Published Date

September 17, 1972

This resource is part of The AHA Review Board: A Preliminary Report (1972).

The critical problems now facing the association have become apparent to its membership. Some of the problems stem from the state of the historical profession itself. There appears to be a decline in historical interest and awareness in the schools and colleges and among the public at large. Reflective historians have faced a crisis of confidence as to the nature and significance of their subject and its professional pursuit. New fields have emerged to the accompaniment of debate over various intellectual, professional, and indeed political issues. Aside from intellectual questions, such issues have included the crisis in academic employment, the conflict over educational purposes and goals, the controversy over teaching methods and pedagogical philosophies, uneasiness over existing hierarchical structures—anxieties, in short, over education in general and history in particular in our contemporary world.

To add to these general concerns, the association finds itself in a serious financial position. Growth in its activities and consequent increased demands on association resources have not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in income. Inflation has in the meantime continued to diminish the AHA’s resources. For a variety of reasons, the association has not planned as effectively as hindsight might suggest the use of these resources. The structure of the association has clearly not been favorable to systematic planning and control. As a result, decisions, whether initiated by the membership or the Council, have often tended to be ad hoc, with little reference to larger frameworks and long-range planning. Many members, who cite endowment and property figures as evidence of the association’s affluence, have not made careful inquiry into the income realized from various holdings or the costs of association programs as a whole. The officers of the association have often cited poverty and future deficits as arguments against certain kinds of undertakings, but have not made clear why one program should take priority over another, or given convincing evidence of clear financial grasp and planning.

Similarly, when members of the association have urged that the association should undertake to act as a professional organization, they often have not explored the implications of their position. For example, questions concerning the organization’s tax-exempt educational status need to be addressed knowledgeably and with the most skilled advice, yet there is little evidence that the membership as a whole understands that fact. Moreover, the association’s officers have given little guidance to the membership through the admittedly mystifying and inconclusive thicket of legal requirements attached to tax status.

We need to give consideration to the nature of the association as an institution. The voluntary participation of members in the activities of our organization is necessarily variable. It depends upon the exigencies of distance, other obligations, and an individual’s own proper ordering of priorities. Many people think about the association, if they do so at all, when they attend an annual meeting or become concerned with a particular issue. Their interest and participation can rarely have the kind of continuity, focus, or even comprehensiveness that is involved in more immediate institutional and academic attachments and commitments. Those who serve in career positions within the association and those members who have been very extensively involved in association business often have a different outlook. They frequently exhibit the strong feeling that their definition of what is proper for the association carries with it also the sanction of their more extensive experience and commitment. But, of course, we cannot stress too strongly that the membership, because it is the association, has the obligation to inform itself as much as possible. By the nature of the case, much association business, and much in the formulation and implementation of its policies, will be “inefficient” precisely because what depends on the membership at large depends on the voluntary involvement of a large and diverse group that can concentrate only infrequently on association matters as such.

Difficulties, then, have arisen out of analogizing the association to more familiar academic institutions and out of failure to recognize some of the realities with which the association must cope. Other problems have emerged in part from a slowness on the part of all to adapt the association’s structure to altered circumstances, in part from real differences of opinion, which cannot be argued away, over what the association should be and what it should do. Regarding governance, for example, the immense growth of the association and its activities has not, despite some adjustments, been met by a shared recognition of the need to devise more efficient structures of policy-making and administration. Like many academic institutions that grew precipitately, the AHA has not created the institutional forms to keep up with the changes it has undergone. Recent years have seen much concern expressed about the internal politics of the association. They have witnessed a series of ad hoc responses to immediate pressures and claims. What they have not revealed is very much in the way of larger discussion of the priorities the AHA should declare as its own or hard thought about the framework of decision-making and administration required to implement those priorities. Instead there have been individual manifestoes, considerable political turmoil, much description of what the AHA used to be, in terms that too often have reflected nostalgic myth rather than a search for what may be of most value now.

It is of little use to deplore the size of the association and to yearn for the days when everyone knew everyone else. It is not helpful to ask why the association does not do more without giving it resources, clear policies, an effective structure. All this, again, is evident, but as a group we have often behaved as though we were dealing with some kind of ideal institution rather than with an imperfect one that needs a clear mandate and the tools to carry it out without excessive discouragement and distraction.

That the proposals addressed to the Review Board have often been contradictory clearly suggests there is no single formula which can weld the association into a unified entity. We can only expect full agreement on the broad assertion that the association has a set of functions which serve its general purpose, stated in its original charter from Congress, of “promoting historical studies.” Obviously, different emphases are bound to be urged in the pursuit of that objective. This makes necessary, in turn, a broader definition of the association’s mandate. We need to create a structure within which different interests can be accommodated and find constructive realization. We need, in other words, to develop an organization that is both open and flexible enough to encourage many ways of carrying on historical study.

