Leaders of learned societies are often confronted with demands that the organizations for which they have fiduciary responsibility be used as instruments in the advancement of a cause that lies outside the mission of the organization. In many cases, the officers and board members of these societies are themselves, as individuals, committed to these causes and can become divided over how best to fulfill their institutional responsibilities while being true to the personal commitments that attract them to a given cause. Labor disputes in hotels are a classic example. The OAH itself has experienced this, especially in 2005 when the Annual Meeting was moved from San Francisco to San Jose in response to labor issues in San Francisco hotels. Five years earlier, in 2000, the OAH moved its Annual Meeting from the Adam’s Mark Hotel in St. Louis to the campus of Saint Louis University in response to concerns about racially unfair personnel practices at the hotel.
On the assumption that issues of this sort will arise again, the OAH Executive Board decided at its November 2010 meeting to convene a public conversation on the relationship between professional organizations and political engagements. The Executive Board asked OAH Executive Editor Edward Linenthal to facilitate this discussion in the mode of the “Interchanges” that appear periodically in the online pages of the Journal of American History. Several officers and leading figures in the OAH began that conversation last October.
The OAH is indebted to all of the participants for their willingness to enter into the online conversation:
JON BUTLER is a professor of history, American studies, and religious studies at Yale University who has specialized in American religious history and early American history. He is an elected member of the OAH Executive Board, and has previously served on the Nominating Board and a Program Committee. At Yale, he has chaired both the American Studies Program and the Department of History, served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and for seven months in 2010—2011 as Acting University Librarian. He taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at California State University, Bakersfield.
ALBERT M. CAMARILLO is a professor of American history at Stanford University. He has published seven books and dozens of scholarly articles on Mexican American history, particularly the experience of Mexican Americans and other immigrant groups in U.S. cities. He is president-elect of the OAH and has also served on the Nominating Board and a Program Committee.
WILLIAM CHAFE is a professor of history at Duke University and former president of the OAH. His areas of specialization are women’s history, civil rights history, and modern political history, with a special focus on the relationship of personality to politics.
WILLIAM CRONON is a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison who studies and writes about North American environmental history. He has served on the Executive Board of the OAH and American Historical Association (AHA), was vice president of the AHA’s Professional Division when it undertook a major revision of the AHA Statement on Standards, and is the president of the AHA.
JIM GROSSMAN is the executive director of the AHA and a former member of the OAH Executive Board. His books, articles, and short essays have focused on African American history, American urban history, and issues in higher education and the role of history in public culture.
DAVID HOLLINGER is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and immediate past president of the OAH. He has served as chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors and has been active in academic governance issues throughout his career. He specializes in intellectual and ethnoracial histories of the United States.
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS is a professor of history and a professor in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University. She is a labor historian by training and has written about the history of wage-earning women for years. She has just finished a book on playwright and political activist Lillian Hellman. She currently serves as president of the OAH.
NANCY MACLEAN is a professor of history at Duke University and a specialist in post-1945 U.S. history, with particular attention to social movements, including labor, and issues of political economy, class, gender, race, and region. She is the co-chair of the 2012 OAH Program Committee.
VICKI L. RUIZ is dean of the School of Humanities and a professor of history specializing in Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her books include Cannery Women, Cannery Lives (1987) and From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (1998). She is a past president of the OAH.
JAH EDITOR ED LINENTHAL: Are there some core principles by which those with fiduciary responsibility for an organization such as the OAH can be guided when they, or a substantial segment of their membership, believe that a particular cause is worthy of support? Are there any issues that an organization could or should support even if such support carries some financial cost?
VICKI L. RUIZ: In an ideal world, these principles would have been thoroughly considered and in place before any crisis arises. Unfortunately, organizations and their members can find themselves in reaction mode. For instance, the 2005 OAH annual meeting was scheduled for San Francisco, but because of a labor dispute there, the OAH staff took an informal survey of program participants about whether or not they would cross picket lines to attend the conference. The majority opinion the office received seemed clear—no, they would not cross the lines. Therefore, for me, as the president at the time, it became not a question of choosing between the good of the organization and the cause of organized labor, as it seemed that the OAH would face serious financial consequences if we did not make alternative plans. (We moved the annual meeting location to San José.) Having a previously agreed-upon set of core principles and a more reliable gauge of the future consequences of different scenarios could only help a professional organization navigate these types of unexpected developments.
ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Vicki plunges us into a conversation that has been on all our minds: the decision as to how we protect the well-being (financial and otherwise) of an organization is not always easy. That is, it is not always clear, as it was not in the San Francisco case, which actions are in the best interests of an organization. Regardless of principles, how do we judge whether a particular action will benefit or hurt the organization?
But I would like to step back a bit from this question to follow up on the core of the issue that Ed poses. Vicki says her decision would have been easier had there been some core principles to follow. But what are those principles? Any principle might constitute too rigid a rule if, in following it, we protect the narrow economic interest of the OAH while sacrificing the larger attractiveness and well-being of the organization. I would love to know whether someone can articulate principles on which we might agree and which might work.
DAVID HOLLINGER: Among the principles that should guide those with fiduciary responsibility is an informed conviction that a given action will significantly advance the relevant cause. What is needed is a reasonable and carefully considered calculation that taking a given action will produce genuine traction. It is not enough, in light of this principle, to do something because it will make us feel good: we have “taken a stand” and are proud of it. But surely it is important to assess just what, beyond obtaining this feeling, we want to accomplish. What constituency or constituencies are we trying to influence, and exactly how? What are the chances of being able to have a significant effect? To be sure, assessing probable effects is not always easy, but it is important to perform an honest assessment based on as much information as one can obtain and then to be forthright about the assessment.
Another salient principle is respect for the division of labor between learned societies and other institutions and associations. Professional organizations such as the OAH have quite sharply defined missions, and it will not do to pretend that these organizations are instruments available for use on behalf of even the most worthy of other causes. Part of the job of those with fiduciary responsibility for such organizations is to be cognizant of this division of labor and to be prepared to collegially remind others of it when necessary. Even when a cause has to do with the welfare of academics in this society, we need to be aware of the availability of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as an instrument designed to address issues in that domain. When the interests of historians in particular is at issue, but not those especially in the field of American history, it makes sense for the American Historical Association (AHA) rather than the Organization of American historians to be in the lead. For issues of a generality beyond the academic profession there exist a multitude of political advocacy organizations. According to the principle of respect for the division of labor, then, a field-specific professional association such as the OAH (smaller than a discipline-wide association), has good reason to attend to issues that affect specialists in the study, teaching, and public interpretation of American history.
A third principle is the magnitude of a threat to the very social order served by the institutions party to the division of labor invoked above, as judged by the bulk of the membership reliably measured. I believe it is fair to say that the only threat of that magnitude as judged by professional historians in recent memory was the Vietnam War, but even then the objections made against the antiwar resolutions adopted by many learned societies were not easily dismissed. This third principle is case specific and should not be reduced to general terms such as imperialism, racism, sexism, labor exploitation, environmental despoilment, or any other evil a given instance of which may or may not rise to the level that invites a violation of the division of labor. There may indeed arise evils so horrendous as to justify risk to the welfare of the Organization of American Historians, even its continued existence. But persons with fiduciary responsibility have the obligation to make sure that such risks are carefully considered and that the pertinent considerations are publicly debated.
