Moves towards greater transparency?

March 30, 2011 § 5 Comments

In response to recent posts, The Disgruntled Sociologist received the email below from another lapsed member who has been receiving emails from the ASA asking him/her to re-up.  In response to the standard mass email, TDS’s correspondent wrote to the ASA to learn more about issues of transparency. Below is the response from the ED:
It appears you may have been influenced by some highly inaccurate recent blog postings on the web. The elected leadership of the association is preparing accurate information so that members will not be mislead by some bloggers who have misread the ASA tax forms (e.g., saying ASA has significantly increased its staff, has lost huge amounts of money. has huge non-mortgage due, or has a personnel budget way above that of comparable organizations. NONE of these are true.).
For the moment, let me make a couple of comments and also refer you to a piece in the current issue of Footnotes by the ASA Secretary Catherine Berheide regarding the financial situation of the ASA.
My additional comments are as follows: ASA has no debt other than the annual payment on the tax-free, low interest bonds from the DC Government that financed the purchase of the ASA headquarters space. (Other associations such as APSA and AHA own their space outright having finished paying their financing for their DC purchases years ago; other comparable associations are currently seeking to purchase space in DC but will not do as well as ASA which received an award for the “best financing deal in 2007.)
ASA does not speculate in the stock market; we have ASA’s invested assets in a low-risk portfolio of short-term bonds and stock mutual funds. ASA removed restricted funds from its investments in 2007 to put a down payment on the real estate purchase; this was restricted money from the sale of ASA’s previous headquarters.
ASA’s audits and ASA Council’s approval and twice-annual discussion of the budget is on the ASA website ).
The ASA Committee on the Executive Office and Budget, chaired by the elected Secretary, routinely reviews all of ASA’s financial and management activities and sets the compensation of the Executive Officer.
* ASA has not increased its staff significantly over more than a decade.
* ASA’s personnel budget is not out of line with other comparable organizations (the tax forms for ASA include salaries of paid staff in our 14 editorial offices; our permanent Executive Office staff compensation is combined with these on the tax forms prepared by the auditors so it looks larger than other organizations).
* ASA has not lost any money; the dip in our invested assets during the financial crisis has come back and they now exceed pre-crisis levels.  And we have added the value of the office space we purchased (which has appreciated since the purchase) to the ASA’s assets.
* ASA’s dues are not out of range with comparable associations.  The maximum regular membership fee to join the ASA is $234 (member with gross income at or above $70K and ASR subscription at cost);
For membership in comparable associations (American Anthropological Association or American Political Science Association): The maximum APSA dues for someone at a roughly comparable income level including journals is $194, but if your income $100,000 or more your dues are from $227 – $305 depending on income.   For the AAA the comparable dues are $214, and $250 – $306 for incomes above $100,000.
The maximum ASA student cost is $50 with a journal. APSA student membership is $43.The lowest AAA dues rate for students is $70, and dues go up with income above $20,000; if you make from $20K-$25K as a student, you pay $135 in AAA dues.  (Note: NIH pre-doctoral award stipends exceed $25,000/year.)
* Annual Meeting 2011 Registration Fees: ASA= $190; APSA=$185; AAA=$214.
I hope this information, especially the article from the ASA Secretary cited above, allays your concerns. I appreciate you contacting me and giving me the opportunity to respond.

The Disgruntled Sociologist is happy to hear that accurate information is being prepared, and finds the response from Catherine Berheide in Footnotes to be a step in the right direction. TDS is less convinced, however, that the information presented in earlier posts was “highly inaccurate.”  That remains to be seen. If Hillsman and the ASA indeed truly believe that the ASA’s expenses are in line with other comparable organizations, then they should show us that by making explicit comparisons.  The Disgruntled Sociologist used publicly available information to try to make those comparisons and drew his/her own conclusions; the important thing was making the comparison explicit.

