AAS Elections, Then and Now

A typewritten draft of the 1952 election ballot for the Far Eastern Association.
Image 1: A draft of the 1952 election ballot for the Far Eastern Association. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

There are forty-five candidates running in this year’s AAS election—a far cry from the eight names that appeared on the 1952 ballot (Image 1) of the Far Eastern Association (FEA, which became the AAS in 1956). This increase in the number of nominees is not solely due to the fact that the organization has grown significantly since its founding in 1948, although that is certainly part of the reason. More importantly, the way we as an association think about and handle elections has changed in dramatic, and democratic, fashion over the decades.

For the first twenty years of the association’s life, our elections involved little in the way of contestation. A Nominating Committee of five members (all men, with very few exceptions) spent the late summer and fall of each year drawing up lists of potential candidates and debating which ones they should ask to stand for election. November and December involved a flurry of letters and telegrams (many of them preserved in the AAS archives at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library) between the Nominating Committee, candidates, and the AAS Secretariat as they raced to finalize a ballot and distribute it to members of the association. “GLADLY ACCEPT NOMINATION HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU BOTH FROM US AND CHRISTINE AND INGRID,” wired one candidate on December 29, 1951, his acceptance message delivered on Western Union’s New Year’s stationary (Image 2). An election ballot went out to all current members for voting by mail, and results were announced at the Annual Meeting in the spring.

A telegram, sent December 29, 1951, accepting nomination to the FEA ballot and wishing the recipient a happy new year, printed on Western Union's New Year's stationary.
Image 2: A telegram, sent December 29, 1951, accepting nomination to the FEA ballot and wishing the recipient a happy new year. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Only five to seven offices in the leadership changed hands each year: President, Vice President (for a period of time in the 1960s there were two VPs), and three or four spots on the 12-person Board of Directors (BOD). The President and Vice President(s) ran unopposed, essentially giving the Nominating Committee the power to choose who would lead the organization. While this approach stemmed in part from pragmatism, there also seems to have been a sense that asking scholars to go against each other for the top positions was un-sporting. Knight Biggerstaff, one of the FEA founders, explained to the Nominating Committee in a 1952 letter that “It is hard enough to persuade one person to accept nomination for the vice-presidency—which means the presidency the following year—without asking him to compete with someone else for the office.”

Not everyone accepted this explanation without question. In a 1953 letter to Nominating Committee Chair Hugh Borton, FEA Secretary Robert E. Ward made mention of “a few criticisms recently received of our ‘Soviet type’ system of presenting but a single candidate for the presidency and vice-presidency.” In 1955, the committee toyed with holding a true contested election for the vice presidency, putting forth two candidates, but this experiment was short-lived. Well into the 1960s, the Nominating Committee retained its control of the top spots in AAS leadership.

The competition for spots on the Board of Directors, on the other hand, posed its own set of problems. A clause in the AAS Bylaws at the time expressed that the ideal was to have a Board reflecting the diversity of regional and disciplinary specialties held by the membership at large. Yet the seven or eight candidates for the BOD all ran against each other in an open competition; the four who garnered the most votes took the available BOD seats.

Then, as now, association membership was unevenly divided by area and field, so a historian of China was likely to receive more votes than a philosopher of India simply by virtue of having more connections and greater name recognition among those who cast ballots in the election. The relative scarcity of established Asian Studies programs in universities at the time also meant that representatives of only a few schools (Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, etc.) played a dominant role in early AAS leadership. Numerous Nominating Committees struggled with the question of how to create a balanced slate of candidates that would yield a balanced group of Board members, but year after year, they saw the scales tip out of alignment when election results came in.

By the middle of the 1960s, changes in the AAS membership, the Asian Studies field, and society at large were bringing these aspects of the AAS election process up for debate. In 1964, John Harrison at the University of Florida led a petition to place Ardath Burks of Rutgers as a second nominee on the ballot for the spot of Second Vice President, where he would run against John Whitney (Jack) Hall of Yale, whom the Nominating Committee had selected as its candidate. Harrison explained the reasons behind his support for Burks’s nomination:

AAS is a good and fruitful organization—one of the best of the learned societies. But in the last few years, it has been run through a peculiar feedback system. The officers name the Nominating Committee and the Nominating Committee names the officers. This has tended to concentrate on a few schools. This is beginning to seem obvious. Not only to me but to the thirty men who sent me their signatures and also sent twenty more names for me to address should I wish to. The tone of the response was not just one for Ardath. It was one against the growth of any establishment.