ALBERT M. CAMARILLO: There is no doubt that the OAH leadership will, in the future, contend with controversial and divisive issues, some that will call for resolutions of support brought before the organization by members or affiliates, and others that will have implications for the stability, financial and otherwise, of the association. Principles of the kind noted above by David must help guide the OAH in dealing with prickly social and politically sensitive issues, but equally important are the ways the leadership handles deliberation of issues and the ways it communicates its thoughts and actions to the membership. The OAH is, after all, a membership-based organization, and the vetting of any issue of great importance requires us to reach out to our members to gauge opinion, though this is a difficult, time-consuming effort for any organization. As a learned society, we have an obligation to serve as a vehicle for informed discussion and debate on issues that affect our membership, our discipline, and our profession, and when such issues are not time-sensitive, the OAH has ably facilitated discussion (a good example is the upcoming Milwaukee conference that will include sessions, open to the public, dealing with the political issues in Wisconsin over the collective bargaining rights of public employees). But there will be times when issues arise that call for quick action and when the OAH leadership can’t conceivably query its membership in a timely fashion. In those cases, the OAH Executive Board must be prepared to respond quickly when it determines that an issue of fundamental importance placed before the organization requires action. There is a line that must be drawn, however. If that action, regardless of its importance, threatens the financial stability of the organization and has potential to lead to its demise, the leadership has the ultimate responsibility to maintain the integrity of the OAH for future generations of historians.
RUIZ: David, you bring up three critical points for discussion and debate. Another issue closely tied to division of labor is the mission of the organization. The OAH is vastly different from the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, with a much more expansive mission that includes history education at all levels from K–12 and community college. The OAH partnerships forged over the last decade or so represent civic engagement, not necessarily political engagement. But these partnerships do come with financial consequences that should be considered well before new innovative programs are launched. What I did not understand when I served on the OAH Executive Board as president-elect, but am now painfully aware of as a dean of humanities in the University of California system, is that every great idea and worthwhile venture comes with financial obligations, and at times the institution may not have the capacity to sustain them. However, such partnerships are vital to the future vitality of the OAH and to U.S. history education in general. So how do board members ensure that the mission of a professional organization and the organization’s financial capacity are in sync?
And I agree that when a crisis arises, the risks must be carefully considered and publicly debated. Creating a venue for such exchange is critical, as well as developing a reliable instrument for measuring member opinions. With perhaps the exception of hurricanes, ill winds rarely give advance warning, so having a forum of this nature can provide a foundation for future planning.
KESSLER-HARRIS: I find myself troubled by the principles so far set before us, and I am in substantial agreement with only one of them. I take it we now have four such “principles,” or questions an organization should consider before taking an action, which I summarize as follows:
- whether a given action will significantly advance a relevant cause;
- whether the action respects an appropriate division of labor among our sister professional associations;
- whether the threat on which the organization acts is of sufficient magnitude to engage the interests of the bulk of its members; and
- whether the action so threatens the financial stability of the organization as to potentially lead to its demise.
The last of these principles seems to me to be unarguable, so I set it aside, in full agreement that nothing we do should impose such a risk on the OAH—that our first duty is to maintain the financial health of the organization.
On the other three principles there may be fundamental differences. In my view, these arise from the failure to acknowledge that the OAH, like many professional organizations, has moral and ethical purposes that accompany its efforts to enhance and protect scholars and scholarship. These are clearly embodied in the OAH mission statement: “The Organization of American Historians promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and encourages wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.” Our organization would lose both credibility and legitimacy if it did not speak out on behalf of issues that affect the public understanding of history. Because politicians, journalists, lawyers, and others typically root their arguments in historical precedent, the OAH must feel free to articulate its concerns whenever the bulk of its members (as assessed by a majority of Executive Board members at the time) feel it necessary to do so. How the organization responds should be a matter for debate at the time, and it is surely the function of the Executive Board to engage in such debate. We might hope that every board could conceive of creative, cost-effective, and inclusionary ways of addressing meaningful issues, but we cannot write that into principle.
Under these circumstances, the magnitude of particular issues will influence the manner of the organization’s response. I agree that the kind of action we take can and should be tailored to “advance the relevant cause” as David puts it. But this seems unwisely to be embodied as a “principle.” We are a small organization, and our actions and statements can’t be expected necessarily to achieve anything tangible. But in putting ourselves on record and joining with other organizations that do so, we might well have some undetermined influence beyond our size. Yet we need to make judgments about what we do and say as a group, not on the basis of what others do and say, but on the basis of what we think is right for us.
For this reason, I am profoundly uncomfortable with adopting, as a principle, the notion that we adhere to some appropriate division of labor. While I completely agree that it is absolutely necessary for smaller, non-discipline-wide associations such as ours to acknowledge, respect, and work cooperatively with more comprehensive groups such as the AAUP or the American Council of Learned Societies, I can imagine many circumstances in which our take on a situation will differ in detail from that of sister organizations, or in which multiple public statements or responses would be more effective than even strong singular ones. Too, as David points out, the dividing line between the interests of discipline-wide associations and those that affect specialists in American history are often so blurred as to be undefinable. Over the years our shared interest in gender equality, diversification of the profession, and freedom of information have each led us to act separately as well as together to make social and political statements—to the benefit, I would argue, of the profession as a whole.
Finally, on the question of risk, I cannot imagine us, in advance, adopting any meaningful statement that can measure the risk either to the social order in which the OAH thrives, or to the OAH itself. There are those who would (and did) disagree that even the Vietnam War posed such a risk. There are those who believe that late 1960s civil disorder (including disturbances among women, young people, African Americans, and the poor) constituted a risk that the OAH had to be prepared to address internally as well as externally. I would argue then, that it would be a mistake to lock the organization into “core principles” that would be utilized to govern particular situations. Except perhaps for that of ensuring the financial survival of the organization itself, I doubt that we could agree on such principles. We might, however, want to articulate some of the concerns that have led us into this discussion, and we might adopt guidelines that would help Executive Board members assess whether intervention in specific instances is appropriate.
JIM GROSSMAN: I would like to suggest that the issue of establishing basic principles lies, in part, in the nature and obligation of nonprofit governance. A board of directors for a nonprofit—and a scholarly society is, of course, a particular genre of nonprofit—is charged with establishing policy (as opposed to managing) and maintaining financial oversight.
So, first the issue of “establishing policy.” A board must at least articulate some policy framework that ventures beyond a case-by-case basis for major decisions relating to “supporting particular causes.” Even the seemingly minimal scaffolding of establishing a process for making decisions implies a set of principles, beginning with what sorts of issues qualify within the arena of “supporting particular causes.” More important, for members to have confidence that their organization is applying consistent criteria, is treating everyone fairly, and is operating with some measure of predictability, the association must make decisions according to transparent and clearly articulated principles that apply to everyone. To establish criteria on a case-by-case basis is almost to guarantee a sense of unfairness among members who disagree with a particular decision.
Second is the issue of financial oversight. Fiduciary responsibility applies far more broadly than “whether the action so threatens the financial stability of the organization as to potentially lead to its demise.” If that is the bar for fiduciary responsibility, the association is likely to get into big trouble. A board needs to decide, for example, whether a particular direction, policy, or specific action is likely to have financial consequences that will seriously inhibit its ability to carry out its primary mission. Demise is an end point; there are many places in between here and there that are also perilous.
A board that is fulfilling its legal and ethical responsibilities to the membership must be able to articulate the mission of the organization and the goals that must be set to fulfill that mission. If a “particular cause” relates to that mission or to those goals then it is entirely appropriate for an association to expend considerable resources, perhaps even to take risks, in the interest of that cause. If not, such actions are simply irresponsible.
I have very purposely here stayed at the level of abstraction, which is where I think this conversation needs to begin. To move to the particular case of the OAH, we must put on the table a central question: what is the purpose of the OAH? What is the organization’s mission? What does the organization need to accomplish to fulfill that mission? That is a question the board needs to ask and to answer.
