Proposed Change in AHA Constitution Would Hamper Activists

Historians in the News

Proposed changes in the constitution of the American Historical Association would limit the ability of activists to push through resolutions at the annual Business Meeting. Under the rule resolutions proposed by members would have to receive the backing of a petition signed by one percent of the membership to be considered. (The AHA currently has more than 14,000 members. One percent would be 140, minimum.) Currently, resolutions can be considered by a vote of the majority in attendance at the meeting. The change would address a commonly expressed concern that the agenda of the full organization can be hijacked by the small group that usually turns out at Business Meetings.

All resolutions approved at the Business Meeting have to be approved by the organization's Council before they become official statements of the AHA. Nonetheless, the approval of a resolution at the Business Meeting gives activists the opportunity to draw attention to their cause and to claim victory.

Resolutions in the past have sometimes attracted great controversy. In January 2007 the Business Meeting approved a resolution urging a speedy end to the Iraq War. Of the 4800 members in attendance at that year's annual convention, fewer than 200 showed up at the Business Meeting. Some members objected that the organization should not use its prestige to take a stand on subjects outside its professional responsibilities. Because of the controversial nature of the resolution the Council decided to send the measure to the members for a vote. The membership ratified the resolution by a vote of 1550 to 498.

As the constitution now stands, "The business meeting, by a majority vote, may consider resolutions and deal with proposals of any kind concerning the affairs of the Association ...." Under the proposed change "the business meeting may consider resolutions submitted by Council or by a petition signed by 1 percent of the membership ...."

Had the proposed change been in effect in the past some controversial resolutions probably would not have been considered by the Business Meeting. In 2006 and 2007, for instance, the Business Meeting debated a resolution to oppose speech codes. On both occasions the resolution was defeated after a vigorous debate. Whether the backers of the resolution could have gotten the requisite number of signatures required under the proposed change is unknown. Even if they succeeded, their task would have been more onerous than in the past.

The change in the rule affecting resolutions at the Business Meeting is just one of dozens of proposed changes to the constitution, which was adopted in its present form in 1974. Thus far members have largely ignored the proposed change to the rule affecting the Business Meeting, perhaps because it's been lost amidst all the other changes, most of which are uncontroversial. On the AHA discussion boards only one person had posted a comment on the Business Meeting amendment as of noon, October 12. The boards remain open until October 15.

According to the AHA:

The changes to the constitution will be put to a vote of members attending the next business meeting at the AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC on January 5, 2008. Should the business meeting approve the constitutional change, the entire membership will be asked to vote on these changes in mid January.

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HNN - 10/13/2007

Just to be clear--this is presented as a news story not an opinion piece. --Rick Shenkman, HNN Editor

Jeremy Young - 10/13/2007

That's one of the reasons I voted against the proposed changes. The other reason is that I object to being presented a huge prepackaged network of changes in toto, told it's just a bunch of administrative cleanup (which your story clearly shows is far from the case), and then presented with an official Perspectives argument for the changes with no corresponding piece against them.

Frankly, I think in the wake of the egregious behavior by the directorate of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, we all need to be more careful how much power we grant to our organizational councils in academia. This constitutional change would be, in my opinion, a step in the wrong direction.