Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do during that short time in office. As the title indicates, the president presides at meetings of the membership and of the governing board. Presidents are closely involved with the work of the board, and often speak or write on behalf of the society. But the day-to-day work of managing the association, interacting with members, organizing meetings, managing publications, keeping committees on track, and responding to inquiries, is supervised by. …

… Well, the titles vary. What they have in common is that none of them is president. And none of them carries that inherent prestige.

*   *   *

Nearly a century ago, in 1919, an association of these associations in the humanities and social sciences was formed, calling itself the American Council of Learned Societies. There were 13 original members, including the American Philosophical Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the American Historical Association; today there are 73, including such diverse groups as the African Studies Association, the American Society for Legal History, the American Folklore Society, the Society for Music Theory, the Dictionary Society of North America, and the Society for the History of Technology.

Delegates from all of the societies began meeting every year, and soon the people who oversaw the daily work of the societies saw the advantage of meeting regularly too. The people who attended these meetings, starting in 1925, were “the secretaries, or principal executive officers,” in the words of a contemporary account, and they called their group the Conference of Secretaries.

Secretaries! That was a bit  of a problem, because unlike president, that word had no aura of high respect and authority. True, the members of the U.S. president’s cabinet were secretaries, but then so were stenographers and typists.

So gradually, over the years, the organizations gave their secretaries more elevated titles. Some prefixed secretary with executive; more radically, many replaced secretary entirely and used executive director, which is currently the norm.

But that left the Conference of Secretaries with its somewhat less than awe-inspiring name. So finally in 1988, in part to let the ACLS leadership know that its members shouldn’t be considered second-class citizens, the Conference of Secretaries renamed itself the Conference of Administrative Officers.

And so it has remained since. But this year the name of the group has been questioned again. Since most of its members are executive directors, why shouldn’t it be called Conference of Executive Officers?

Good question. Perhaps it’s because the abbreviation CEO has a different well-known meaning. Or perhaps that’s just the ticket to respectability. In the event, the Conference of Administrative Officers decided to think it over for another six months before making any change.

(Disclosure: Allan Metcalf is executive secretary of the American Dialect Society and a member of the ACLS Conference of — Whatevers.)


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