I also would like to address Vicki’s reference to a forum. I think this lies at the center of the solution to the issues on the table. As a profession and a community of scholars, we should be committed not only to the principle of open discussion and debate but also to the efficacy of such conversation. Our associations should consider themselves forums for debate, rather than advocates for particular positions that are not related to their missions. Our goal when considering issues that do not directly affect our work as historians (in the case of OAH, historians of the United States if we were to accept David’s logic) should be to encourage and nourish debate that respects historical context and methods, as well as the values of historians as articulated in the following excerpts from the AHA’s Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct:
- “Historians strive constantly to improve our collective understanding of the past through a complex process of critical dialogue—with each other, with the wider public, and with the historical record—in which we explore former lives and worlds in search of answers to the most compelling questions of our own time and place. . . . Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse—the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with tolerance and openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge.”
The OAH, AHA, and similar associations need to decide when taking a position is less appropriate than creating a space for debate.
WILLIAM CRONON: I want to take as my starting point Alice’s comment that if a proposed “action so threatens the financial stability of the organization as to potentially lead to its demise,” clearly we should avoid taking such an action (as supplemented by Jim’s helpful addition that there are many consequences short of “demise” that would be so deleterious to an organization’s financial health and sustainability that we should be very cautious about taking them). Having now served on the boards of both the OAH and the AHA, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the different fiduciary burdens that the organizations themselves are under as opposed to their own members, making the perceived price of particular symbolic actions very different depending on where one is sitting.
Organizations that hold annual meetings involving thousands of attendees necessarily must sign contracts with hotels and other vendors years before the meetings are held, usually long before anyone has a clue whether some political event will arise in the interim—a threatened strike, a discriminatory piece of legislation, some action by the hotel corporation that at least some members find objectionable—that will raise questions and concerns about whether the meeting should still be held. Although organizations can and should be careful to negotiate contractual clauses that permit the cancellation of a meeting in the event of eventualities of this kind that can reasonably be anticipated, such clauses, in fact, provide far less financial protection than one might imagine. This is partly because alternative venues for meetings are often either unavailable or highly unattractive when they must be renegotiated on very short notice. The liabilities involved in canceling or moving a meeting can easily run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For organizations whose annual budgets (and endowments and contingency funds) are only in the low millions of dollars, unbudgeted charges of this kind are little short of disastrous.
Although the leadership of a group such as OAH may be acutely aware of the impact on the organization of moving or canceling a meeting, individual members usually are not. They, in any event, generally focus only on the particular action that they personally find important or offensive: crossing a picket line, say, or staying at a hotel whose policies they find objectionable. For individual members, it’s relatively easy to decide not to attend a conference or to lodge somewhere other than in the conference hotel. The personal cost of doing so is slight, and may even be financially advantageous. And yet the contractual obligations for the organization (to guarantee a certain number of occupied hotel rooms, for instance, or a certain number of people paying for meals) remain legally binding, even if not a single member winds up attending the meeting.
This disconnect between individual and organizational perceptions of the problems we’re discussing is what makes them so excruciating for association leaders. It is why the seemingly abstract matters of principle we’re trying to articulate have such enormous practical consequences. Decisions made years ago by the OAH to move its conference—for the best of principles—had the consequence of seriously damaging the long-term financial health of the organization. It still has not recovered from and its institutional sustainability is still at risk because of those decisions. Were we to repeat such actions with any frequency, there’s not much doubt that the organization would go bankrupt and disappear. This fact is rarely visible in the heat of debates about whether a particular hotel should be boycotted or whether an individual member will or will not cross a picket line.
For all these reasons, my own preference, like that of several of my colleagues in this forum, is to try to engage local political issues by providing a forum for our members and for the public to be educated, to debate, and, if they’re so inclined, to protest policies and institutions they find objectionable. Wherever possible, it’s crucial to accommodate individual members whose conscience would be compromised by actions of the organization to which that individual belongs. But we also need to educate members about the very real consequences of such actions. Moving an entire conference is an extremely blunt instrument that can ironically have the effect of doing immense damage to the organization making the move while having relatively little impact on hotels whose income is already guaranteed by contract. In most cases, I think scholarly associations such as OAH can have the greatest impact (with the least ancillary damage to their own sustainability) when they hew close to their mission—of promoting the practice of good history—even as they vigorously demonstrate and enact the relevance of historical inquiry to contemporary political debates and protests.
RUIZ: The questions always remain—how do we get from the abstraction to the concrete and from the individual to the body as a whole? As Alice insightfully notes: “We might hope that every board could conceive of creative, cost-effective, and inclusionary ways of addressing meaningful issues, but we cannot write that into principle.” But can we have a mechanism for a forum to emerge that would be meaningful for members? Bill Cronon, the move of the conference to San José was not the sole cause for the OAH’s financial woes; rather, it exposed structural weaknesses. As I alluded to earlier, every great idea and worthwhile venture comes with financial obligations, and at times the institution may not have the capacity to sustain them. Anticipating the costs of any activity whether it’s moving a conference or launching an exciting initiative always involves an element of risk. Measuring and preparing for such risk calls for guidelines or policy rather than core principles.
I agree with Alice that we should be engaged with the public interpretation of history, but I imagine our impact varies with the situation. For example, do we have more of an impact when the organization takes a position over state history standards? Yet I am concerned that the core principles might restrict the OAH’s ability to respond proactively and substantively to concerns raised by the majority of its members. A forum, such as this interchange and the scheduled meeting in Milwaukee, perhaps offers clarity, if not consensus, to our mission as educators.
HOLLINGER: Bill Cronon is correct to remind us of the specific history that lies behind this conversation. And he is right to point out that part of fiduciary responsibility is to make sure that members are made aware of what is at stake when proposals are made to pull out of hotel contracts. Jim is correct, too, to remind us of value of providing a forum as opposed to merely taking a position. As we deal with possible future crises, and are tempted to go beyond providing a forum and “take a position,” it seems to me essential to remember the difference between 1) locking ourselves into a set of constitution-like rules and 2) achieving an informal understanding of what principles might guide the OAH leadership when an opportunity arises to deploy the good name and the resources of the OAH in the service of a cause only tangentially related to the OAH mission. It is the second of these that I take us to be discussing, and in that context I hope we can offer more specific guidance than the single principle that we need to assure the financial survival of the organization. Speaking out “on behalf of issues that affect the public understanding of history,” as Alice puts it, is of course something that the OAH should be prepared to do. That type of action is integral to the mission as the OAH has officially declared it. Taking a position might well be appropriate. But does the expansive language in our mission statement, as alluded to by both Alice and Vicki, obligate us to involve ourselves in every injustice that affects any and all scholars, teachers, and public interpreters of American history, and, beyond that, perceived injustices in the society at large? Jim is presumably trying to warn against that infinite regress when he suggests that we need always to attend to just what our mission is. I favor a fairly strict construction of that mission. Surely, the mission statement we have in place implies a division of labor: as the OAH, we do some things and not others, but we as individual citizens and historians do plenty of other things, too. Mushing together what we do in our capacity as the OAH with what we do in other capacities risks not only the irrelevant allocation of OAH energies but risks also facilitating the illusion that by acting through the OAH we are responding to obligations that we as citizens and individuals may be actually neglecting. “I gave at the office.” No need to do more.
