SCS, SAA, CAMWS, and the End of the Big Tent Professional Organization

I’ve been watching with some interest the recent controversies surrounding the Society for American Archaeology and the Classical Association of the Midwest and South annual meeting. In both cases, these professional associations have experienced sustained and justified criticism. The SAAs have bungled how they handled the registration of a known sexual predator at their annual meeting and their failure to protect his victims. The CAMWS initially responded with ambivalence to concerns from the LBGTQ+ community about the 2023 annual meeting which scheduled to happen in part on the BYU campus. While CAMWS has now decided to move the meeting entirely to the hotel in Provo to avoid the problematic stance of BYU toward LBGTQ+ individuals, this decision appears to have come after increasingly public pressure on the institution to change its venue. These two controversies have come on the heels of the debacle this January at the SCS/AIA annual meeting which devolved to the SCS publicly not censuring Sarah Bond, an outspoken leader in the field of ancient history and Classics.

Each of these situations has prompted concerned and often outraged scholars to resign their memberships in these organizations, to step down from leadership positions, or to protest loudly and critically on social media. To my mind, all these responses are justified. (To be clear, I have no real association with CAMWS, the SAAs, or SCS other than these organizations can and do speak for some parts of my disciplinary practice. I have given papers at the SAAs and reviewed for their journals. The SCS annual meeting happens in conjunction with the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America) and there was a time when I associated rather more closely with the field of Classics.

As I’ve watched these events transpire, I couldn’t help but try to figure out how and why this is happening. After all, to any rational observer, these institutions have handled these situations poorly and in ways that do not reflect the attitudes and positions of their membership. More than that, high profile resignations, cancelled memberships, social media bans and blocking, and threats of boycotts, undermine the ability of these organizations to advocate for their disciplines, members, and values. This is particularly significant for the SAA who have long had a significant role in defining professional ethics and advocacy for cultural heritage policy in the U.S. Similarly, the AIA has advised on issues of cultural heritage management in the Middle East and Asia, worked to limit the international trade in antiquities, and issued important guidance on promotion and tenure policies in academia. In other words, the inability of these institutions to respond appropriately, compassionately, and transparently to these crises (and the underlying issues) undermines other components of these organization’s mission. This is bad.

I don’t really understand how these institutions work, so any observation that I make here are likely naive, but maybe they’re still useful inasmuch they reflect an outsider view of the situation. That being said, it seems to me that there are three things that likely contribute to struggles of these institutions to respond. 

First, our fields are diverse and our ethical, professional, intellectual, and social commitments are diverse. For the past 50 years the humanities have expanded to represent the increasingly democratized character of higher education in the United State. This has involved a growing recognition of diversity in our students and our communities and fueled an expanding range of theoretical, methodological, and political perspectives in our disciplines. To my mind, this is exciting, but I also understand that this can create fundamental incompatibilities between what we value and how we work. I wonder if the recent failure to respond to crises reflects the ultimate disintegration of disciplinary integrity and the ability of big tent professional institutions to adequately reflect the range of priorities and values present in their communities. 

Second, while serving on the governing boards and committees associated with these organization is work, it is a prestigious kind of work. Leadership in the field is almost always associated with highly valued professional credentials (although not always), political credentials, and the luxury of being able to give significant time, energy, and in some cases resources, to these institutions (in other words, individuals with significant teaching loads, contingent status, significant other obligations both professionally and personally, are less likely to have the time and resources to accept leadership roles in these institutions). Considering the strange responses of the executive committees at CAMWS, SAAs, and the SCS, I wonder whether the processes that produced these committees works in a way that ensures that they reflect the membership of their organizations. I have no idea how to fix this, because in some ways it speaks to fundamental problems with the persistent myth of the academic meritocracy and the nature of academia in the 21st century. Maybe sortition!

Finally, it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the issues surrounding these situations stem from a lack of funding in these organizations. The social media shenanigans by the SAA, for example, suggests that they don’t have a competent social media manager or a plan for social media crises. These things take money to develop and sustain on a consistent basis. The challenges associated with planning and operating an annual meeting with thousands of participants – some of whom might be particular undesirable – takes significant resources. Cutting corners with volunteers (even very skilled volunteers), relying on the hotel security to help manage access, and running professional conferences at often problematic venues (whether at universities or hotels or locations), are all concessions to the limited resources available to professional organizations. Moreover, increasing dues, finding ways to monetize existing resources (like publications), and other policies designed to allow these organization increased fiscal security may not be consistent with their inclusive missions. Already the cost of attending professional meetings and paying dues is often prohibitive to even tenured faculty members (and all the more a financial burden on continent, avocational, or early career scholars). Pushing resources into the professional operations of these institutions likewise means reducing funding to scholarships and other outreach. This is not to say that a compromise between operational competence and mission isn’t possible, but that these kind of balancing acts require the kind of compromise that academics struggle to make. After all, how many academics have you heard advocating for the hard working folks who run their universities and colleges — highly compensated administrators, marketing folks, accountants, and other behind the scenes folks who make universities run?

In the end, I don’t have solutions for any of these issues. I do wonder, however, whether the days of the “big tent” professional institutions are passing. Our disciplines and academia more broadly is less unified today than it was 60 or 70 years ago. Hierarchical organization and volunteer leadership contrast with thriving alternative forms of political power that include social media and other new forms of professional communication and publishing which offer more open and dynamic spaces for interaction, conversation, and advocacy. It is hardly surprising that so much of the recent critique has taken place on Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs.

I still believe, however, that certain professional priorities and core ethical positions still exist and I’m deeply disappointed that these events escalated as they did. I also recognize, however, that there is a much greater negotiated and conflicted grey area around the core values of these institutions. This conflicted space almost guarantees that there will be more conflicts and controversies in the future.    

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