Celebrating ASEEES: Reflections on the 1980s

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of our organization’s founding and the 50th Convention, we take time to reflect on our history through the eyes of four AAASS/ASEEES Past Presidents.

Click here to read "Reflections on the 1990s" 
Click here to read "Refletions on the 2000s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 2010s"

Ellen Mickiewicz is the James R. Shepley Emeritus Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. She was the AAASS Board resident in 1988.

AAASS brought into one professional organization scholars and policy makers working on issues related to the Soviet Union and beyond, including the then-Sovietdominated countries of Eastern, Central and South Europe. We were (and continue to be) affiliated and unaffiliated scholars, policy makers, media practitioners and critics, and more. We included all relevant disciplines and added emerging ones. I became president in 1988, during turbulent years inside our organization and in the world.

The Cold War appeared to be changing in different directions. The new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated bold but unsteady actions and pronouncements that puzzled Soviet-watchers. Was this another “cosmetic” change meant to delude the West (as some in a divided US intelligence community thought) or were Gorbachev and his allies in Moscow laying down deeper roots for a new and different system? What were we to make of the stops and starts, the halting changes of direction, and the obvious internal disagreements among the Soviet Union’s political elite? Gorbachev’s program of reform, perestroika, sparked a good deal of disagreement in the West about what exactly it entailed, and if the Soviet leader had eventual democracy in mind or just limited production improvements or a step-wise change that got out of hand and roared ahead once controls were loosened. The Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, and Soviet television for the first time characterized the conflict as a “war” instead of a foreign aid mission to build schools. Television news had not showed the war and even was prohibited from letting the black smoke of bombs be seen in a corner of the home screen. When the war was over, stunned Soviet television viewers saw the agonizing dilemma of returning soldiers, broken and traumatized. It was a favorable time to do some talking about arms control agreements. When the Berlin wall came down, the Soviet army stayed out and Eastern Europe emerged from the Soviet sphere. Soviet republics were also restive; the Soviet Union had very little time left. 

We were a (mostly) American organization at the time. The legacy of the upheavals of the ‘60s in the United States was still playing out: societal norms were changing. Some of our organization’s structures in important respects were out of sync.

Women members had been objecting to what they considered to be unequal treatment, and by the time I took office, the dissatisfaction was organized and demands were more pointed. They did not see parity and demanded greater access to convention panels and other Association events and if refused, they would walk out of the organization and form their own. For the Association I believed it was most importantly a question of justice and fairness. Besides, the exodus of so many fine scholars would leave us functionally wounded and shorn of the richness of our initial mission. I thought we should first find out just how things stood: what the data were on women’s participation. I asked Gertrude Schroeder, a respected senior economist, to chair a committee to study the issues. She said to me that she really could not do it, because her work had never focused on gender issues and she didn’t know the field. My point, in urging her to take it on, was that her openmindedness coupled with superb methodological skills and utter fairness were exactly what we needed. The rest of the committee members—a senior male scholar and a more junior female scholar—were also respected members of the Association from different fields. The committee studied participation in conventions, amassing as much data as possible and formulated proposals. The results did support the complaint: data showed a practice of skewed participation. The committee formulated proposals and then presented them to a heavily attended membership meeting. They easily passed. A good number of female scholars decided to form their own monitoring and professional committee within AAASS.

As Soviet power receded, new colleagues were coming into the Association. Some had left their country permanently to become a new wave of émigrés; some had temporary or permanent appointments at universities and think tanks; and some were students in doctoral programs and later undergraduates as well. Their research became more easily available and the way to collaboration in research was soon going to be in full swing. Most important for many scholars, archival research was becoming a more viable option. The situation was not simple. Often pieces were blocked by the bureaucracy or the whole archive could abruptly be declared off-limits to everyone. Scholars could also work in regional archives, if with greater difficulties, often because record-keeping had been careless and disorganized. Still, here was a chance to look at origins.

The Soviet period is just that—only one of the organizing concepts. Over the course of history empires and wars rearranged the map ceaselessly. What, then, makes the countries we study a coherent whole to be fused in an Association? They are not fused, of course, but their commonalities and differences offer opportunities for all disciplines and so many forms of comparison, including comparison of periods. Another new opportunity was about to be offered by history, an opportunity of inestimable value and occurring rarely: the entire Soviet sphere ended at the same time. (Yes, there are differences in the dates of proclaimed statehood, but overall, the break-up of all of it was virtually simultaneous.) A punctuation in history, involving an implosion of governing bodies at all levels and a need to manage significant numbers of ethnicities, offers enormous opportunities for cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research in all the disciplines.

Impressive opportunities have opened up for our fields. We also face constraining barriers. The obvious one is money. The enormous earlier growth of federally funded university centers, travel grants, and dissertation support from university departments and foundations helped to solidify fields with the infusion of new generations; research funding broadened. But our fields are vulnerable to the exigencies of international politics. When enmity and threat were high, governments needed experts and funding was provided often through autonomous foundations. And the opposite? When President Obama, for example, announced a U.S. “pivot to the East,” foundation and government funding shifted away, too. That boom/bust pattern happened more than once. What is different now is the relative tightfistedness of universities. It is unlikely that university departments in our fields will swell again. Early in this century, universities, as every other sector, experienced a major recession. They pared down, merged, or eliminated centers and departments. They turned to temporary, non-tenure-track faculty and sometimes doubled or trebled class size. When support for travel was cut, many academics turned to Skype; in general, much collaborative research moved to the internet.

For larger, collaborative projects it is the private sector— including foundations and large donors—that is being called upon to fill the gap. The same is true for endangered newspapers, arts organizations and museums, as well as initiatives alleviating poverty and inequities. Formidable and worthy competition.

One other point about the economic situation and federal funding: funders (private and public) very often now call for research with immediate policy application— not implications or ultimate findings, but a plan to put into place now. Requests for proposals bring in the humanities, social sciences, and the hard sciences, but almost always with the demand for immediate application. Many of our members have not studied or were trained in policy formation and evaluation. It will not be easy to make this shift, if desired. It will not be easy to alter curricula, if needed. On the job market a combination of fields or redefinition of a field is likely to be preferred.

Ahead we may expect increasing reason to learn to speak not just to each other. Much of what we do lies hidden under impenetrable jargon. Naturally, papers for scholarly journals (on- or offline) follow a set of professional rules and goals. At the same time, a fraction of our knowledge bridges the gulf to an outside world, where there is no end to well-funded politicized “research” from partisan sources. We are interconnected globally now, at a time when understanding different cultures’ histories, traditions, taboos, tensions, and changing power distribution becomes ever more complex.