KESSLER-HARRIS: David’s response moves us into a second question about the division of responsibilities among professional organizations and learned societies as well as about individual commitment versus organizationally appropriate response. But before we go there, it seems to me that we might reach some resolution if we convert our search for “principles” to guide us into guidelines that constitute the kind of informal understanding that David seeks. Thus, we could craft a financial guideline that meets the broad fiduciary responsibility that Jim correctly modifies, and Bill Cronon accurately spotlights. And we might also agree to a guideline that obligates the OAH board to seek to illuminate larger social and political causes through education when an issue is raised by a substantial portion of our membership. We could suggest strategies for doing this, including online or annual meeting forums, consistent with the OAH mission. That still leaves the question of how to craft a guideline that determines which issues rise to the level of triggering an “educational” effort on our part. And it also begs the question of whether the organization should ever “take a stand” on a social issue (such as the Vietnam War) and under what circumstances. Perhaps those questions will be clarified as we proceed.
NANCY MACLEAN: I would like to broaden the range of principles in play in the discussion and then try to introduce more historical context to the discussion of how we reconcile our principles with the kinds of issues that have arisen with convention hotels.
In addition to the important considerations others have suggested for discussion, might we not also include some of the broader ethical norms that guide our work as scholars and teachers of history and inform the operating policies of the OAH? I’m thinking of democratic values such as freedom of expression, equitable treatment for all, open discussion and debate, freedom of association, and representative democracy. Granted, there is lots of room for interpretation about what these principles mean for any given situation. Still, it seems worthwhile to include them in the discussion because these are the kinds of principles that have led many OAH members and leaders to want to avoid patronizing hotels whose management is engaged in documented discrimination or recognized labor disputes. Sadly, many hotels today violate these principles by engaging in determined efforts to suppress the democratic rights of their employees and practicing other mistreatment.
And this is where the historical context in which we make our decisions about convention hotels seems important to consider. We’ve seen a precipitous decline in union representation in America in recent decades, not because people don’t want to join unions anymore but because employers are able to violate their right to do so with impunity. They face negligible punishment, if any, for intimidation and firing of union activists, a reality that led Human Rights Watch in 2009 to cite the United States for systematic violations of workers’ freedom to choose union representation and call labor law reform “a human rights imperative.” Such violations happen so routinely in hotels now that UNITE HERE (a group that represents workers in several fields, including in the hotel, airport, gaming, and food service industries) will not seek representation until 70 percent of the workers seek representation. Unions, particularly private-sector unions, have also effectively lost the right to strike in the United States, something that labor scholars including OAH member Joe McCartin point to as pivotal in explaining their weakness today. Their debilitation has consequences for all Americans, as the protests of the “the 99 percent” suggest. The weakness of unions, conclude leading economists (for example, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Freeman, and James Tobin) and political scientists (for example, Larry Bartels, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson) is undermining American democracy in very substantial ways, leaving democratic forms without much of their earlier representative and deliberative substance.
This puts us in a situation much like the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era, when labor had to rely on organizations such as the National Consumers League to help win democratic rights for workers in the face of otherwise insurmountable corporate power. Today, as before the Wagner Act, union workers are asking for community support. Thus, it is not the case that OAH members are just engaging in “symbolic” protest to make themselves feel righteous when they ask the organization to honor boycotts or strikes. We’re being asked to act on our values by embattled workers whose organization’s strategy to represent them in this tough political-economic climate depends on allies who will stand with them to counterbalance the otherwise unbeatable global employers.
Fortunately, there is more we might do to avoid situations that pit our values against fiduciary concerns—and to make sure that any action we take will have an impact that advances the cause. The OAH could join organizations such as the American Studies Association and the National Organization for Women in working more closely with Informed Meetings Exchange (INMEX) connected to the hotel workers union, utilizing particularly its free service that helps groups find good convention hotels and negotiate the exact contract language needed to protect us when crisis situations arise. Joining INMEX and involving its experienced representatives in contract negotiations would have the further educational impact of letting hotels know that as consumers we care about domestic fair trade, which might help improve the hospitality industry over the long term.
JON BUTLER: I’m inclined toward focusing rather than broadening, at least in response to the question posed, which rightly suggests possible tension between fiduciary responsibility and support for a cause that many members (what does “many” mean?) find worthy and even critical and about which organization leaders and officials must make judgments. Much of the discussion has focused on causes and the imperative of action (or not) by the OAH. Little of it has focused on fiduciary responsibility. References have been made to the 2005 shift from San Francisco to San José, but these have largely not been spelled out.
My own sense is that a better understanding of fiduciary responsibility is critical to this discussion. The question being discussed is not nearly as straightforward as it seems to be: “Are there any issues that an organization could or should support even if such support carries some financial cost?” I’d ask the Bill Clinton question: what is the meaning of “some”? My sense is that the 2005 shift involved costs that were more than what most people (I think) would take as “some,” both in simple dollars and in long-term commitments to the Hilton hotels that were required to avoid catastrophic financial damage to the OAH, possibly including bankruptcy. Knowing this doesn’t mean that even in hindsight, when everyone’s judgment is perfect, we’d say it was wrong or right to shift the OAH annual meeting. But if there is a lesson to be learned from that episode, it surely centers on knowledge and consequences of costs: what are the costs and should they be accepted?
In truth, I doubt that developing a guideline on the cost issue will be any easier than developing a guideline on the cause issue. Bankruptcy/Vietnam War, substantial cost/labor rights: these aren’t the poles, but they give some notion of the issues at stake, and understanding the issue of fiduciary responsibility is as important as understanding the issue of worthy cause that might engage the organization.
RUIZ: First of all thank you Nancy for couching this discussion in more concrete terms and for pointing out the vital role INMEX can play for professional organizations.
Jon reinforces the point that developing a guideline on the cost issue will be far easier than agreeing on causes. Developing a reliable instrument or method for gauging member opinions is essential.
Regarding San José (and I hate to keep harping), some members said one thing, but responded a bit differently. The OAH’s financial problems deepened when we did not meet our room block in San José, as many members chose to say in other hotels or even in lodgings in San Francisco and driving down for their sessions. Again, a forum for open debate and discussion, whether at the meeting or in cyberspace, seems critical for educating members on possible implications for the organization as well as providing a forum for meaningful, respectful discussions of the issues at hand. We are not removed observers, but engaged citizens providing opportunities for debate on issues that matter to our members and to society. I am reminded of the words of the late Peggy Pascoe. In Relations of Rescue (1990) she reflected on history “as a kind of conversation between the past and the present in which we travel through time to examine the cultural assumptions—and possibilities—of our own society as well as societies that came before us” (p. xxiii).
KESSLER-HARRIS: I’m not quite ready yet to move into particular issues (such as labor disputes) or solutions (such as INMEX). Before we debate those possibilities, we need to focus on the larger issues. Nancy asks, at the beginning of her contribution, whether we should not acknowledge the “broader ethical norms that guide our work as scholars and teachers of history and inform the operating policies of the OAH?” She cites democratic values such as freedom of expression, equitable treatment for all, open discussion and debate, and freedom of association. It seems to me that these might constitute some of the kinds of principles in defense of which we might want to speak up and act. Are we willing, as an organization, to adopt among our guidelines the notion that we will make strong efforts to support and sustain activities that support these principles, within the limits of our fiduciary responsibilities?
GROSSMAN: It seems to me that these values are consistent with the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which I continue to use as the best existing expression of the ethical responsibilities of historians. It’s crucial that we not make assumptions about what “many” (thank you Jon for pointing to the need to think about what that means) of our members believe. And we should also note that as a scholarly society we also need to make sure that we try to maintain as big a political tent as possible. We should not create an environment in which people feel uncomfortable as scholars because they hold political views that are different from the majority of the membership.
