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Image description: A man wearing a yellow collared shirt, tie, and glasses smiles. He is visible from the shoulders up.
Caption: Ed Liebow, AAA Executive Director

The Association stands at a crossroads, and we need to chart a clear direction on which way we are headed. The field’s future, as well as the Association’s, depends on our ability to dismantle structures of inequity that hobble entry and career advancement for researchers and practitioners of color. We have acknowledged for years that our main revenue sources (membership, meetings, publication royalties) all face significant challenges. Our field’s sprawling intellectual terrain is a strength of the discipline, but the future of discipline-based knowledge production needs to be examined, as does the structure of a scholarly and professional society whose mission is to advance the discipline. Higher education institutions—the centers of teaching, learning, research, and training for the next generations of anthropologists—face transformational forces over the next few years. Career pathways for anthropologists into business, government, and nongovernment settings need to be built and strengthened, and the Association can advance the discipline by helping make it less explicitly academic-centric. Our membership numbers have decreased in recent years, which may lead to a crisis of purpose. As older members retire, we are challenged to demonstrate the value of AAA membership to students and early-career anthropologists.

The Association faces some important choices over the next several years concerning (1) our publishing program and how to simultaneously honor its core values of quality, breadth, accessibility, and sustainability; (2) our meetings and conferences and how to use them to greatest advantage in promoting intellectual exchanges, professional development, and community formation among our members; (3) our membership value proposition and how to keep participation in AAA activities and events affordable while coordinating with emerging, less formalized institutional spaces for affiliation; and (4) development of resources to build pathways into the profession for the next generation of anthropologists, support professional development across the span of careers in a diverse range of settings, and increase public awareness of the important contributions anthropologists make to building a just and sustainable world.

The Association has a Long Range Plan, which is incrementally modified each year, but has not been fully revisited in a decade. In our view, the current Long Range Plan needs a sharper focus, and at the same time it must afford us the flexibility needed to adapt to the rapid pace with which the future is rushing up to meet us. To that end, the Executive Board has approved a new strategic planning effort to be completed this spring. We have selected the Philadelphia-based Center for Applied Research (CFAR)—anthropologist Barry Dornfeld is a principal—to support this effort. I feel a sense of urgency about focusing on the next five years and completing this planning update in the first half of the year, so that we can get to work.

We have formed a core planning team that consists of the Executive Board officers, the Members’ Programmatic, Advisory, and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC) cochairs, the American Anthropologist editor-in-chief, and two staff members. We have charged this team and CFAR to undertake a series of consultations with section leaders, MPAAC members, and staff, as well as reviewing member surveys, Association finances, membership trends, and trends in workforce, higher education, and research funding.

Based on these initial consultations, the planning process calls for the Board to hold a leadership retreat in mid-April to take stock of the strategic landscape, its assumptions about the pace of change in this landscape, and to consider a renewed vision for the Association addressing inclusion, equity, and diversity in our membership and advancing the field through a broad range of career pathways. The leadership retreat has been designed to identify strategic focus areas, which are then to be discussed with key stakeholders over the following several weeks. A second leadership retreat is planned as part of the May Executive Board meeting, to process what has been learned from these discussions and forge a consensus about the strategic priority focus areas that will guide our work for the next five years.

Change is the rule, not the exception. The events of the last year make it imperative that we develop the capacity to anticipate change, reimagine how to take best advantage of these changes to continue serving our members, and help to advance the field well past its historical roots to make it a more welcoming organizational home for people who have felt alienated and marginalized in the past.

Cite as: Liebow, Ed. 2021. “Reassessing AAA’s Strategic Priorities.” Anthropology News website, April 14, 2021.