From the Executive Director

The Winds of Change: What's Ahead for the AHA

James Grossman, February 2017

Note: This column is an abridged version of the executive director’s report presented at the AHA annual meeting on January 7, 2017.

Although indoors, my desk four blocks from the United States Capitol leaves me acutely aware of the winds of change in Washington, DC. The gusts will blow across the District with particular force this year, sweeping through nearly every federal agency in their path. So I will begin what is traditionally a report on the recent past with observations of the emerging landscape and its possible effect on the American Historical Association and its members. I do so for two reasons: because the winds are unusual and of considerable moment for our association and historians in general, and because the last two months have seen substantial staff and Executive Committee effort devoted to public statements, requests for public statements, and correspondence relating to possible public statements.

Despite strong relationships with relevant federal agencies and a cadre of supporters on Capitol Hill—including the new bipartisan history caucus in the House of Representatives—we note with concern the records of some congressional leaders and the rhetoric of the incoming administration. The AHA, the National Coalition for History (NCH), the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), and the Consortium of Social Science Associations will have much to protect and even more to monitor. Some of this is familiar, such as the annual (and in the past, pro forma) proposals to eliminate or drastically cut the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The NEH and perhaps even the NHPRC could retain enough influential Republican support to survive, and the AHA will participate vigorously in NHA and NCH efforts on behalf of their integrity and appropriations. But the actual size of budgets—whether NEH, NHPRC, or such important programs as Title VI/Fulbright-­Hays—is impossible to predict given the diversity of Republican perspectives and a “Shutdown Caucus” member at the helm of the Office of Management and Budget. I urge all AHA members to participate in Humanities Advocacy Day on March 14.

But it’s not all about money. Consider what the incoming president’s refusal to release tax returns and other documents during election season portends for access to federal records now that he is charged with overseeing them. The day after his inauguration, in 2008, President Obama issued an executive order reversing a George W. Bush directive that had expanded the ability of former presidents to block public access to presidential records. Less than a year later, in another executive order, the Obama administration opened for declassification millions of pages of federal records and redirected bureaucratic bias so that fewer documents would be classified in the first place. These policies can be reversed by new executive orders.

It gets even more complicated as we move into areas that relate to public culture and to the workplaces of historians rather than to their research. President Trump has made statements about the status of undocumented immigrants that have implications for our students and for the universities and communities in which many historians work. He has articulated, accepted, or tacitly condoned comments and actions offensive to a wide swath of Americans. In the policy arena, climate change research sits to a considerable extent within a historical framework. The threatened dismantling of regulatory protections raises historical questions; for example, is it possible to understand a regulation outside of the context in which it was first deemed necessary?

Beyond Washington, the AHA has been asked to weigh in on incidents already, from a suspended high school social studies teacher to the proliferation of symbols of hate. Everything that matters has a history that matters. Rest assured that we will receive frequent requests—sometimes stated much in stronger terms—to take a stand, to be counted, to bear witness. Should the AHA be prepared to issue statements, even brief ones, every week, or more? What are the boundaries of “professional” concerns? What is the public role of the AHA?

These are policy issues that entail fundamental professional, ethical, and political considerations. They also involve questions of priorities, given the size of the AHA staff and the time commitments of its officers. Prioritization, in turn, requires a review of what the Association’s recent accomplishments portend for future directions, what is currently in process, and what has already been mapped out.

The considerable accomplishments the AHA can claim for 2016 provide less a culmination than a foundation. Our Tuning grant, which ends with the annual meeting’s programming, has helped the AHA and 150 faculty at two- and four-year colleges revisit the purposes of the history major and more effectively articulate what our students learn. The initiative has succeeded well beyond our expectations, and we will build on its accomplishments. The new Teaching Division focus on enrollments, for example, will draw heavily from both what we have learned in Tuning and the recruitment of an entirely new group of AHA participants through that work. This recruitment has found its way into other aspects of AHA leadership, from Program Committee to Council. It must continue. Tuning has also helped me—and I suspect others as well—to more effectively articulate what we do in undergraduate education and what we do as historians. My op-ed on the history major published last June in the Los Angeles Times drew considerably on Tuning ideas. Similarly, the emphasis in Tuning on articulation of purpose and outcomes helped to shape the next stage of the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative. We will be requiring all departments applying for our next round of grants to articulate the purpose or purposes of their PhD programs.

Career Diversity has indeed been as successful as Tuning, most strikingly in its influence on the discourse in higher education relating to the outcomes of PhD education and career paths of degree recipients. Clearly, not all the conversation and activity—from a range of Mellon Foundation grants to an entire NEH initiative—can be attributed to our work. But our claims to being ahead of the curve and to playing a leadership role are grounded in a diverse range of initiatives and results, most recently as participants in multiple NEH grants to individual PhD programs, and in collaboration with the Council of Graduate Schools in the area of data collection. The Mellon Foundation’s recent $1.5 million grant to the AHA will enable us to broaden our agenda for change in history PhD education even further, combining what we’ve learned from Tuning with an earlier Teagle Foundation grant focused on introducing graduate students to the scholarship on how undergraduates learn history.

Even projects that seem complete are often ongoing. The remarkably successful conference that the AHA convened in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in May 2016 lives on, not only through its website but also through the AHA’s remaining funds from our NEH grant, which will allow us to edit panel videos to five-minute segments and make them available as valuable resources for teachers.

Our staff is smaller than some of its counterparts in similarly sized associations. It is also strikingly collegial and collaborative. A tour of the AHA website points to the remarkable range of work that fewer than 20 people can accomplish when they can draw on a vast network of members who are generous with their time, energy, and expertise.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.