annual meeting and more attention to synthesis and comparative work at the annual meeting and in the American Historical Review. As the umbrella organization, the AHA should actively encourage annual meeting sessions that break out of the traditional research mold and provide opportunities for addressing diverse viewpoints and concerns. The AHA’s annual meeting is currently largely research focused, as befits a learned society, but there needs to be more attention to the other concerns with which a professional organization must deal. At present, many individuals do not propose sessions addressing the latter under the assumption—usually correct—that they will not be competitive with the research proposals. The recommends that the Council instruct the Program Committee to encourage more diversity through its “call for papers” and in its deliberations. Related to this is the need for more attention to synthesis and comparative work at the annual meeting and in the American Historical Review. Specialists have many opportunities through other meetings and publications to discuss their work with each other, but only the AHA provides a forum for discussion across specialization and for speculative efforts to address larger issues of synthesis. The recommends that more comparative and synthetic work be encouraged at the annual meeting and in the American Historical Review. [Referred to the Research Division for study.]
  9. Evaluation of the prize structure. The feels strongly that the present prize structure is overly focused on research and does not reflect the diversity of activity within the profession. The committee recommends that the prize structure be reviewed, looking at both the kinds of work rewarded and topics covered, and that a policy be worked out regarding the establishment of future prizes. [Approved and established a special committee representing the three divisions to implement.]
  10. More emphasis on teaching in all aspects of the AHA. The members of the agreed that the AHA must continue and accelerate its efforts to improve history teaching, particularly at the precollege level but at other levels as well, including the training of teaching assistants and adult education. While continuing to participate in commissions and studies, sponsor regional conferences, publish teaching pamphlets, and support National History Day, the History Teaching Alliance, and other collaborative projects, the AHA should more actively recruit teachers for membership and for leadership positions and direct the profession’s attention to the critical role of good teaching. One possible new effort would be sessions at the annual meeting that focus on synthesis, a concern of teachers at precollege and postsecondary levels. These presentations might even be published in the American Historical Review as a way of broadening its appeal. The committee also supports efforts to endow the teaching prize and to establish a more competitive award. [Approved and asked the Teaching Division to develop a plan to implement.]
  11. Regularized data collection on the profession. As the umbrella organization for the profession, the AHA should become a clearinghouse for data on the field. The proposed survey will be a one-time effort, but this recommendation is for the AHA to become more systematic in its collection of existing data, monitoring as best it can structural changes that will have impact on the planning that takes place in our various institutions. [Approved and directed the AHA staff to implement.]

To strengthen the AHA internally

  1. Development of an editorial policy and an advisory board for Perspectives. While all members of the committee felt that Perspectives is an exceptionally fine newsletter, they also recognized the need to establish a framework that will ensure its continued high quality. In particular, the editor would probably benefit from contact on a regular basis with an advisory group that could target topics for articles, solicit essays, suggest authors, and the like. [Approved and established a special committee to implement.]
  2. Review of staffing structure and financial management within a policy context. The expressed concern that the staffing structure and financial management exist apart from policies and priorities established by the Council. This becomes particularly critical as changes in priorities are made-both budget and staffing must be adjusted accordingly. At present there is little oversight. While the Finance Committee ostensibly has responsibility in this area, its lack of information and authority severely hinder any oversight efforts. The recommends that the Council authorize the Finance Committee to undertake a thorough review of its role in oversight of financial management and staffing. [Approved.]
  3. Annual review/evaluation by retiring officers. The felt very strongly that the Association should set up a permanent structure for review of the Association and its activities. One suggestion is that every year the two retiring Council members, the retiring vice-president, and the immediate past president constitute an annual review committee, looking each year at the functioning of the Association, how well it’s achieving its mission, what kinds of programs it’s engaged in, and where it’s going. This committee would file a written report with the Council, which could then act as it sees fit. The report would be submitted for consideration after the December 27 Council meeting, thus after this group has rotated out of office. Some other mechanism might be developed as an alternative, but the recommends that the Council give serious consideration to the need for some procedure for ongoing review. [Approved.]
  4. Convening of a planning committee every ten years. The establishment of an ongoing review procedure would not eliminate the need for a periodic assessment such as that undertaken by the Review Board in the early 1970s and the this year. [Deferred until a later date.]


The on the Future of the AHA forwards these recommendations to Council for review and action. The committee’s hope is that the Council will carry out these recommendations itself or direct appropriate divisions, committees, or staff to implement them.

Following the precedent established with the Review Board, the seeks the Council’s approval for publication of this report in Perspectives. [Approved.]

Louis R. Harlan, University of Maryland College Park, co-chair
Richard H. Kohn, Office of Air Force History, co-chair
Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia, Research Division
Anna K. Nelson, Tulane University
John J. TePaske, Duke University, Professional Division
Gerhard L. Weinberg, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Julia Stewart Werner, Nicolet High School, Teaching Division

Please address all comments and responses to the AHA Headquarters, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003.