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Balancing Act: The AAS and Public Statements

By Hilary V. Finchum-Sung, Executive Director

Since its inception in 1941, the Association for Asian Studies has identified as a non-political entity dedicated to the scholarly pursuit of Asia. Correspondingly, since its inception, Association leaders and members alike have both challenged and questioned this stance. Particularly since the Vietnam War era, many have called on the Association to speak out against atrocities and injustices in the world. Instances wherein the leadership has refrained from taking action while reinforcing the non-political identity of the AAS have led to intense critiques of the Association’s supposed passivity and retreat deep within the ivory tower. Yet, when the Association has chosen to take a public stance on an issue, it has done so painstakingly, out of a concern that supporting a particular perspective might alienate a portion of our diverse membership. 

It has and continues to be essential that the AAS strive to represent the viewpoints of our membership—a membership currently composed of 6,500 people around the world, who possess varied cultural, linguistic, academic and national backgrounds. Article V, section 1 (authority) in the AAS Constitution reads: “Ultimate authority in the Association shall be exercised by the membership.” This means that the Association’s leadership must work—every step of the way—to represent the perspectives of all members in governance, as difficult as that endeavor might be. Without the voices of our membership, the AAS ceases to exist.

The American Historical Association (AHA) recently released a statement on domestic terrorism, bigotry and history, and invited the AAS (and all other members of the American Council of Learned Societies) to co-sign it. We had already begun the process of determining the risks and relevance of doing so when criticisms of the AAS’s perceived silence appeared in Twitter streams. Why, asked several Asian Studies scholars on Twitter, had the AAS not endorsed this important statement? It would appear that the AAS does not move as fast as the immediacy of our social-media-driven world demands.

This marked the third time I had experienced such a situation since stepping into the Executive Director position in April 2019 (the first was in regards to a statement on Xinjiang, the second a statement on Stanford University Press—both of which were released after careful construction and vetting by the Executive Officers and Board of Directors, or BOD).

What happens when the Association for Asian Studies faces a decision such as whether or not to sign a statement, or to create its own, addressing an aspect of the current sociopolitical climate and/or a particular event or injustice? We proceed with extreme caution. The old stand-by response of “the AAS is a non-political organization” can only take us so far since, as South Asia Council Chair Purnima Dhavan recently reminded us in a discussion regarding AAS involvement in world affairs:

“Educational institutions are not isolated from the politics or culture of the societies from which they emerge, they are shaped by them. Neither academics nor academic institutions exist in a bubble divorced from political contexts.”

Situations that affect academic freedom remain our primary concern, but so do issues which affect our access to information and our very right to understand the nuances of our histories and the perspectives that shape them. At the same time, we must first ensure that the views expressed in a statement adequately reflect the concerns of the membership and, by default, the association. Such an endeavor requires much thought and the ability to assess the nuances and implications of a particular statement.

This is why it takes time for the Association to respond officially and/or sign on to a public statement. When an issue arises that AAS members and/or the BOD think we should consider speaking out about, the following steps take place:

  1. The issue is put on the table. This could come from within the AAS Secretariat or BOD, or a member could bring it to the attention of the Association, usually via their regional council representative.
  2. The Executive Director will consult with the Executive Officers (President, Vice President, Past President, and Past Past President), as well as any other relevant BOD members. They will discuss the issue and decide whether or not the AAS should consider taking action.
  3. If the Officers contend this matter is something the Board of Directors should discuss and act on, the Executive Director typically solicits feedback from the entire BOD. This stage, in particular, takes time—often several days. As a global association, our BOD members live and work in many different time zones. Especially during the summer, response times can be slow due to travel and/or periods of field research.
  4. A majority response from the twelve voting members of the Board of Directors is needed to reach a decision regarding appropriate action.
  5. If a majority of the board members votes in favor of speaking out, the AAS releases the statement in question to the public OR officially signs on to a statement crafted by our colleagues in other learned societies.

The above process may seem laborious, but remains the primary way through which we can ensure proper representation of the membership and, thus, the Association.

I encourage members to contact the AAS leadership with concerns and suggestions. As noted above, the most effective way to bring an issue to our attention is typically through your regional council representative. The council can discuss the issue and put forth a proposal for the Executive Officers and Board to consider which line of action may be most appropriate.

Thank you, as always, for your continued support of the Association for Asian Studies. Your voices make us who we are.

Image via Pixabay user jarmoluk.

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