Celebrating ASEEES: Reflections on the 2000s

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 1980s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 1990s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 2010s"

William Rosenberg is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. He was the AAASS Board President in 2002.

The collapse of the Soviet imperium created unexpected challenges for AAASS, none of them easy to solve. Interest in the Soviet Union and Bloc was probably never greater than it was after Gorbachev initiated changes that virtually no expert in the region had foreseen. Self-confident historians like myself were accustomed to ending our courses by telling students that radical change in the USSR could only come from within, and that there was little possibility that any First Secretary of the party could successfully effect it, especially if it meant loosening the party’s grip on power. As the system began to unravel, we felt first hand the excitement that interesting times always stimulate in scholars, even as we soon understood how fraught they could be to those living through them. As the objects of our study collapsed, the established subjects of our enquiry morphed as well. Political scientists quickly shifted from authoritarian/totalitarian regime practices to the processes of “emerging democracies.” Socio-political historians like myself, struggling against unequivocal concentration on ideology and political power as the sole movers of Soviet history, were now widely thought to have gotten it wrong. Those few economists, anthropologists, and sociologists who taught us so much about the Soviet society as a system were essentially out of business as far as new university positions were concerned, even if their continued work amplified our historical understanding and remained essential to comprehending the kinds of changes that were and were not occurring in post-Soviet social, economic, and cultural life. Even prominent dissident writers momentarily lost their voices. The heroic work of Carl and Ellendea Proffer at Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor was essentially done.

All of this greatly affected subscriptions to the Slavic Review and hence AAASS membership, for which the Review was the primary source. 1990 was the Association’s peak year: 3889 members and a paid Slavic Review distribution of 4990. By 2001, the year I became President-elect, membership was less than 2997 and the Review’s subscriptions had fallen almost 20 percent. This decline had a ripple effect in terms of the resources needed to support the Association’s office in Cambridge. It suggested the possibility that the Association might not be able to sustain itself financially and otherwise in a climate of declining interest in our area of study without vigorous efforts on the part of its elected officers and the Cambridge office staff. One of the attractive inefficiencies of scholarly associations like ours is the annual rotation of responsibility from one president to the next, cushioned slightly by longer term memberships on its Executive Committee and Board, but still subject to the need for some consistency in outlook from one year to the next. This can, of course, be provided by AAASS’s Executive Director and staff, but in 2001 the difficulties faced were beyond their capacity to remedy. If the Association was to endure—and even some staff members doubted that it could—it needed new resources, new members, new energy, and even a new vision of what it was doing and why: a perestroika of its own.

I was very fortunate to have been preceded as president by David Ransel and succeeded by Gale Stokes and Katherine Verdery, and the four of us together to have Cynthia Buckley and Walt Conner to work with on the Executive Committee as well as Madeline Levine, Louise McReynolds, Andrew Michta, Catharine Nepomnyashchy, and Mark von Hagen as the Association’s own membersat-large on the Board of Directors. Karen Dawisha, John Hardt, Richard Stites, Barbara Anderson, Maria Carlson, George Gutsche, James Flynn, and Victor Winston also served very constructively on the Board at this difficult period, representing the Slavic area studies in major scholarly associations, as did Diane Koenker, editor of the Slavic Review. (One of the first administrative steps we took was to add Diane and her successor editors to the Executive Committee in order to assure better financial and other coordination with AAASS’s staff.) The risk of including names is always that some might be unintentionally neglected. Suffice it to say that all of these good souls and more were mobilized in 2002 and 2003 to begin addressing the problems at hand.

