From the Executive Director

Member Participation and the AHA

James Grossman | Dec 1, 2014


On November 3 an AHA member submitted a petition for a resolution to be considered at the Association’s business meeting on January 4. The deadline of November 1 specified by the bylaws had been extended by two days because November 1 fell on a Saturday. After consultation with the AHA’s parliamentarian, the Association’s president determined that the petition failed to meet two of the requirements stated in the bylaws. An insufficient number of AHA members in good standing had signed the petition, and the resolution as written went beyond matters “of concern to the Association, to the profession of history, or to the academic profession.”

AHA staff remain neutral on the content of resolutions that are under consideration for the business meeting. Rather than offer opinions on the substance of resolutions submitted for consideration at the business meeting, their role is to supply resources that speak to the technical matters of submission. The content of resolutions is a matter for the members to debate once the president, in consultation with the parliamentarian, has determined whether the proposal conforms to the requirements of the bylaws. The role of AHA staff is to facilitate submission of such petitions, as we are a membership organization that depends on participation for our vitality. In this spirit, AHA staff provided guidance to the organizer of the petition. The president, after explaining the reasons for her decision, reminded the petitioner that the Association’s parliamentarian is available to all AHA members “for advice in interpreting the provisions of the AHA constitution and bylaws relevant to the submission of petitions.”

The guidance provided by staff, and the president’s reference to the availability of the parliamentarian, underscore the AHA’s commitment to participation by the membership. Perhaps sometimes the rules seem more like hoops than pathways, but the bar is quite low: 50 members (out of more than 13,000) must sign on, and the resolution must be relevant to our work.

Submission of a petition, like other forms of member participation, reminds us of the larger questions relating to what it means for the AHA to be a membership association, rather than the kind of nonprofit organization that is more common on the landscape, such as a museum, health clinic, or community center. These organizations rely on their boards of directors to select leaders, a self-perpetuating process that involves no broader constituency. Membership organizations, by contrast, are creatures of their members: we rely on members for governance, financial support, and participation in the activities that support our mission.

Two factors, intervening over the course of two generations, have dramatically altered this terrain: democratization and the Internet.

For many years, the opportunities for member participation in the AHA were obvious and unchanging. Keeping up with scholarship through the American Historical Review and the annual meeting stood at the top of the list, with the former the chief incentive to membership for many scholars. Participation generally meant presenting a research paper at the annual meeting or voting in elections for officers, as little actual business took place at the business meeting during the annual conference.

Two factors, intervening over the course of two generations, have dramatically altered this terrain: democratization and the Internet. The first expanded who could participate, and the second how people participate.

Anyone who compares an AHA ballot from a half century ago to a ballot today will quickly appreciate the expanded circle of association leadership. Women, virtually excluded from leadership for much of the AHA’s first 80 years, currently hold 13 of the Association’s 24 elected positions. More fields are represented, along with early-career scholars, high school teachers, and community college faculty. Racial and ethnic diversity has increased dramatically, although it often remains inadequate, as does the range of institutions from which our leadership is drawn. A vastly expanded roster of committees and initiatives—most recently Tuning—has drawn in an even wider and more extensive circle of active members.

I direct attention to these accomplishments not to suggest that we have done enough. Democratization is a process, and it must be ongoing to maintain and increase the vitality of the AHA. Moreover, the diversification of candidates nominated for leadership positions has not increased participation in AHA elections. Only a quarter of the membership participates in our elections. We can draw solace from the fact that this is about average for associations, but only if we are willing to accept that low bar. Diversification is a hollow achievement if it is not embraced by the membership.

The annual meeting program showcases another arena of diversification. Approximately one-third of the membership—along with nonmembers—participate in the annual meeting. This form of participation, which requires more commitment than voting, brings members into contact with one another. Once upon a time, the meeting’s sessions focused almost exclusively on research; hence the placement of the conference under the jurisdiction of the AHA’s Research Division. Even a quick glance at recent programs, however, points to a far broader agenda, and this year is no different. The annual meeting is a cornucopia of scholarship, teaching, and professional activity. A majority of proposals submitted to the program committee still focus on research. But attendance is generally higher at sessions that offer professional development of one kind or another. Outside of sessions, the conference’s main activity (aside from eating) is networking, which includes conversations about teaching, research, employment issues, and just about everything else relevant to the work of historians.

This networking has decisively broadened its locale; hence the second shift in terrain. Historians can now use a wide variety of social media to interact with one another. The AHA is committed to complementing its broadening of who participates with expanding how we participate. AHA Communities, a section of our website that is accessible through the Collaborate button on the home page, offers opportunities to organize and participate in conversations on topics selected by members. Perspectives on History’s online version welcomes commentary by readers, as does the Association’s blog, AHA Today. These spaces are complemented by our Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest pages, a Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel.

I welcome all AHA members (and our colleagues whom I hope will become members) to explore these resources and participate in the conversations they make possible. Join one of the communities featured on our website at Or form your own. Come to the business meeting in New York on January 4. Nominate a colleague for a committee (send all nominations to Submit a proposal for our 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta ( Any member should feel free to contact me at any time. As a community of scholars and teachers, we depend on one another to provide the vitality that makes it possible to learn from one another and enhance our contribution to scholarship and public culture.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. Follow him at @JimGrossmanAHA or e-mail him at

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