WILLIAM CHAFE: The comments thus far seem divided into the conceptual and the practical. Are there general principles to be followed? If so, what are they? And how do they relate to the specifics of the case before us? Here I would weigh in on the side of focusing on the specifics. Context is pivotal. The history of the Adam’s Mark controversy seemed abundantly clear. Racism was documented as a problem in the company’s past and present practices. Taking a stand in such an instance did not seem overly complicated (whatever the cost), and the issue was fundamental. (The OAH decided to change its 2000 annual meeting site from the Adam’s Mark Hotel in St. Louis.) Although I agree with Nancy about the hotel industry’s general disregard for workers’ rights, the specific context of the union boycott of the Hilton San Francisco (which prompted the 2005 move) was, from my perspective, far more murky. I would therefore like to see us devote more of our attention to the specifics of the issues that come before us and to zero in on how clear the principle is that is being violated and how conclusive are the immediate circumstances that warrant our intervention. Where neither of these conditions is satisfied (as I think both were in the Adam’s Mark case) we should be more cautious in how we proceed.
LINENTHAL: In the last round, David asked if the OAH mission statement “obligate[d] us to involve ourselves in every injustice that affects any and all scholars, teachers, and public interpreters of American history, and, beyond that, perceived injustices in the society at large?” This raises the larger question of whether a learned organization can and should take action beyond its avowed mission. Do you agree that it can and should? If so, what conditions would you set?
CAMARILLO: This question raises thorny issues for the OAH as an organization and for individual members as well. Of course, the OAH can’t take up every issue that is in some manner connected to the study, interpretation, and telling of American history. If it did, the leadership of the organization would bend under the weight of constant requests for assistance, support for this or that petition or resolution, and the like. However, issues do arise that obligate us as members and as leaders of the largest association of practitioners of U.S. history to take a stand. A case in point is the effort in Arizona by the superintendent of public instruction to omit from the curriculum in Tucson public schools the teaching of Mexican American history. His argument is that history of this type tends to reinforce ethnic separation and provoke racial discord. Does the OAH have a responsibility to offer perspective and to question this type of approach among elected officials who control the curriculum in public schools? I would argue, yes, because the opinion of the OAH matters when an important issue about history teaching and the value of historical scholarship are at stake. Not all such matters merit attention, but there are many that the OAH and member historians simply can’t hide from.
GROSSMAN: I agree wholeheartedly with Al here. This sits squarely within the OAH’s mission: the issue focuses on how American history is taught, and a public official has proposed removing from the public school curriculum an important aspect of the American past. I like Al’s careful wording regarding our responsibility as historians: “to offer perspective and to question this type of approach” on the part of public officials.
HOLLINGER: The second question helpfully sharpens the issues we were discussing in response to the first. The second question also has the merit of reminding us of the importance of keeping before us at all times the OAH mission. Our formally adopted mission statement reads as follows:
“The Organization of American Historians promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and encourages wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.”
I submit that this statement enacts a division of labor. I do not know how else to read any mission statement. So, I am unrepentant in my opinion, expressed in our chat about the first question, that the OAH should stick to its mission, recognizing that just how it is to be interpreted is open to some discussion. The OAH intervention in the Texas textbook fiasco of 2010 is an example of OAH action within the terms of its mission (see Organization of American Historians, “Texas Textbook Resolution,” May 11, 2010, https://www.oah.org/news/20100512_texas_textbook_resolution.html). Surely, the OAH leadership must always keep in mind the division of labor enacted here, which leaves out a multitude of concerns that many, if not most members of the OAH would be glad to engage in one context or another. The decline of unions in our society during the last several decades, a reality to which Nancy has called our attention, is a good example of such a concern. I happen to agree with Nancy about this matter. But I submit that to construe our mission statement as encouraging the OAH to make decisions with this reality in mind is a real stretch. (Alice is correct to imply that the highly specific question of whether the OAH should engage INMEX is an administrative matter that I don’t think rises to the level of the interchange we are here invited to carry out, and in any event our executive director has chosen an agent for the OAH that we have no reason to believe is any less sensitive than INMEX to the dangers of our getting involved in hotel labor disputes of any and all kinds.) It seems to me essential that the OAH remain an organization in which persons of a Chicago-school, free-market ideology skeptical of unions should be fully welcomed and not be sent signals that the OAH is so defined by a particular political-economic outlook as to make such persons unwelcome. The disagreements that Nancy and I have with the free-market conservatives we can, and in my view, should, take elsewhere.
When, if at all, should the OAH “take action beyond its avowed mission,” our current question asks, and if so, what conditions should be placed on such action? Here I would invoke again a principle I proposed in our first round: we might take such action beyond our avowed mission in the face of “a threat to the very social order served by the institutions party to the division of labor” implied by our mission statement, “as judged by the bulk of the membership reliably measured.” This is the threshold that I suggested had been met in recent memory only in one case, and one that arguably fell short: the Vietnam War.
KESSLER-HARRIS: The difficulty I have with David’s most recent comment is that it is often unclear what kinds of issues fall within and outside the mission of the OAH. Issues that have to do with the “teaching and presentation of American history” are clearly within the OAH purview, and, as Al suggests, we should not hesitate to express our opinion when those charged with educating young people seek to remove widely accepted scholarly interpretations from the curriculum. We have spoken out on similar issues, most recently in Texas and Virginia. We have also taken positions on subjects such as the history standards of the 1990s and on Teaching American History grants.
But there are many issues that fall on the cusp and labor unionism is one of them. Leaving INMEX aside, let me try to make an argument for the OAH to take a position on issues of social justice with regard to labor unions. The recent dramatic decline in unionism has in part resulted from public misconceptions of trade union history and purpose. For this reason, the state of Wisconsin mandated (just weeks before the protests in Madison) that labor history be included in the curriculum of all Wisconsin high school students. We in the OAH responded by developing labor history sessions for the Milwaukee convention and cooperating with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to sponsor special teacher-training workshops on the subject in Milwaukee. Arguably, we have taken a stand. We have incorporated into our meetings a subject that some would find difficult to swallow. We have, in the language of the sixties, “politicized” the organization. We have also responded, within the language of our mission, to a teaching need.
It doesn’t take much to think of issues that some would perceive as injustices and where teaching them treads on concealed toes. What about the history of immigration, or of sexuality, or of race? If we agree that we should respond to those issues when they are taught (or ignored) in ways that counter prevailing scholarship, do we then refuse to deploy the influence of the association when those issues become subjects of protest or of legislative contention?
GROSSMAN: It seems to me that Alice and David are not speaking in mutually exclusive frameworks here. This takes me back to the concept of a forum. David asks that we place the values and imperatives of scholarship—the exploration of American history in particular—at the forefront of our standard for an appropriate scope. And just as I have argued elsewhere that “scholarship” needs to be construed more broadly than just standard modes of publication and teaching, Alice argues that “scholarship” can also probe questions that stand at the center of contemporary politics. We should indeed address such questions. But we should not presume the answers. And we should assume that honest and able scholars can, and should, disagree. I disagree with David: I don’t see why “the disagreements that [he, Nancy, and I] have with the free-market conservatives we can, and in my view, should, take elsewhere.” Such disagreements are historical questions. Markets operate in historical contexts. And even many of us who are not “free-market conservatives” would accept the suggestion that markets can constitute an important aspect of historical context. So no, let us not take that disagreement elsewhere. Let us look at evidence and assess the role of markets across time and place.
Similarly, unions, immigration, sexuality, or race (the issues to which Alice has pointed) are all issues of contemporary significance that cannot be understood outside of historical context. Historians should be able to agree on that. We should not be expected to agree on the particulars. The OAH must welcome historians who have different perspectives, for example, on what constitutes social justice; on the impact of unionization on public-sector work at different moments over the last one hundred years; on whether family structure has had an impact on the life chances of children in particular historical contexts. I suspect most of the participants in this forum would agree (at least in broad terms) on the interpretive issues that frame such questions and that emerge from them. But we have honest and able colleagues who might argue otherwise. So I think when we talk about “politicizing” the OAH, we ought to be emphasizing the extent to which essentially “political” questions with a contemporary valence ought to be on the table in our conferences, in our journal, and in our digital environment. We ought not to be assuming that the OAH should be in one corner of political debates—other than to be in the corner that insists that no political issue can be understood properly outside of historical context.
