April 20, 2004
Dear AAR Members:
In recent weeks, many of you will have received a petition from our colleagues Karen King and Elaine Pagels regarding the Board of Directors' decision a year ago to hold independent annual meetings beginning in 2008. The Board spent the better part of our April meeting discussing various issues relating to this decision. We attended carefully to the petitioners and the concerns they expressed.
The Board appreciates the commitment to the Academy and to the goals of the centennial strategic plan expressed by the petitioners, as well as their desire to find creative and constructive ways to deal with the growth and expansion of the field of religion. We are aware that the members of the Academy have a range of ideas about how best to accomplish this and that some of these ideas are in conflict with one another. In an organization of some 10,000 individuals, that divergence is not surprising.
With the decision for independent annual meetings made, we intend to engage the full range of members' concerns as implementation moves forward. To that end, the Board has appointed a task force to advise us on this implementation. The task force includes members who share concerns expressed in the petition, as well as members with different perspectives. The membership of the Task Force comprises colleagues whose studies and interests in the field of religion cover a broad range, including several with specific interests in Biblical Studies and Christian theology.
Chaired by former AAR president Judith Berling (Graduate Theological Union), this task force is charged with presenting recommendations on the structure of the program, enhanced programming, and a phased program expansion in the next few years. In considering specific additions to the program, the task force is asked to target areas that are already experiencing pent-up demand, are currently underrepresented, will be underrepresented in the stand-alone meeting, and are new and emerging in the field.
Even as we look forward to an expanded and more inclusive annual meeting program over the next few years, we are keenly aware of a range of concerns beyond the program itself. These include (but are not limited to) the impact of the independent meeting on racial and ethnic minority scholars, on members from small colleges and schools with limited financial support for faculty professional development, on job searches in the field, and on publishers. We commit ourselves to working closely with members to resolve these and other issues.
Additionally the Board instructed the executive director to begin exploring the possibility of holding periodic concurrent meetings with other relevant associations (e.g., American Anthropological Association, Middle East Studies Association, Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion).
It is the conviction of the Board that these various initiatives will result in a new, exciting, and forward-looking annual meeting of which all members of the AAR will be justly proud. We are confident that Academy members' long tradition of collegial conversation and shared commitment to the future of the field of religion will serve the AAR during this promising, but nonetheless challenging, time of transition to an independent meeting. We welcome your recommendations and creative ideas about how to implement and strengthen the AAR annual meeting of the future.
The Board of Directors
My take: Mark Goodacre points to a FAQ about the decision put up by the AAR Board in July. The FAQ is somewhat informative but, crucially for me, neither it nor the e-mail message quoted above address the failure of the Board to lay out the two alternatives, stay-with-joint-meeting vs. hold-separate-meetings, before the full membership of the AAR for a vote. Note the following from the FAQ (my emphasis):
October 2000. The Planning Committee surveyed AAR Members concerning the future of the Annual Meeting, receiving responses from little more than 10% of members. To the question, �Please indicate the importance to you of meeting jointly with SBL,� a majority of respondents preferred the joint annual meetings, but an overwhelming majority complained about the meeting�s size, the cuts in programming, and the meeting sites (inconvenience, shuttles, loss of camaraderie, fewer and fewer viable cities).
November 2000. While the question of the annual meeting�s future arrangements is under consideration, the Board allows the executive director to sign one additional joint annual meeting contract (for 2007). The question of whether to continue meeting jointly with SBL is on the agenda for the annual business meeting, the AAR program unit chairs meeting, and the Program Committee. In the years following, the issue continues to be raised from the floor at successive annual business and chairs� meetings. Straw votes are requested and taken, revealing that members are deeply divided on the issue.
The 2000 survey results were evidently equivocal and not a sufficient indicator for the decision. Likewise for the straw polls. It looks as though there was considerable dissatisfaction with the crowding and inconvenience etc. in the meetings (I share this) but that a majority wanted a different solution than disconnecting the meeting from SBL. I agree with the majority on that too.
The King-Pagels petition indicates that at least 2900 members agree with me. Given that the petition was informal and spread by word of mouth, I would guess that an actual official vote would have found considerably more support for this position. If there had been a vote and we had lost (and, frankly, I doubt we would have), I would accept the decision and reevaluate my own connection with the AAR accordingly. (I am a joint member; my main focus is the SBL but I do go to AAR sessions too. I can't afford to go to both meetings and, if I have to choose, I'll choose the SBL. I'm not sure at the moment whether it's worthwhile to maintain my AAR membership if there's no joint meeting. There seem to be quite a few like me.) But the decision was not made by a democratic process and it is not clear that it reflects the will of the majority of the members.
This whole thing strikes me as rather similar to the issue of the European Constitution with which we're wrestling on this side of the pond. Prime Minister Blair has finally (rightly) agreed to a referendum in Britain to decide the question for the British. Far-reaching decisions of this sort should not be made by bureaucracies, no matter how many consultants they hire. Vox populi, vox Dei.
The response of the Board of Directors is not satisfactory. With respect, this is not over yet.