From the President's column column in the September 1998 Perspectives
Joseph C. Miller, September 1998
Elsewhere in this issue of Perspectives readers will find Council's announcement of our search for Sandy Freitag's successor as executive director of the Association.
Sandy assumed the Association's key executive position in 1994 with Council's support of her scholarly background and interests, and she has sustained her presence as a prominent historian of South Asia during four busy administrative years in Washington, D.C. She is now preparing to return full time to her scholarly pursuits, starting as a resident scholar at the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The research project she will develop there, "Acts of Seeing, Acts of Knowing," will apply new methodological and theoretical approaches to nationalism and communalism to mass-consumed visual materials in India since the late 19th century as expressions of the popular culture of civil society there.
Readers of this column who have struggled to balance scholarly agendas against the demands of even modest administrative duties know how difficult it is to carve the time necessary for intellectual reflection out from the exigencies of real-time, day-to-day professional responsibility. Sandy has sustained her presence at conferences around the world, advanced her textbook on South Asia, and progressed substantively on her major monograph while learning the intricacies of the AHA, managing a staff of more than 20 people, working with Council and the several divisions and committees of the Association, and collaborating productively with professional partners in Washington, D.C., and nationally. Beyond our respect as a scholar, she has earned our appreciation as members of the American Historical Association who have benefited from her service as executive director.
Sandy became executive director of the AHA at a challenging moment in the history of a venerable institution of American scholarly life: new intellectual currents had expanded the range of what historians do, beyond social history to cultural history, beyond "non-Western" history to world history and to mature regional fields outside Europe and North America. Popular claims to memories of the past had elevated awareness of history in museums, films, and other representations to the level of political volatility. Large numbers of talented new PhDs in history were seeking employment in "public" positions outside the academy, while colleges and universities under severe economic constraints were trimming their faculties in history and replacing full-time teacher-scholars with part-time and adjunct instructors whom they did not always support with fully professional conditions of employment. Research funding basic to the discovery of new historical knowledge was eroding. The electronic revolution had reached the threshold of mandatory participation, as classroom materials, scholarly resources, and professional communications shifted onto the Internet and the Web. Scholarly societies, including the AHA, faced the challenge of costly, thorough-going professionalization to keep abreast of all of these changes, even as they labored under the same fiscal constraints that strained their major source of revenues, their own members. The AHA then had the additional burden of recent, extraordinary costs to cover as well.
Sandy brought energy, vision, and experience that mobilized the headquarters office—the vital heart of the organization—as a strong contributor to the Association's repositioning of itself to meet these challenges. During her first two years, she supervised the extensive renovations to our picturesque, but aging, Capitol Hill townhouse that have turned it into our present efficient, modern facility, wired for the first time into the Internet, with up-to-date communications, data processing, and accounting capabilities that have increased our ability to respond to our members' professional needs. She introduced new, comprehensive personnel policies to support the professionalism of the headquarters staff, from whom all the Association's services flow. Members' dues and other Association funds are now managed through financial accounts structured to monitor responsible performance and to provide current information for close control of costs. Sandy implemented Council's Finance Committee priorities in funding these major investments and moved toward a balanced operating budget that now includes allocations to replacement reserves for anticipated equipment upgrades in the future. Few members have a first-hand opportunity to observe the managerial leadership of the Association's executive director, and it is not obvious to many how important headquarters staff and the managerial creativity of the executive director have been to building the organization's present capacity to support the historical profession and its members for years to come.
The payoff for AHA members has been in the expansion of services during Sandy's time as executive director. While maintaining the established fields of the profession, the divisions and committees of the Association have moved strongly to incorporate the numerous developing aspects of historical practice. In tandem with broadening presentation of historical research in the American Historical Review, the Association has developed an array of new pamphlets in teaching, on the New American History, and on global and comparative history. Perspectives has expanded its topical range similarly, adding—among others—features on pedagogy, cultural diversity, applications of electronic technology, history in the media and in national and state politics, the fortunes of the discipline in the community colleges and secondary schools, and the practice of history internationally. With an eye on the large numbers of new PhDs competing for limited conventional teaching positions, the Association has continued to monitor published data on the structures of employment and compensation in the profession, worked with other data-gathering organizations to generate accurate and useful information, and developed its own membership database to analyze changing conditions in the profession. She has exercised particularly strong and valuable leadership in electronic realms, in a discipline with many members who remain dedicated to more familiar instruments of writing and researching. The Association now has its own web site, plans for moving toward electronic publications, and an electronic discussion group for chairs of departments of history that will help alert department leadership to solutions devised in local contexts elsewhere that respond to problems encountered generally throughout the profession.
Sandy has personally also been active in building the Association's partnerships in support of historians' interests in national policy debates on copyright of electronic materials, where historians simultaneously wish to protect their proprietary interests as producers of scholarship and teaching materials while gaining appropriate access to similar products as researchers and teachers. She has also represented us in joint initiatives that will define standards in digitizing materials of interest to historians, the status of "electronic publications," in salary and promotion reviews, and government policy with regard to preservation of its electronic records. Sandy has represented the Association's inclusive vision of the profession in collaborating with several other teaching-oriented organizations in monitoring emerging state curriculum standards for disciplined presentation of history in the secondary schools and community colleges. Sandy has sought external grants for special AHA projects to supplement fees for services and members' dues and in contemplating prospects for long-term private support from friends and nonprofessional enthusiasts of history.
The AHA has thus advanced the practice of history, the individual interests of its members, and the status of the Association as a professional society with Sandy at the helm of the Association's "business as usual": working with Michael Grossberg, our talented and creative editor of the Review; monitoring the annual legislative and appropriations cycles in Washington; joining with other historical and archival organizations to protect historians' access to public records; and supervising the very able headquarters staff who have continued to compile the AHA Directory of History Departments and Organizations, to produce a series of rich annual meetings in Atlanta, New York, and Seattle, with Washington in 1999 well under way, to staff the more than 40 committees of the Association that award prizes and consider special issues of concern to members, and much else. Sandy would be the first to insist that she has not done all this alone, but she has been an energetic and creative pivot around whom all the others who have helped make it happen have revolved—numerous member volunteers and appointees, staff, editors, elected officers, and partners outside the Association.
It is with earnest appreciation for these many contributions to the welfare of the Association and its members that I take this opportunity to wish Sandy well in the scholarly pursuits to which she now returns. After only four years of progress against the background of daunting fiscal challenges, she will leave her successor a solid basis from which to lead the AHA to continuing prominence in the new millennium: a splendid array of expanded services for a broadened range of member historians, with skilled staff and modern equipment and facilities to support them, currency in electronic technologies and the public policy issues they generate, and a respected national position in the world of American learned societies.
—Joseph C. Miller (Univ. of Virginia) is president of the AHA.