I want to emphasize that I am speaking in institutional terms here. Many historians are driven professionally by their political commitments, by a commitment to social justice that shapes their work as teachers and scholars. This is a good thing. But scholarly societies must be arenas that enable and nourish our work and our communities—not the instruments of our political commitments.
I should also suggest the the OAH Executive Board consider whether the mission to which David refers perhaps needs revisiting. I say perhaps, and I emphasize that I pose this as a question. It is possible that this debate is in some way related to a fuzzy mission statement.
CHAFE: We can all agree, I think, on Al’s comments regarding specific areas of curriculum and pedagogy where the OAH has a professional obligation to stand up and speak out. The more dicey issues are those where we are asked to speak out and (1) there is no unanimity on the underlying issue or its centrality to our mission; and (2) the financial consequences for choosing to speak out may be dire. Once again this brings to the fore for me the issue of context—the need to examine thoroughly the specifics of each issue. On the Texas and Arizona curriculum issues, there is a pretty clear cut path to follow. On others, we need a more complicated, discursive process where perhaps a subgroup of the executive committee takes responsibility for formulating questions and proposing answers that can then be brought before the broader historical community, whether that be the Executive Committee of the OAH or the whole membership.
MACLEAN: Jim raised an interesting issue at the end of his post to which we might want to return at some point: whether the OAH mission statement is too fuzzy. The AHA Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct, which he cited, does seem better able to offer practical guidance on the kinds of issues we are discussing.
Putting that aside for the moment to return to Ed’s second question, I agree with Al and others that speaking up on the Arizona, Texas, and Virginia situations was appropriate and in keeping within even a narrow construction of the present mission statement. It’s good that we are having this discussion because we should expect to face more such challenges over the next decade. Movement conservatives in a number of places have been seeking to supplant established historical understanding, and, in some places, teaching standards, with a version of the past more congenial to their goals. In my new home state, we see the North Carolina History Project, funded by Art Pope, the chairman and CEO of a discount-store conglomerate, with help from tobacco companies and two Koch family foundations. Its purpose, as reported on by Jane Mayer in “State for Sale” in the October 10, 2011, The New Yorker, is to create “an online teaching tool aimed at reorienting the study of the state’s history away from social movements and government and toward the celebration of the ‘personal creation of wealth.’” I can report as someone who studies them that conservative activists are undertaking extracurricular efforts such as this not least because these activists’ version of reality does not pass muster in standard scholarly peer-review processes.
So here I have to disagree with David that the OAH should banish discussions that might produce uneasiness among free-market conservative members. If the organization is to “promote excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history,” we ought not to ignore such bold challenges to high standards of scholarship. In the North Carolina case, those standards were set by the prize-winning work of several OAH presidents who established the importance of social movements and government in the state’s history, among them John Hope Franklin, Ann Firor Scott, William Chafe, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, and Pete Daniel. As Alice and Jim suggest, we should explore rival perspectives on the historical questions at stake in forums that enable evidence-based and respectful discussion and debate. The 2012 OAH-NCPH (National Council on Public History) Program Committee has tried to do that with the kinds of lively sessions to which Alice refers, with an eye to the “teaching need” that recent events have made clear.
I find helpful the emphasis in Bill Chafe’s comments and in Alice’s on trying to better identify the particulars that should guide decision making once we get past the cases that are easy to agree on. My example from North Carolina aimed to show how hard it would be to avoid disagreements about the so-called free market, because it is at the center of the conflicts of our time. Having a convention theme of “Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy” enables us to have illuminating discussion and, we hope, debate among the full spectrum of members and attendees. A case such as the revisionist online project can come up in that kind of discussion.
But suppose, as Alice challenges, the North Carolina state legislature, many of whose Tea Party members were elected with funds from the North Carolina History Project’s backer, were to mandate history standards that “reorient[ed] the study of the state’s history away from social movements and government and toward the celebration of the ‘personal creation of wealth.’” Should the OAH speak up in such a situation, and if so, how would a decision to do so be made? Should there be, as Bill Chafe suggests, something such as a “subgroup of the executive committee” to examine the issues and decide on a case-by-case basis or bring the issues to the whole membership? But how would that wider consultation work? Here it would be helpful to hear how the OAH intervened in the Texas textbook issue of 2010. I don’t know that history and I imagine many other members and JAH readers don’t either. Could someone provide examples of the organization’s exercise of its public voice, for better or worse? That would be helpful in trying to develop a principled, consistent, and transparent approach in keeping with the OAH’s mission.
HOLLINGER: Our job is to present and defend the truth claims about the American past that are the most professionally warranted, and insofar as that class of truth claims vindicates unions or markets, we must speak those truths. When it comes to “taking a stand” on contemporary disputes, however, the OAH needs to be careful that it does not draw too narrowly the circle of sound opinions. My invention of the Chicago-style advocate of free markets was designed simply to call our attention to general ideological outlooks that might be held by some OAH members, or potential OAH members, with whom Nancy and I might disagree, but whose welcome in the OAH should be preserved. I would not want to be understood as asking that the OAH not discuss markets! So I am glad for a chance to elaborate a bit on the comment that Jim and Nancy have picked up. As a corporate entity, the OAH should not take stands that are too sectarian. There has been a lot of talk in the OAH in the last twenty years of our having a “big tent.” The OAH should not take stands on contemporary issues that compromise this commodiousness. Distinctions can and should be made. Is anyone with any point of view so welcome in the OAH that we must not send negative signals their way? Of course not. Are racists welcome in the OAH? No. Racism is an outlook that we can easily agree that our historical scholarship, connected with scholarship and science in other disciplines, has proven to be beyond the bounds of defensible opinion. Is that the case with free-market conservatism? I don’t think so.
CAMARILLO: These exchanges have been quite insightful and have helped both broaden and complicate the discourses about the appropriate role of the OAH on various issues. I like Bill Chafe’s idea that the OAH Executive Board should consider in a more structured way to deliberate issues of the type that have surfaced in our exchanges. We are not a very nimble organization when asked, for example, to respond to issues or support resolutions in a timely fashion. We are usually in a reactive rather than a proactive mode. Perhaps we should establish a more explicit set of guidelines for taking action on various issues that pertain to our mission, regardless of whether they come to us from outside or we, on behalf of the membership, decide to advocate for some issue of common concern. If we do so, the OAH will be better prepared in the future to handle issues that are sure to come our way.
CRONON: I want to pick up a theme that Jim and David have both emphasized and approach it from a somewhat different angle. Thus far we’ve discussed (in ways that seem to me quite useful) the mission of the OAH to promote “excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history,” and encourage “wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.” I’m very much in sympathy with this mission and think it provides quite valuable guidance about what OAH should (and should not) do in the realm of civil discourse and public political controversy.
More than anything else, I believe that organizations such as the OAH, the AHA, and other such bodies exist to (1) promote the thoughtful practice of rigorous history; (2) defend the disciplinary interests of all who practice and care about good history; and (3) advocate in the public realm for the relevance of history to all manner of debates and controversies that historians believe would be better informed and more thoughtful if history were taken into account.