Some were relatively easy. Since the issue of convention attendance was directly related to its location, the Board took on itself the responsibility for selecting cities that would be particularly attractive to members. It also took steps to assure that the dates selected did not conflict with those of related associations like that of the anthropologists. Diane Koenker addressed the question of extending the attractiveness of publishing in the Slavic Review by applying for its inclusion in the Social Science Index and assuring a quick turnaround for submissions, hoping in this way and others to broaden its reach. An effort began to expand the types of prizes the Association awarded, especially to graduate students. Proposals were considered to add a representative from the American Anthropological Association to the Board, to dissolve moribund committees and invigorate existing ones by adding a man or two to the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, and someone who was not a language specialist to the Combined Language Committee. Efforts were made to assure greater continuity in the work of successive convention Program Committees in order, as Bob Johnson expressed it, to end the off-putting annual reinvention of the wheel. All of this reflected a general sense that the Association had to become more attractive both to existing and new members, more inclusive in the range of convention panels and presentations, and a good deal more efficient and transparent in its administration.

Some issues, however, like the Association’s financial condition were much more difficult to address. In August 2003, the Executive Committee met in a special meeting with the Association’s staff in Cambridge. It became clear that like most other research universities Harvard was disinterested in housing AAASS and unwilling to reduce rent or help with other steadily increasing costs. Technology was antiquated and expensive to upgrade, troubling staff members whose tasks required simplification. Morale was low, job uncertainty for some was distressingly high. The Association’s endowment of a little over $1.1 million was now insufficient to fund expenses at the current (and “best practices”) rate of withdrawal.

After extended discussion, the Executive Committee therefore felt compelled to raise Association dues substantially despite the obvious concern that for some this would make membership less attractive. (Athough this decision improved revenue, it was not the most popular one ever made). Marshall Goldman, Jim Millar and Bob Donia were asked to look into how our endowment was invested and managed. The Committee also decided to conduct a formal review of the national office administration as a whole, including the possible savings and efficiencies of new technology. Of necessity, it finally began the taxing process of exploring a move to a new and less costly university home.

The larger and more general question behind these efforts, however, was how to make the Association more inclusive in its membership and convention—how to build on the less tangible but obviously rewarding opportunity the annual convention presented to participants simply by providing an annual venue for serious and less serious conversations alike. I suppose the analytical concept here is “social capital.” The strength and purpose of the Association, in other words, had to be thought of in more than the terms of scholarly expertise that underlay its creation in the 1940s. Perhaps the biggest step in this direction was a controversial move to open up the convention program to single paper proposals, something that required both better technology and a great deal of additional work for the program committee. An understandable issue here was whether this would reduce the rigor with which panel proposals were reviewed, although in practice these were rarely rejected. In its favor were the new opportunities this might allow for participation from scholars in the region, where panel proposals were more difficult to organize and evaluate, as well as problematic in term of travel costs; the advantages this might provide in terms of encouraging interdisciplinarity; and the possibility it would foster participation from younger North American scholars and others who were not well “networked.” Linked here was the notion that if AAASS recovered financially, it might eventually be able to initiate a program of travel grants, something 15 or so years later we now take for granted. Although it took a few years (and a great deal of additional work) for the Association and its annual convention to grow in these ways, these early discussions were prelude to those that led to the end of AAASS and its reincarnation as ASEEES, whose very new name reflected the inclusiveness that proved to be a key part of its recovery

But equally or even more so, of course, has been the new vigor, commitment, and imagination of the nolonger-American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies’s staff as it moved to the University of Pittsburgh under the creative and determined leadership of Lynda Park. None of us was bold enough in the bad old days to think that ASEEES would be holding bi-annual meetings in the region (Astana, Lviv, and next June in Zagreb); be willing and able to nurture a new regional association of scholars in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (MAG); provide stipends for some younger regional scholars to present their work at our annual meeting; award students for outstanding scholarly work and support their dissertation study; and create a lively and welcoming venue each year where increasing numbers of scholars across our related fields so greatly appreciate – and I dare say enjoy – the formal and informal opportunities to talk with each other. Although the Association’s purpose has long since broadened from scholarly understanding of the Soviet sphere, the founding rationale of AAASS, I have no doubt that the creativity of our “cadres” has proven the key to successes seemingly so unlikely not too many years ago, and will continue to be for those still ahead.