New Director of Anthropology Assn. Comes From Nonprofit Research Company

Courtesy Edward Liebow

Edward Liebow, the American Anthropological Association's new executive director, says he will focus on shoring up the group's publishing operations and will reach out to practitioners outside academe "who have felt some distance from the association."
November 17, 2012

The American Anthropological Association has named as its new executive director Edward B. Liebow, a cultural anthropologist who works on health and social-science issues for the nonprofit research company Battelle in Seattle. He will take office on January 28.

The announcement was made on Thursday during the association's annual meeting, which ends here on Sunday.

Mr. Liebow, who has worked at Battelle since 1986 and manages a staff of 70 and an annual budget of around $10-million, has been active in the association for many years. He is currently treasurer and a member of the executive board.

"I am thrilled," Mr. Liebow said in an interview on Friday. "At this stage of my career, this is a dream come true for me to project the public face of anthropology."

Officials and attendees here responded positively to Mr. Liebow's selection, saying that he is a good choice because he is not a stranger to the association, knows the culture of anthropology and nonprofit management well, and has a strong connection to academic issues.

Monica Heller, the group's president-elect and a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said that Mr. Liebow had been selected from a pool of about 50 applicants. A six-member search committee, led by Ms. Heller, chose two finalists who were then interviewed by the executive board, which made the final decision.

"We had two incredibly strong candidates," Ms. Heller said. "It was a difficult decision. Ed was chosen because he is an anthropologist and because he brings deep experience in the management of a complex organization."

Inherited Challenges

Mr. Liebow will replace William E. Davis, who held the position for 16 years and decided to retire to write a book. Mr. Davis's leadership coincided with some tough times for the association, as controversies raged over anthropologists' alleged mistreatment of indigenous people in the Amazon, and over the U.S. military's use of embedded researchers in Middle Eastern war zones.

But he drew widespread praise when he announced his decision to step down. He too came to the association from a nonacademic job, as executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

"Thanks to Bill's wise leadership," Mr. Liebow said, "the association is in excellent shape to face the future."

Mr. Davis left the 11,000-member association in strong financial health, with membership on the rise due largely to programs directed at undergraduates. The group has also recently updated its code of ethics and extended a major publishing partnership with Wiley-Blackwell.

Still, Mr. Liebow will be inheriting some challenges, especially because, like other scholarly groups, the association relies on publications for an important share of its revenue.

Ms. Heller said the association faces shifts in scholarly publishing and wants to have a higher public profile. She also said the association wants to pay more attention to the field's trend toward nonacademic jobs and to the precarious working conditions of adjunct professors.

Mr. Liebow said his top priorities include engaging more with the public through a variety of educational programs, collaborating more with international organizations, and strengthening the group's internal research capabilities to better track trends among members, such as job outcomes for Ph.D.'s and adjuncts' working conditions.

Problems in Publishing

With the increasing interest in open access to research and the financial challenges facing libraries, he said, the association feels that the business model for its publishing program—21 journals and a monthly newsletter—is not sustainable over the long term.

"We are embarking on an extended conversation with our members, the sections responsible for producing most of the scholarly content, our publishing partner, and others outside the association to find an acceptable model that will preserve the diversity of voices [and] allow our content to be accessible and financially sustainable," he said.

Mr. Liebow said he would explore a number of alternatives, including reducing print publication, shifting to open-access distribution, cutting operating costs, and starting a variety of online resources.

More important, he said, he wants to make the association a home for a diverse range of anthropologists.

"It is no secret that there is a large cohort of practicing and applied anthropologists outside the academy who have felt some distance from the association in the past," he said, "just as there are archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguists who have also felt this same sort of distance."