Since I believe these to be the primary purposes of scholarly organizations such as the OAH, AHA, and their kin, I am interested more than anything else in actions by these bodies that defend the value of history and provide venues for discussing it in thoughtful and rigorous ways. I’m much less interested in—and inclined to be reluctant to support—actions by scholarly organizations that defend a particular political, ideological, or intellectual point of view, or that claim to represent a unitary point of view that is shared by all historians. Not only do such actions seem to be hard to defend on their face, but I worry about the signals they may send to those seriously interested in history who do not share the particular political or ideological perspectives of whatever a majority of OAH members believe at any particular moment.
I thus align myself mainly with those such as David and Jim who feel that the main role of these organizations is to create, sustain, and defend forums in which scholars and others can talk and debate with each about how we should understand facts and interpretations relating to the human past. I think it is far more important for the OAH and other groups to offer venues in which we can talk in fair-minded ways about (for instance) the role of labor unions in the American past (or in the history of the world, for that matter), than it is for the OAH to pass resolutions at its business meetings declaring that it supports unionization in all times and places and under all circumstances as a matter of principle. In general, I believe this should be the preferred approach—providing forums for discussion rather than declaring committed partisan positions—for any scholarly organization engaging contemporary issues that are deeply relevant to its scholarly expertise.
If we are faced with a political action in the contemporary world that seeks to declare any historical topic off limits or to prevent it from being taught or discussed in a college, university, or public school, then I think there’s a very strong prima facie case that a scholarly organization should intervene aggressively to say that there are few if any historical questions that should be off limits either in the classroom or in the realm of public discourse. The case Al Camarillo puts before us seems to me a good instance of this, which is why I agree with him that it is entirely appropriate for OAH to adopt a public position under such circumstances. Fighting censorship or the silencing of legitimate historical questions or interpretations should always be among the most important goals of these organizations.
But this is very different from saying that a scholarly organization should—in support of its disciplinary mission of promoting historical rigor, relevance, and excellence—issue an institutional declaration saying that all right-thinking historians believe and agree (again, simply as a for instance) that labor unions always and everywhere are a good thing that all historians agree should always be supported. In general, I tend to believe that such declarations are a mistake and very likely undermine the larger good that groups such as these can serve not just for themselves but for the civic realm when they hew close to their declared missions. (I even believe that historians’ work on behalf of labor unions or any other causes they personally advocate will be better served if historical organizations avoid declarations of this type.)
I’m sure some participants of this forum will feel that I’ve set up an easy straw figure in the preceding paragraph and that no good historian would ever wish to declare (to continue with the example at hand) that unions invariably serve the common good. Chinese immigrants in California in the 1870s probably had different views of the social good served by labor unions than did their working-class white American and Irish counterparts during the same decade in that same state, and one of the most valuable contributions of history is to explore and explicate such differences, even when they make us uncomfortable. The historical work I’ve done on American environmental politics and cultural beliefs has not always been comfortable for my environmentalist comrades to engage, but I believe quite strongly that their discomfort (and my own!) do not thereby render such work or questions either inappropriate or off limits.
I apologize for going on at such length, but I have one other observation to offer, which flows off of a point that Jim Grossman has already made. As a matter of principle, I hope that all scholars and citizens interested in the practice of rigorous, excellent history will support the institutional work of the OAH, AHA, and other such organizations—regardless of the particular political views held by any individual or group. I want historians to join and support OAH and AHA no matter what their politics, because I believe that both history and politics will benefit from the dialogues that occur as a result. I hope “movement” intellectuals will see the value of doing so whether they hail from the right or the left end of the political spectrum.
For this reason, I think OAH members (and members of comparable organizations) should in general be very reluctant to pass resolutions advocating for particular political perspectives on particular contemporary debates unless their reason for doing so is to defend the relevance of history to that debate and the need to protect forums in which scholars can debate with each other no matter what their political point of view. Being able to organize and glean votes from 51% of the membership on any particular political issue shouldn’t be nearly high enough a bar for OAH to issue partisan declarations on a particular subject.
Instead, I would argue for something like the Kantian categorical imperative as the rule we should apply to partisan declarations by scholarly organizations. If a significant minority of the membership of a scholarly organization (say, more than 10—20%) strongly opposes a particular political statement that the majority wishes to make, then the majority should think very hard indeed about whether such a declaration actually serves the interests of the discipline, the membership, or the wide-ranging critical conversations our organization says it promotes about contested meanings of the past. The danger in passing partisan resolutions when one controls a majority of the votes is that the minority may feel that the majority has betrayed the mission of the organization—and if this happens with any frequency, the minority will then choose to depart, probably with an aggrieved perception that its own views and beliefs have been disrespected by the majority. Whenever that happens, there’s a very high risk that we all lose as a result.
If this seems counterintuitive to you, then try applying the Kantian rule to a particular history-relevant political question that matters enormously to you personally. Imagine that you strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose an abortion if that seems best given her circumstances—or imagine that you believe that the state has an interest in balancing the legal rights of the mother against those of the fetus. Whichever of these views you hold, and however strongly you hold them, ask yourself how you would feel if a professional history organization to which you belonged were to issue a public declaration supported by a majority of its members declaring that a view quite in conflict with your own was the one that all historians should (and supposedly do) support.
Speaking only for myself, I’d be pretty unhappy—whereas I would feel nothing but the strongest support for a professional declaration that debates about abortion and a woman’s right to choose should be deeply informed by the richest possible historical understanding of how this question has been understood in the past, how it has changed over time, and how past struggles over this issue continue to be reflected in present controversies. I actually believe that we historians make our greatest contributions to public debates when we insist on rich historical understanding, and that this does far more good than adopting resolutions declaring that “history” inevitably supports any particular political position since I’m pretty doubtful that we can count on “history” to do this in any very reliable or consistent way.
MACLEAN: I confess to being somewhat befuddled by some of Bill Cronon’s comments. No one ever suggested that the OAH “pass resolutions at its business meetings declaring that it supports unionization in all times and places and under all circumstances as a matter of principle” or “issue an institutional declaration saying that all right-thinking historians believe and agree . . . that labor unions always and everywhere are a good thing that all historians agree should always be supported.” What was urged was that when hotels are violating the democratic values that guide our craft and inform our mission—values of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and representative democracy—in their treatment of their employees, the organization uphold these values and support those being denied these rights by withdrawing our patronage from the offending employers, wherever possible. Granted, a labor dispute that involved only wages and benefits would be more complicated. Alas, in today’s America it is rare to find situations that produce labor boycotts, much less strikes, that do not involve violations of workers’ human rights.
As for other, general political issues not related to the practice of history or meeting sites, I agree that urging the organization to pass divisive political resolutions in its business meetings would be harmful to the climate of mutual respect and goodwill needed to sustain a large and diverse organization. I can’t imagine any committed member of the organization wanting that kind of ugly wrangling, which would likely have little impact outside the OAH in any case. We all, as far as I know, want to practice big-tent inclusion, not least because divergent viewpoints will make for the richest, most informative discussions and debates and the best-quality scholarship and teaching.
The two questions that I saw raised were, rather, (1) whether we should walk the walk of human rights and fair-trade values in our business contracts with hotels, and (2) whether we should, in Al’s words, “offer perspective and question” when public officials, in legislation or other action, mandate versions of the past whose aim is to silence or exclude inconvenient history. It seems most people in this discussion agree that the answer to the second question is yes, that type of action is within the OAH’s mission. The jury is still out on the first question. But I do not see anyone urging that we “declar[e] committed partisan positions,” so it might help to refocus the discussion to take that nonissue off the table.
RUIZ: How does one define “committed partisan positions”? For some, moving the meeting from San Francisco to San José was an indication of OAH “playing politics,” but for others the decision represented a blend of “doing the right thing” and “avoiding greater financial risk.” With the value of hindsight, we learned that move or not, the organization would face significant fiscal consequences.
