by Jeremy Young | 1/12/2008 07:41:00 PM
[Update] Thanks to AHA Today's Robert Townsend, who's convincingly answered my second objection in this comment.

After much contemplation, I've decided to vote "no" on the proposed revisions to the AHA constitution. When these revisions were first proposed, they encountered a firestorm of criticism, chiefly because of one change that would have dramatically raised the number of signatures required to propose a bill at the organization's annual business meeting. I also objected to the changes on the grounds that the AHA seemed to be strong-arming them through the membership; the widely-differing changes were bundled together in a single up-or-down vote, and a September Perspectives article in favor of the changes was not accompanied by a similar article voicing objections to them.

Since early October, the AHA has fixed many of these problems. They held not one, but two online discussion forums to debate the proposed changes, and AHA staff altered the text of the revisions according to objections voiced by members. The change in signature requirements was immediately dropped when members objected strenuously to it. Perhaps most importantly, the AHA prepared a document containing pro-and-con arguments for each proposed change, culled from objections raised on the forums.



In these actions, the AHA has gone above and beyond what most organizations of its bureaucratic heft would have done to engage with members' concerns and respond to their complaints. Its exemplary actions in this regard were recognized when the AHA Council and the business meeting both ratified the revised changes unanimously. The final vote of the membership is taking place between now and January 31, and the changes are expected to pass by a wide margin.

Though I want to commend the AHA for listening to its members, I still can't bring myself to vote for the proposed constitutional changes. Here's why:

  • Though the revisions no longer change the number of signatures required to pass bills at the business meeting, they still raise the number of signatures required to propose a constitutional amendment from 25 to 100. Since attendance at the business meeting rarely exceeds 200 people, this means that in practice no one but the AHA Council will be able to propose constitutional amendments. Personally, I would like to see the signature requirements eliminated altogether. If an idea is good, it should get a hearing no matter how well-connected its sponsor is. If an idea is bad, there's no longer any concern that rambunctious supporters will be able to pack the business meeting and force it through anyway, since the new changes require every bill to be submitted to a full membership vote anyway.


  • I'm still uncomfortable with the idea that all these changes were lumped together in a single bill, meaning that if I don't like one of the changes I have to vote against things like making the AHR Editor an ex officio member of the AHA Council, which of course I support. If the AHA can publish pro-and-con statements for each revision, thereby acknowledging a lack of unanimity on the changes, why can't it allow its members to vote on each one separately? This still feels too much like strong-arming to me, despite all the good work the AHA has put into lessening that feeling.


Despite my negative decision (and I've already voted, so I can't be swayed), I'd like to hear from you. Do you think these revisions are positive? Do you plan to vote for them?

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6 Comments:


Blogger PhDinHistory on 1/12/2008 11:14 PM:

I am thinking of voting for the proposed changes. The AHA's listening to member concerns has impressed me. The listing of pros and cons is took some guts. I think a minimum number of signatures is good, since otherwise the business meeting could be clogged with all kinds of resolution proposals, kind of like MLA is. I don't know of any other scholarly association that gives the membership line item veto power over proposed constitutional changes.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/13/2008 2:55 PM:

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that the AHA showed a lot of courage in listening to ember concerns so much and in posting the pro-and-con document. They're to be commended for that. But that still doesn't mean the changes are good. It's a common complaint about the AHA business meeting that nobody goes to it; maybe nobody goes to it because nothing very interesting happens there, and if we allowed more bills and amendments to be passed there would be a lot more excitement, which might lead to more institutional feeling among members. As for the line-item veto over constitutional changes, I'm sure you're right that it's rare in academic organizations, but I have seen a town do exactly that with a transportation package when the voters voted it down several times in a row because they didn't like all its elements. At one point the voters turned out almost the entire city council in favor of people who promised to break the package into six separate votes (which they did). It's just a show of respect for the membership, I think, and though the AHA has gone far in that regard, they may not have gone far enough.

 

Anonymous Robert B. Townsend on 1/14/2008 2:03 PM:

Many thanks for both your praise about the process and your ultimate concern. We thought it best to make it an all or nothing vote because so many of the changes are interlocking. The election process, for instance, is deleted from one article and then added in a different article. Our worry was that allowing for piecemeal changes could potentially have resulted in a new Constitution without any election process or without a financial oversight committee. In the end, that would have been worse than no change at all. That is why it seemed better to vet the changes as widely as possible in advance, but then limit the final choice to an up or down vote.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/14/2008 3:23 PM:

Thanks for your comment, Robert -- I think you've convincingly answered my second argument. I'll add a link to your comment in the original post.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/14/2008 7:49 PM:

I went ahead and voted yes. First, having been involved in some organizations (orders of magnitude smaller than the AHA, of course) with bylaws, I suspect that most of these represent changes to reflect current practice rather than total innovation (e.g., the provision for an electronic vote on controversial business meeting resolutions).

Second, the general thrust of them is to "flatten" the organization, including more relevant people in decision-making. So it's not a power grab, or shut-out (unless some faction has control of the nominating committees that I'm not aware of). It's about getting stuff done.

Third, though the floor fight last year was entertaining, it's not the kind of thing we need to do a lot of as an organization. We have a professional division and a research division (soon to be headed up by a fantastic Japanese historian, if memory serves) which we can lobby to address our professional concerns, and the political stuff can and should take a back seat. So the higher bar for participation isn't a huge issue for me. The institution is representative and responsive in a number of other ways.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/14/2008 8:58 PM:

I agree with you that floor fights over politics are not what the AHA should be about, but that doesn't mean that floor fights shouldn't happen at all. I'd like to see the AHA introduce institutional supports for popular history writing, for instance, and the proper venue for that IS a floor fight.

Also, I'm not sure I understand your point about flattening -- the same number of people are going to serve on executive committees under the new bylaws as under the old. I don't think it's a negative effect, but I'm not sure exactly how it's a positive.