Inside the APA: Eastern Secretary-Treasurer Retrospective

by Richard Bett

If anyone had told me twenty years ago that I would now be a long-time member of the APA Board of Officers, having also run the Eastern Division for ten years, I would have thought this insane. Well, life takes strange turns. It started in late 1999, when Jerry Schneewind, then Chair of the Board, asked me to step in as Acting Executive Director. I did so for eighteen months, and it broadened my perspective on philosophy in North America in ways that I could never have imagined. In those days, the executive directorship was a half-time position, with a half-time teaching position at the University of Delaware, where the APA National Office (NO) is located. I instead took 50% leave from my position at Johns Hopkins, and commuted to Delaware twice a week. (Of course, the work was not confined to those two days.)

In part through my recommendation, the job of Executive Director became full time starting with my immediate successor. I didn’t want the job myself; but I also didn’t want to give up involvement with APA affairs. So when the position of Secretary-Treasurer (S-T) of the Eastern Division (ED)—held by a regular philosophy professor)—opened at almost the same time, it was not hard to recruit me. I took over in 2003. I served as S-T of the ED (to use insider acronyms, although it’s a little confusing, because ED can also stand for Executive Director) until December 31, 2013. That broad perspective on the field continued, but there were other benefits too. I had never considered myself financially savvy, but negotiating meeting contracts with hotels meant I had to learn quickly. I also got to know something of high-end hotel management. Aristotle has the concept of a business friend: not a full-scale friend, but someone you work with for your own interest, knowing they are also working for theirs, yet in such a way that personal connection is still possible. After dealing with certain hotel salespeople, sometimes over a number of years, I understand much better what he meant. Of course, it was also a lot of work, and a lot of juggling with my day job; ten years was quite enough. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Since stepping down as S-T, I have served as Vice Chair of the National Board of Officers. Officially, the Vice Chair’s role is to substitute for the Chair as needed. In practice, the Vice Chair also serves as a sounding board for ideas the Chair and/or Executive Director may be considering. And the Vice Chair now serves as Chair of the new Divisional Coordination Committee, whose role is to look for ways in which, without compromising divisional autonomy, the three divisions can work together more efficiently.

The latter role is delicate. Each division is protective of its own traditions, and with few exceptions, the APA Bylaws give them free rein. At the same time, the APA is, legally and financially speaking, one entity, which means both that all three divisions need to flourish for the APA to flourish, and that the chances of maintaining such equilibrium are much improved if the divisions (and the National Office) work together on certain things. The most obvious improvement so far has been a much clearer and more uniform set of paper submission guidelines. There are also plans for a much more unified system of budgeting and financial tracking, and for a single, central list of affiliated groups entitled to hold sessions at meetings (as opposed to each division keeping its own list and approving new groups individually, as has been the case until now). These are just examples; I’m hoping that by the end of the 2016 cycle of meetings, coordination among the divisions and the NO (to use another insider acronym) will have been stepped up significantly.

The relations among the divisions are different from just a few years ago. The Eastern Division meeting is now a lot smaller than when almost all job interviews happened there (and there were a lot more jobs to interview for). The Pacific Division has actually surpassed the Eastern in registration numbers. In my opinion, this is by no means all bad (although downsizing has not been easy, logistically or financially). I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking the atmosphere at the recent Eastern Division Meeting—the first to take place on the new January dates—was much more congenial than when it was dominated by nervous interviewees and almost equally harried interviewers.

But the Eastern Division Meeting still has considerable investments from when the meetings were much bigger, and since 2006 these have been used to supply $25,000 per year to the Board to award in small grants for projects to benefit the profession. Many of these are in the service of diversity, and more recently the Board has also started awarding larger grants specifically targeted at diversity projects. (The most recent grants of both types are detailed in another post.) The concern for diversity is not new; one of the major things I helped on as Acting Executive Director in 2000–1 was the change in the Bylaws to create a new Committee on Inclusiveness—a standing committee, meaning the Chair is an ex officio Board member. But I do think diversity concerns are now more front and center. And it’s great to have a majority of women on the Board (this year and last).

More generally, the APA Board has become much more nimble. Besides the traditional in-person meeting in the fall, there are now three two-hour virtual meetings per year, which enable a lot of routine business to be handled in a timely manner. As Cheshire Calhoun emphasized in her “Changing the APA” post last month, the APA does much more than host divisional meetings, and the Board is the overseer of, and often a major contributor to, those additional activities. Board meetings have been collegial for some time (this was not always so), but now, without precluding genuine differences of opinion, the Board seems to have a common purpose and an eagerness for real results that exceed anything I have seen before. I have the greatest respect for my fellow Board members; the APA is in good hands.

Finally, I’d like to add that I have the greatest respect for the National Office staff, whose work is the infrastructure for a great deal of both the Board’s and the divisions’ activities. APA members interact with the staff at meeting registration, and occasionally in emails. But very few members actually get to know the NO staff, and even fewer have actually visited the little house in Newark, Delaware where they work most of the time. Seeing in detail what they do has been another valuable learning experience I’ve had as Acting Executive Director, as Eastern Division Secretary-Treasurer, and now, a little less directly, as Vice Chair.

Richard Bett is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins University. From January 2000 to June 2001, he was Acting Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association. He served as Secretary-Treasurer of the APA’s Eastern Division from 2003-2013, and is currently Vice Chair of its Board of Officers.

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