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The Executive Officer's Column

ASA Sections... Opportunity Becomes Reality

In March 1997 and again in January 1998, I dedicated the "Open Window" column to a discussion of sections and the changes within ASA aimed at enhancing their vitality. The first of these columns considered the then new section guidelines adopted by ASA Council in January 1997. The second, written almost one year later, featured important aspects of the new and emerging policies and how they are intended to enable sections to be more engaged in working with members, with each other, and with ASA.

The 1997 reforms aimed at giving sections more flexibility and autonomy along with greater accountability to members. The goal of the new guidelines was to improve the financial, administrative, and governance operations of sections; to advance the discipline by nurturing subfields; and to promote communication and coordination within ASA. The hope was to stimulate innovation in specialty areas and encourage more intentional exchange across the discipline.

The new policy was adopted by Council based on recommendations from the Committee on Sections (COS) and the Committee on the Executive Office and Budget (EOB). For the first time, sections (1) received annual operating budgets that, if unexpended, could be carried over from year-to-year; (2) would be permitted to propose journals for consideration by the Publications Committee and Council; and (3) would be evaluated based on qualitative as well as quantitative criteria. Along with these changes, the new guidelines introduced an increase in the base number of members from 200 to 300 in order to encourage strong and complementary sections. Other accountability issues were also reaffirmed, including the need to submit an Annual Report, hold an annual Business Meeting, and conduct an annual election. All of these changes were directed to promoting the health and well-being of sections and their interconnections to the discipline as a whole.

Council discussion of sections this past month was a reminder that three years have gone by since section guidelines were adopted. It is thus a good time to step back and take stock. Have these guidelines had an effect? Are there differences in what sections do and aspire to do?

From my window, I see some very positive signs in terms of what sections are doing and how they are relating to the Association as a whole. Some changes are indeed quite exciting for the discipline, and well worth all members knowing.

Publishing Innovations

Highest on the list of exciting change is the possibility and now the reality of sections sponsoring journals. I am pleased to announce that, based on unanimous recommendation from the Committee on Publications, the ASA Council has just approved the Section on Community and Urban Sociology producing a journal entitled City and Community. A first for ASA and for sections, this project constitutes an important commitment of the section and its members (all members will subscribe to the journal) to provide the human resources and intellectual leadership to undertake a journal of excellence. Also, this project constitutes a major commitment of the Association to own the journal and to work with the section to help ensure its success. Anthony Orum was named by the section to serve as the inaugural editor.

Financial Flexibility

While perhaps with less pizzazz, having actual money (instead of goods and services) has also helped to enrich section life. However modest the allocation ($1,000 as the base amount plus two dollars per member), sections have responded positively and often quite creatively to the availability of funds and the ability to bring unused funds forward from year to year. Some sections have printed member directories, and more sections have been able to institute cash allocations for student awards (which has sent an important signal to the next generation about the value of their presence and work).

Working with ASA to Advance the Discipline

Just over the last three years, a number of sections have taken the lead or collaborated on activities with ASA to advance the subfield and the discipline more generally. The nature of this work varies, but all of it is substantive and takes time and effort in planning and execution. For example, late last spring, Bill Avison, then chair of the Sociology of Mental Health Section, and other of his colleagues worked directly with ASA in preparing testimony for the National Institute of Mental Health on the payoff of sociological research to mental health applications. Similarly, the Sociology of Education Section played a catalytic role in helping to launch a collaboration between the Spencer Foundation and the ASA on a research conference on Sociology of Education to be held on March 1-3. And, now the Section on Undergraduate Education along with Helen Moore, editor of Teaching Sociology, and Carla Howery, ASA Director of the Academic and Professional Affairs Program, are planning a Workshop for July on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Enhanced Communication

Sections have also taken on a more active role in communicating within their subfields. The new guidelines encouraged sections to be more engaged, and there is evidence that they have taken this ambition seriously. About half of the sections already have very active listservs that bring timely and important information to their members. The stereotype of the section that plans Annual Meeting sessions and little in between has been replaced by a vision of a section facilitating scholarly communication and exchange in real-time.

All of these positive changes are not meant to imply that ASA and its sections do not have occasional bumps. This past August section leaders strongly criticized the structure of the Committee on Sections for not explicitly including section officers in that group. Hearing these concerns, ASA Council joined with Harry Perlstadt (then Chair of the Sociological Practice Section and one of the vocal critics) to work out a solution. In January, Council passed a resolution recommending a By-law change to the membership to expand the Committee by three section representatives. When your ballot arrives in April and you exercise your vote, know that the opportunities for sections have indeed become a reality!

-Felice J. Levine