I’d like to shift the discussion a bit to discuss how the OAH can have a direct impact in state curricular issues. What are practices in place that allow us to respond in a proactive manner? Has the organization made a substantive difference in previous cases? What can we do better in terms of meeting the needs of our constituencies in those states, especially the public school teachers directly affected? I would like the discussion to become a bit more concrete in terms of “deliverable outcomes” for our members.
LINENTHAL: Given the OAH’s history with hotel-related issues, it is natural for much of our conversation to go forward in terms that we take to be relevant to possible future hotel-related issues. But do you think of other kinds of issues on which the tension between fiduciary and other imperatives might arise? Many professional organizations passed resolutions opposing American military action in Vietnam. Was this a special case? If so, why? Would you argue that it was a mistake for learned organizations to go on official record against that war? If so, why?
CAMARILLO: There are two related issues here: (1) the fiduciary responsibility of the Executive Board of the OAH and (2) the position that professional associations such as the OAH may opt to take on important social/political issues. On the first, when the fiscal stability of the OAH hangs in the balance of a decision the Executive Board may make, the first consideration must be the welfare of the organization in the short run and long term. In some cases, the Executive Board will have sufficient time to query the membership in making a judgment that may involve serious financial consequences. If a situation arose where the board does not have time for broad consultation, it must act—regardless of the issue at hand—to preserve the integrity of the organization to serve future generations of historians. But what happens when an issue surfaces that the board must tackle head on and its membership supports overwhelmingly? Consider the following hypothetical case: a state legislature passes a statute that bans all public school history instruction from including mention of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) history, ethnic studies—related curriculum, U.S. feminist history, etc. on the grounds that this type of historical material is immoral, divisive, and a threat to the well-being of the state’s students. And, the OAH has planned an annual conference in this state soon after the legislative action took place. Do we meet as planned? I say “NO,” but only after receiving the commitment—both financial and otherwise—that the majority membership of the organization will support this action should the OAH encounter financial losses because of hotel contract stipulations about cancellations. Of course, the above hypothetical is not likely to occur because the OAH now monitors issues in states/locales where the annual meeting sites are being considered. But who knows when some state legislature or local political entity might enact a strident law that would be at odds with the OAH and most of its members. These are delicate matters that any professional association must weigh judiciously and with the best interests of the organization and its membership at heart.
CHAFE: In all of this discussion, it’s critical to keep in mind the basic point that Al is making, and it all goes back to the dialectic between fundamental principles and whatever the immediate issue at hand is. Context is decisive. In the example Al gives, I expect that 90 percent of our membership would support not patronizing a city or state that prohibited the teaching of LGBT history or feminism or ethnic studies. But what if we could use the occasion of the convention in that city or state to do what Alice is doing in Milwaukee—use the convention as a forum to highlight the issue and bring it home to the local residents? Doing that might be ideal in any circumstance, but it would be especially so if the option were to have the organization go bankrupt because of a penalty fee for cancellation.
The issue of the Vietnam War that Ed raises is a whole other kettle of fish. Is it in the same category as racism or the Holocaust, or is it in another category where disagreement and debate is possible?
RUIZ: With a well-selected example, Al has provided a flexible framework for weighing what Bill Chafe calls “the dialectic between fundamental principles” and “immediate issues.” The Milwaukee strategy provides a critical forum or platform while also protecting the OAH from bankruptcy. This collective conversation has been incredibly useful in thinking out loud about our mission and our responsibilities as civic-minded historians, educators, and board members.
KESSLER-HARRIS: This is a response to Al’s comment and especially to the proposal that under certain circumstances we might indeed solicit the approval of members to withdraw from certain convention locations. I find myself disagreeing with that perspective and want to try to explain why. Let me say, first, that I agree with Bill Chafe’s take on the issue: there are two separate issues at stake here. The first involves the OAH taking a stand on principled issues that involve no or very little potential financial cost. Protesting the Vietnam War was such an issue for most of us. On such issues I believe that we should trust the Executive Board to make decisions regarding whether or not to take a public position and put the OAH name behind it and/or whether to submit the issue to membership approval first.
But the harder issue involves the kind of example that Al cites. And here I would argue that to take the kind of action that Al describes is, to put the matter a bit more strongly than Bill Chafe has done, to embark on what the lawyer’s call a slippery slope. Even if the majority of our members strongly objected to a particular state action, and, when asked, voted to support a boycott of an imminent meeting, I no longer believe that the cost of moving the meeting is worth it, especially if the cost of doing so undermines the OAH for years to come. I am here assuming that our contracts will henceforth protect us against labor disputes; at least I hope they will. But what of the kinds of issues that Al describes? More satisfactory than submitting the issue to membership for resolution (a strategy that backfired in San Francisco when many members voted not to stay at the convention hotel and supported a move while others stayed at the hotel, thus creating a double crisis). Let us instead agree to find other, creative ways of expressing the organization’s opinion of policies we dislike. Why not agree to develop a “Milwaukee” strategy—to do what we do well—that is to bring our knowledge and information to bear to educate a broader public and especially to target the audience (teachers in Al’s example) in ways that might encourage them to resist. In short, I would push Bill Chafe’s point one step further and suggest that the OAH might prepare itself for meeting in problematic locations by alerting the Program Committee to their concerns, assigning a staff member to publicize the issues at stake, opening appropriate sessions to a wider public without cost, and otherwise creating meetings dedicated to our mission of extending scholarship. Creative solutions that involve throwing our weight behind labor and labor unions, racial harmony, and those struggling against the suppression of freedom of inquiry among teachers should be possible.
These solutions would surely cost something, but at least we would be paying for a constructive response, rather than engaging in a boycott that is unlikely to have much effect. Bill Chafe is right that, with the board’s approval, our Program Committee has engaged in this kind of strategy in Milwaukee. But given the possibility of increased controversy in the future, we might want to think about how to engage more fully with the issues as we find them.
GROSSMAN: I think Alice has summarized this well, returning us full circle to the idea of a forum that emerged in the first part of this conversation. This is what scholarly societies do well, and it is consistent with the values of scholarship and historical inquiry: establish an environment that facilitates and encourages open debate about historical questions of any kind—including the engagement between past and present. Historians have something to say that is beyond just our politics; we have something to say as historians about issues whose historical context matters (which means all issues).
I should note, just in passing, that Al is mistaken with reference to his statement: “Of course, the above hypothetical is not likely to occur because the OAH now monitors issues in states/locales where the annual meeting sites are being considered.” I wish that were possible. But it is not. We sign contracts many years in advance. A state legislature can pass legislation 11 months before our meeting and we either stay or pay. Or a city council. Or a county government. So yes, we should be proactive in thinking about issues of significance to the communities in which we are meeting. The AHA program committee for 2013 is already thinking about such issues in New Orleans.
A reminder on such forums: we can accomplish more, as historians, if the sort of panels that Alice describes encompass a variety of legitimate historical perspectives; session organizers should bring into conversation different ways of defining and thinking about the historical context of contemporary political issues. Otherwise we slip away from our moorings as scholarly societies/professional organizations of historians, whose influence and importance depend in part on our adherence to values of open inquiry, evidence, and civil debate.
One final caveat about moving conferences. We must remember that every OAH annual meeting takes place in a hotel that is operated by a corporation, often on a piece of land owned by another corporation or an individual, and sits in a city, a county, and a state. Consider the likelihood that after a contract has been signed one of these entities will do something that a significant portion of our membership quite reasonably finds objectionable.
RUIZ: I agree that we have returned full circle. Critical engagement through a Milwaukee strategy seems consistent with both the OAH mission and the fiduciary responsibility of the board.