Over a very turbulent weekend, I resigned my role as Poetry Editor at Anthropology and Humanism, the journal of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. I believe in SHA's mission of creative scholarship, and I share my resignation letter as a public push for reforms.
June 5th, 2021
Dear SHA Board Members and ANHU Editorial Board Members,
Last August 2020, I resigned in protest from my seat on the Society for Humanistic Anthropology Executive Board but chose to retain my role as the Poetry Editor at our journal, Anthropology and Humanism. At that time, I believed that I could continue to support the ethnographic poetry community while keeping myself out of reach of SHA’s toxic management. I now know that the journal editors are not safe from the harmful behavior of the Executive Board. Today, I find myself faced with almost identical toxic circumstances, but now targeted against our Editor-in-Chief Neni Panourgia, forcing her to resign. Building on my prior resignation from the Executive Board, I now tender my resignation as Poetry Editor, effective immediately, as a further protest against the ongoing harmful actions of the Executive Board.
We on the ANHU Editorial Board have been left entirely in the dark about this process—itself a disturbing reminder of the lack of transparency at SHA. I believe that I may hold key insights into this context, as I experienced similar behavior last year in the lead-up to my resignation. At that time, SHA’s executive officers had formed an “executive council” that was making decisions without the input or knowledge of the rest of the Board or relevant stakeholders. The “executive council” fired and replaced every member of the poetry prize committee, including myself, without consultation. I learned of their decision when my replacement reached out to me to plan their transition. Like Neni, I felt blindsided and forced out.
Throughout my tenure as Poetry Editor, I have worked to make the journal a refuge for ethnographic poets—sadly, this has sometimes meant protecting my colleagues from the actions of SHA’s executive officers. Following my resignation, I never received an acknowledgment, apology, or any other communication from SHA. After my resignation, a number of scholars reached out to me to share their own stories of bullying at SHA. As far as I know (and evidenced by their behavior towards Neni), there have been no reforms. I have included a copy of my 2020 resignation letter below my signature. My letter includes suggestions for how SHA might improve itself, including the dissolution of the “executive council.”
I will no longer give my unpaid service work to an organization that fails to respond to criticisms and continues to mistreat its members. This is likely part of the reason for the drastic fall in membership, now threatening SHA’s status as a section. The members and the many people who provide services to the organization deserve better.
I want to make clear that I am protesting the actions of the SHA Executive Board, not of the journal editors. My work with our two Editors-in-Chief has been professional and rewarding. I have enjoyed collaborating with Katrina Daly Thompson and Neni Panourgia to bring quality poetry to our readership and I look forward to working with both of them on future projects beyond the journal.
In response to this crisis, the President reminded us to “[keep] our eye on maintaining the legacy of humanistic anthropology.” What SHA’s members need is a supportive organization, not the preservation of a vague legacy. If SHA’s executive officers cannot see this, I am worried for the future of our Society and more importantly, our field of scholarship.
Dr. Leah Zani
August 24th, 2020
Dear SHA Board Members,
I have long been concerned about the behavior of some of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s executive officers. When looking over my tenure, a pattern is clear of a small number of board members meeting privately to conduct the business of the organization without the involvement of the rest of the Executive Board or other relevant stakeholders. Sometimes, they make decisions on their own (such as the recent case of the Board dissolving the entire poetry prize committee); sometimes, they appear to be “pre-voting” on proposals by each other, which biases the board discussions improperly. I believe this behavior is harming our organization and membership.
I have made my concerns known on several occasions, both privately to the executive officers and the Board as a whole. Unfortunately, the executive officers have chosen to ignore my concerns and have now threatened to remove me from my elected role on the Board. I want to work with people who uphold values of respect, transparency, and equity. I no longer believe that SHA upholds these values, and I have decided to resign my seat on the Executive Board of SHA effective immediately.
Nonetheless, as an anthropologist who practices humanistic methods, I am committed to the success of the organization and its mission. As such, I am including my recommendations for reforming SHA based on the values of respect, transparency, and equity.
1. The Board should dissolve the “executive council.” There is no reference to an “executive council” in our by-laws (http://sha.americananthro.org/welcome/sha-by-laws/ ). Yet, SHA’s website lists the “executive council” as a governing body above the Board composed of the President, the President-Elect, the Treasurer, and the Secretary (http://sha.americananthro.org/welcome/officers-and-board-members/). By engaging in private deliberations and decisions that exclude the rest of the Board, they disrespect and dismiss the Board and our membership. For instance, while all of them are highly qualified in other areas, none of them had the poetry background to select judges for a poetry prize.
2. The Board should request a report of decisions made by this “executive council,” especially financial decisions. Board members have a responsibility towards the organization and its members to oversee the decisions of the organization. It is simply not possible for this to happen if a subset of the Board makes decisions privately. While the members of the “executive council” have a good-faith belief that they are authorized to conduct organization business, there is no basis for their actions in our by-laws.
3. The Board should submit a proposal to our membership to institute term limits for all Board positions. Terms limits are standard practice on non-profit boards for very good reasons (6 years is most common in non-profits). Term limits force the organization to engage with its membership to recruit and train new officers and reduce the organization’s dependence on any specific individual. Furthermore, executive officers who hold their roles for excessive amounts of time accumulate information and power that is not conducive to the fair management of the organization (c.f. the literature on financial mismanagement in organizations with long-tenured financial officers).
4. The Board should create a safe exit process whereby current executive officers train their replacements. Our by-laws already include a model for what this might look like with respect to the President: The President-Elect, President, and Past President all sit on the Board to support a smooth transition. The Board could implement a similar process for other key positions such as Treasurer.
5. Finally, the Board should provide reasonable compensation for service. The Board needs to acknowledge the social inequalities of academic labor. Tenure-track positions that used to reward people for service to organizations such as SHA are no longer available to most scholars and have never been available to people from marginalized communities. If the Board is interested in representing the diversity of the field, it cannot assume that its members operate on a pure volunteer basis (I draw your attention to the demographic composition of the Board today). I have long fought for service to the organization to be compensated as a way of encouraging more diversity on the Board.
On the specific issue of the poetry prize, I first want to correct the record: The members of the poetry prize committee did not resign. We collectively decided to transform the poetry prize into a project highlighting current social justice issues: either a smaller, themed prize contest inviting poets to respond to current events; or a special journal feature raising the voices of marginalized poets. The “executive council’s” treatment of the poetry prize and jurors underscores a fundamental truth: that individual projects for social justice can only be effective if accompanied by institutional change.
After these events, I do not wish to take part in the prize committee as a juror, but I will continue to work with the prize committee in my role as poetry editor for our journal. However, the other former prize jurors deserve better than to be removed without notice. The Board should reinstate them as jurors and listen to their proposals.
Despite the actions of a few of its officers, I continue to believe in SHA and its mission to support creative research. I believe that if SHA can reform itself, it will grow its membership and secure the future of the organization and its mission.
Dr. Leah Zani