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OAH attendence numbers down, but meeting deemed a success

[David A. Walsh is the associate editor of HNN.]

The Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians closed in Houston this Sunday morning with a whimper, and as the final tally for the convention was estimated at 1,317, OAH officials could not help but express mild disappointment. “It’s a bit of a letdown,” OAH executive director Katherine Finley said, “but not unexpected in this economy. We had projected 1,400 to 1,500 attendees, so we’re only short by one hundred.”

Conferences away from the East and West Coasts tend to have lower attendance, but there was some concern that the city of Houston itself might have dissuaded conference-goers. Finley dismissed this, saying that colleges and universities have still not recovered from the economic collapse. “Colleges and universities are always a few years behind the rest of the economy… Departments have slashed travel budgets, and that’s the real reason why we’re seeing fewer members attend.” When asked about the oddly-titled spread in the OAH program, “Houston—It’s Not What You Think,” Finley chuckled and noted that “that’s the actual tourism slogan of the city of Houston.” City officials have been very supportive of the OAH’s presence, and Houston mayor Annise Parker even addressed the luncheon for “Women in the Historical Profession” on Friday.

A handful of historians criticized the program at the OAH this year, with one man saying that it seemed there were a disproportionate number of graduate students giving papers outside of the plenaries and major sessions in the ballrooms. “It would’ve been nicer to see more big names.” Ms. Finley responded by saying that “the OAH is the grad student’s way to present their research. It’s what these conferences are all about… I gave my first paper as a grad student at the OAH. It’s a great way to connect distinguished scholars with those just starting out, to mentor them.” She also pointed out that the plenary sessions had plenty of distinguished scholars giving talks, and now former OAH president David Hollinger gave a keynote lecture on Saturday evening.

At Saturday’s business meeting, incoming OAH president and Columbia University professor Alice Kessler-Harris outlined the session plan for next year’s OAH conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which will include many sessions and other events that will focus on the labor dispute between public-sector unions and Republican governor Scott Walker that has been the focus of so much national attention. “We’re developing an ambitious set of sessions and events, she said, “designed to bring to bear on Wisconsin what we as historians know about collective bargaining.” The OAH is reportedly planning to invite Governor Walker to participate in a plenary session, and there will be an “online interchange” on the OAH website before the convention in order to create a pre-plenary dialogue between labor groups, businesses, and historians. The OAH has high hopes that the Milwaukee meeting will spark serious public interest, and not coincidently the meeting will be co-sponsored by the National Council on Public History

Despite the tragic loss of OAH treasurer Robert Griffith earlier this year to Hodgkin's lymphoma, the OAH is in better financial health than at any point since the economic collapse in 2008. Fiscal Year 2010 ended with a very slight financial surplus, which interim treasurer Jay Goodgold* attributed to Griffith’s “skill and commitment.” Streamlined OAH expenses and improved cash flow management “has enabled us to leave the non-prize endowment funds untouched” when budgeting for expenses. In fact, the endowment has grown to $1.8 million, just shy of the pre-crisis $2 million high.

Goodgold called for prudence, however, as inflation could easily undermine the gains that the endowment has made in the past year.

Executive Director Finley also touted the administrative improvements made in the past year. “We’re proud to have made tremendous strides in the past year,” she said. “The OAH is stronger internally, and that means we’ll be able to do more effective outreach as a result.” The OAH will continue to lobby Congress in support of Teaching American History (TAH) grants, though Finley and several other historians who work with TAH either administratively or through the receipt of grants are realistic about the future of the program. “This is a tough time for humanities grants from the federal government,” Finley. “They’re not going to cut defense—especially now that we’re in Libya—they’re not going to touch entitlements, and so they’re looking for programs that are not rooting in the here and now.”

Still, Finley remains optimistic about continuing to develop relationships between the OAH and teachers. “We’re exploring partnerships with National History Day and Gilder Lehrman… You tend to find a way in the end, and our board is very interested in keeping teachers involved.”

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