And of course, it seems highly unlikely that this sudden release of “accurate information” would have happened without the outcry generated by the original postings. Again, it is worth emphasizing that other professional associations have made this kind of information routinely available for years.

TDS does not find the rest of the email terribly persuasive.  Some of this is due to odd semantic distinctions — e.g., between speculating in the stock market and holding stocks, and the emphasis on the claim the ASA has “no debt” is immediately contradicted by the acknowledgement that the ASA has to make payments on its bonds; that is like saying the ASA has no debt except for its debt.

But the greater problem is that all of the justifications are through comparisons to other “comparable organizations.”  So we should be proud because the ASA got a good deal on its K-Street condo, while other associations have a hard time finding something. But that presumes the wisdom of having a K-Street condo. Similarly for comparisons of dues, staff sizes, etc. The problem with this kind of benchmarking rationale, as illustrated in the case of executive compensation by DiPrete, Eirich, and Pittinsky in AJS, is that the process quickly loses its anchoring in the reality of the value created by the organizations.

Comparisons with other organizations can by their nature only lead to relative judgments.  Two wrongs do not make a right, and there is no ex ante reason to believe that the APSA (e.g.) is the gold standard for comparison. Sociologists should seriously consider whether they need a professional organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., for example.  More transparency is needed so members can decide for themselves whether their dues are being used appropriately and whether the ASA is maximizing the value of its members’ contributions.


§ 5 Responses to Moves towards greater transparency?

  • ezrazuckerman says:

    Thanks for publicizing this, Jimmy. And full agreement on the interpretation. I’d further add that while the statement by Berheide is somewhat reassuring, it makes it particularly hard to understand why the rationale for the proposed dues increase– in the same issue of Footnotes– makes no reference to the aggregate expenses and revenues.

  • Corey Colyer says:

    It appears you may have been influenced by some highly inaccurate recent blog postings on the web. The elected leadership of the association is preparing accurate information so that members will not be mislead by some bloggers who have misread the ASA tax forms [snip – cc]. NONE of these are true.).

    So it would appear that membership dues are supporting a Ministry of Truth? Sigh…

    Dear ASA executive personnel (who I am sure are now monitoring this blog), as an annual dues paying member, who pays dues out of his personal finances rather than a departmental budget, even in years when he does not plan to attend the annual meeting, I have to tell you I’m rather disappointed. I teach my students that it is always better to show someone why a particular argument works rather than simply telling them.

    I became interested in Jimmy’s blog after reading the original Footnotes article “explaining” the proposed dues structure. As has been established by people more thoughtful than me, that article did not show what the new dues structure would accomplish. Rather it told us this structure would be more progressive and therefore would make the world a better place.

    The response printed above by Jimmy further undermines my faith in the ASA’s leadership. I have yet to find a clear, unambiguous, statement that shows me, the dues paying member, what my dues are providing. The points raised in the various “misleading blog posts sprinkled across the web at least make an effort to show readers why we should be concerned.

    I am pleased to see that this agitation has at least generated some activity from our association’s K-street headquarters. I’ve seen more activity in the ASAnews twitter feed in the last few days than I’ve seen in the last few months. But, y’all have a ways to go. For instance, yesterday’s tweet: “ASA Public Affairs Dept works to ensure members are prepared to communicate with the press and legislators..” with a link to a page heavy no telling, light on showing doesn’t really help the cause.

    I’ll close with an observation. In my Department at second (or third… or fourth?) tier R1 institution nearly half of Sociology faculty are no longer active dues paying members of the ASA. When asked why they don’t join, they tell me that there is no reason to be members; if they are not planning on getting to the annual meeting, they see no benefit to our professional association. I interpret them to say “the ASA is not relevant to their careers.” If you wish to persuade them otherwise (as I would), I strongly encourage you to show your relevance.

    Signed… an insignificant dues paying ASA member.

  • […] response to the last post relating the ASA Executive Director’s response to member inquiries, TDS received the […]

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