If our national organization cannot be significantly improved, then we should not continue to maintain the AHA as a single association of historians, but instead encourage the substitution of a whole series of societies devoted to the pursuit of different interests and styles. The Review Board accepts the proposition that there is value in a national association for history and that it is worth a major effort to reorganize it so that it may better serve its constituencies. We recognize that the AHA cannot be all things to all historians. But in our discussions we have steadily found ourselves confronted with three broad areas of concern, the “scholarly,” the “pedagogical,” and the “professional.” The result is our proposal for three “divisions” in the structure of the AHA. However, while we believe that the AHA must continue its attention to professional matters, we support the proposition that it should remain essentially a non-professional society, that is, that it should remain in legal terms a tax-exempt educational organization (classified under the federal tax laws as a 501(c)(3) organization). Related to these conclusions is the recommendation that the words of the original act of incorporation (“for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and for kindred purposes in the interests of American history, and history in America”) ought still to define the principal purposes of the organization. As we interpret these words, they are not to be taken narrowly as limiting the association’s interests to research. Rather, they clearly imply concern with the dissemination of historical knowledge in many forms, whether by the teaching of history, the support of the professional requirements of historians, or the facilitation of the conduct of historical research. We believe the membership of the association shares our conviction that a pluralistic definition of the association’s purposes is essential at this point in time. Of course, we recognize that there are limitations of time, of finances, of priorities (and the status of the association as a tax-exempt organization) that will always require choices to be made among the legitimate functions of the association. We are convinced, however, that too often such choices have been made by accident or by default and suggest that a fundamental reorganization of the association will help us to make such choices more systematically and more rationally.

The Review Board feels that the association ought to give attention to the quality of graduate programs, the questions of employment for historians, the assurance of equal opportunity among historians, and the integrity of historical scholarship. We do not believe, however, that the association can be an accrediting agency; it can only propose standards and models, not impose them. Neither do we believe that it can be a job placement bureau; it can only facilitate the exchange of information and clarify issues. Nor, in our judgement, can it be a hearing board on matters of discrimination or academic freedom; it can only support the efforts of other agencies through which such matters should be pursued. This is not intended to indicate that these issues are of anything but paramount importance; it means only that the association cannot and should not duplicate activities that belong most appropriately to the university or to the AAUP. Similarly, the Review Board has concluded that the role of teaching must be stressed by the association, even though our organization’s part in promoting effective teaching of history will often be indirect.

Many will disagree with the propositions asserted above. Our review, however, has made it clear that broad consensus within the association is impossible. If a unified AHA is to continue, then two attitudes are requisite. Members must accept differences of opinion as necessary and desirable; they must agree on a structure that will guarantee that the association has a viable means of airing such differences, debating priorities, planning policies, and administering programs.

A similar set of differences centers about the degree of “power” the association should possess or should claim. Our committee is a microcosm of the differences that have come to the fore in the broader membership of the AHA. Clearly, those who argue that the association should act to influence institutional academic policy or society’s political positions have in mind either moral suasion or sanctioned control. Those who see the AHA as an essentially professional organization in a time of crisis are often convinced that some form of authority ought to exist, or be developed, for the association. The present report makes no such recommendations. Some of us are convinced that the association ought not to have or to seek power in the sense noted above; that it ought not to attempt to legislate official policies for others any more than it ought to prescribe beliefs for its members. But some of us disagree, believing that in times of crisis the mandate to promote historical studies must be more liberally translated than in the past. Only the membership as a whole can decide the issue. But whatever the case, the question will have to be addressed by the association.

Power within the association, and the actual and symbolic character of its exercise and forms, have engendered much controversy. The frequently expressed complaint is well known. It charges that the officers and elected representatives of the association have constituted a narrow oligarchy, that what is judged most acceptable and valued by the association and in the profession of history itself has been defined by the hierarchical and traditional reward system of the “major” universities. The single criticism most frequently heard is that the main offices of the association have been regarded as rewards for a restricted group of historians who in turn reflect a restricted view of the association’s role and perpetuate that role without seeing the need for wider participation and more broadly conceived programs addressed to the majority of the membership and the real interests of historical study. Around this criticism are clustered many of the other expressed dissatisfactions all of us have encountered.

The Review Board regards widened participation in the government and activities of the association as imperative. It is convinced that offices should not be regarded as honorific. It believes that Council and committee members must take their commitments and responsibilities even more seriously. The Council should be genuinely representative and it should take on the role of a board of governors. Committees must be a means of achieving, in cooperation with the staff, real continuity in the particular business of the association with which each is concerned, and they must better serve as vehicles of communication with a larger membership. We urge, on the one hand, that the Council be invested much more specifically with policy-making functions and the responsibility for the efficient conduct of the association’s business, and on the other, that it be enabled to carry out its responsibilities through a system of decentralization that would make more systematic use of the association’s committee system. In what follows we outline a set of proposals that have commended themselves to us as the basis for a responsible reform of the American Historical Association.