(Source: April 16, 1964 letter from John Harrison to Pete Gosling, Jim Morley, and Hy Kublin; Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

Ardath Burks, however, thwarted this attempt to make a statement, refusing to accept the nomination and go up against Hall in an election. “Jack Hall is an old and dear friend,” Burks wrote to AAS Secretary L.A. Peter Gosling on September 29, 1964, and “I am convinced he would make a superb president.” Burks sympathized with the sentiments of Harrison and others who sought to disrupt “a so-called establishment,” but was not willing to compete with a close friend and colleague like Hall as a means of pushing the issue forward for discussion. Change was on the horizon, but it would have to wait until later in the decade.

The continued growth of Asian Studies, while good for the field, also made elections more challenging. In 1966, a number of Korean Studies specialists petitioned for their sub-field to have guaranteed representation on the AAS Board of Directors; clearly, Koreanists did not feel that their candidates fared well in an open election system. (The petition appears to have withered on the vine.) The following year, the AAS Executive Committee decided that the ballot needed to include a short biographical sketch for each candidate, indicating that the Asian Studies community had grown large enough that voters could no longer count on recognizing candidates by name alone.

In March 1968, Nominating Committee Chair G. William Skinner turned his data-analysis skills from marketing and social structure in China to the AAS Board of Directors. In a detailed memo to Jack Hall entitled “Electoral reform,” Skinner outlined the problems of representation inherent to the BOD election process and the resulting imbalances in BOD composition. Through a quantitative evaluation of election results over the preceding years (Image 3), he confirmed that “the present system unduly favors nominees working in areas with a larger number of specialists,” and also determined that “nominees who have done work in more than one of the Association’s four customary areas have a head start in any election.”

A table of AAS election results broken down by region and specialty, from a 1968 report by G. William Skinner
Figure 3: A table of AAS election results from 1960 through 1968, broken down by area and disciplinary specialization of nominees, from G. William Skinner’s “Electoral reform” memo to John Whitney Hall. Source: Association for Asian Studies archives, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Skinner recommended that AAS move away from having all candidates compete against each other for Board seats, suggesting instead “that the membership be presented with four slates of two or three nominees each … Each slate would, of course, be restricted in the disciplinary and areal range of the nominees.” He envisioned elections in which one BOD slate would pit historians of China against each other, while a separate one would feature social scientists working in South or Southeast Asia. Skinner’s system would give each AAS member three votes to distribute as they wished among the four sub-competitions. It would be the Nominating Committee’s job to consider the current composition of the BOD each year and decide which regions/disciplines required representation in the upcoming election.

When change did come, it took a more formal shape than what Skinner had designed. In 1969, the BOD released a revamped version of the AAS Constitution and Bylaws that completely restructured the leadership of the organization. Most significantly, they created four Regional Councils (China & Inner Asia, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia) to represent and promote the interests of the members who specialized in each area. Ratified on January 30, 1970, the new documents relieved the Nominating Committee of the struggle to ensure that all regional specializations would receive room on the election slate. The Chair of each Regional Council (which we now call Area Councils) would take a seat on the AAS Board of Directors—resolving, to a certain extent, the lopsided elections of the past. (Disciplinary diversity remains a problem: it’s still possible to wind up with fewer anthropologists than historians on the BOD, for example.) The establishment of those four nine-member Regional Councils also added thirty-six people to AAS governance, enlarging the number of people involved in setting the direction of the organization and creating a more diffuse power structure.

The AAS also, finally, moved to true elections for the office of Vice President, with multiple candidates appearing on the ballot. Our campaigns, at least in my time with the AAS, have been gentle ones, featuring none of the conflict stemming from competition that earlier leaders of the organization seemed to fear.

There is still, and likely always will be, room for improvement. The AAS includes a remarkable number of constituencies, and achieving balance in some areas often means creating an imbalance in others. But as the electoral reforms of the late 1960s demonstrate, our rules and processes are not set in stone; changes that seem inconceivable to one generation of members can feel natural, even inevitable, to the next.

What remains key to the election process is the active participation of the AAS membership in it—through speaking up, proposing new ideas, and participating in elections. When a ballot for the 2022 AAS elections arrives in your inbox next month, I urge you to take a few minutes and cast your vote.