From the Execuive Director column of the September 2007 Perspectives

Time for Change

Arnita A. Jones, September 2007

From time to time organizations, even healthy ones, need to step back, take stock, and consider whether the ways in which they are doing things are working as well as they once did. In the case of the AHA we might ask: Are we are offering our members the programs they want and need? Is our current governance structure one that allows us to make the most of our resources or adapt to changing circumstances? Are we continuing to carry out the basic mission that has guided the American Historical Association for more than a century?

These and other questions have been the focus of Council and staff discussions at the AHA for the better part of two years now. One result is that in 2006 the Council created the Working Group on the Future of the AHA. Chaired by William Chafe of Duke University, this task force is reviewing how the Association serves current members' needs and how it can attract a larger proportion of historians in the future. The working group will report to Council and to the membership next year. Meanwhile, the AHA's leadership also conducted a careful and deliberate review of the structure and governing documents of the organization, and now offers to the membership recommendations for constitutional change. We do this in the spirit of improving the Association, not fixing a problem. Indeed, we hope that the changes we recommend will position the AHA to thrive in a changing environment and continue serving the historical profession far into the future.

The current AHA constitution, which is reprinted (with the suggested changes indicated by strike-throughs and blue text) in this issue of Perspectives, was adopted in 1974 and has been amended only once, in 1995. Much has changed in the intervening years, not least of which is a communications revolution that has transformed the services we can provide to our members: electronic versions of the American Historical Review and other publications, internet voting and membership renewal, as well as the ability to solicit members' views or alert them to problems or advocacy issues through e-mail. The historical profession has changed as well, having become more diverse demographically and more dispersed in employment. Now historians can be found not only in higher education institutions but also in public history domains such as museums, archives, and historical organizations. And all these historians are working in an ever widening sphere of proliferating fields and subfields of scholarly study.

In the last part of his term (2005) President James Sheehan engaged the Council in a discussion of the Association's divisional structure and the way in which that structure relates to the Council. Currently, the Professional, Research, and Teaching Divisions meet separately twice a year. All five members of each division are nominated by our elected Nominating Committee and chosen by a simple majority of members voting in our annual election. Two of the members of each division, the vice president and one other member, also serve on the Council; the remaining three do not. Clearly, we needed to devise better ways to take advantage of the substantial resource commitment made by these elected representatives who also volunteer their time and energy to serve the Association. Over the past two years, therefore, we experimented with including the other division members as non-voting members at the spring Council meeting, and concluded that the work of both divisions and Council was enhanced. As a result, we now propose increasing the number of Council members from twelve to fifteen and reducing the number of division members by one each, so that all division members would henceforth be members of the Council.

In addition to changing the structure of the Council, the proposed revisions also address an archaic financial structure that goes back to the 1930s. The current constitution includes a separate Board of Trustees for the sole purpose of managing the Association's investments. Members of the board are nominated by the Council and elected to a five-year term at the Association's annual business meeting, which takes place each January at the Annual Meeting. In recent years all nonprofit organizations have come under scrutiny regarding both financial reporting and governance practices. As a result we are strongly and regularly advised by auditors to educate governing boards—in this case our Council—about their fiduciary responsibilities and to provide transparency to constituents and the public. A key part of these practices is a strong Finance Committee, which includes individuals with appropriate financial expertise and experience reporting directly to Council. Believing that the division of responsibility that now exists between the Board of Trustees and the AHA's Council creates a blurred line of authority that should be clarified, the proposal combines the roles of the Board of Trustees and the existing Finance Committee into an enlarged committee that would have the requisite financial expertise and would also report directly to Council.

Additional proposed amendments to the constitution address parts of the document that have become outdated or otherwise in need of adjustment. These include:

  • Deleting the unwieldy (and long vacant) Council-appointed position of Deputy Executive Director;
  • Clarifying language about the elections to better reflect our electronic capabilities; and
  • Changing the quorum requirement for the Business Meeting to be 1 percent of the membership instead of the current fixed and absolute number of 100. On the basis of 2007 membership figures, this would mean 147 members would be needed to constitute a quorum under the revised constitutional clause.

Other changes codify existing practice, for example, the editor of the American Historical Review is added to the list of officers who are ex officio, non-voting members of the Council. Also, the Executive Committee will now explicitly include three vice presidents. Some language is moved intact or with small changes from one section of the document to another. For instance, the sentences found in Section 3 of Article VII on the Business Meeting in the proposed document relating to Council action on business meeting resolutions are included in Section 4, Article VII of the current document.

Additionally, much of the work of the Nominating Committee is proposed for Article VII: Committees, rather than in Article IX: Elections, as it now stands. Finally the document has been copyedited throughout.

The proposed constitutional changes were approved by Council at its June 2007, meeting. They are shown in the draft of the constitution in this issue. The next step is a vote of the Business Meeting of the Association, which will take place January 5, 2008, in Washington, D.C. Because the constitution requires that any amendments "shall be submitted to the membership of the Association, accompanied by summary statements of the pro and con arguments thereon," we have published the proposed changes here and on the AHA web site and will host an online forum, in which members may voice their opinions. The forum will begin October 1 and continue through October 15. If the changes are approved by the Business Meeting, they will be submitted to the full membership in an electronic ballot that will be held January 14 through January 25, 2008. If approved by the membership these changes will go into effect as soon as Council deems feasible, in accordance with Article XII of the existing constitution.

—Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.