A little-publicized vote at this week’s National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans could have serious implications for the nature of the office of ACS President. Amendments to the ACS’s Constitution and Bylaws are formally called “petitions,” and on Wednesday, the Council will vote on a petition to alter the method by which candidates for the ACS presidency are selected.
The recent blurb on the subject in C&EN does not touch upon the underlying implications of the petition and the major behind-the-scenes contention regarding the vote, so let’s examine the subject more closely…
Under the current system, the Committee on Nominations and Elections (N&E) recruits four nominees for ACS President-Elect and presents them to the Council. Each Councilor then votes for two of the nominees, and the top two finishers advance as the candidates for that year’s national election (in which all ACS members can participate, but only 15% bother). In addition to the top two nominees, other candidates may be selected by petition of the wider ACS membership (0.5% of all ACS members must sign the petition).
The amendment to be considered in New Orleans eliminates the power of the Council to narrow the field of nominees. Instead of selecting four nominees to face the Council, in the new system, N&E will select two candidates to automatically advance to the national election. The power of the Council to strike candidates is removed, though the Council may vote to place additional candidates on the ballot by petition of the Councilors (50 votes required). The ability of the wider ACS membership to add candidates by petition will be retained.
Why would N&E want to bypass the Council? Because some heavy-hitters in chemistry were getting dissed. The most recent high-profile loss by an N&E recruit was Barry Trost in 2013 (to Tom Barton and Luis Echegoyen). In 2010, N&E could only recruit three candidates. Many successful/famous/proud chemists turn down N&E’s calls to become nominees because they don’t fancy getting embarrassed by the Council, even though they’d be prohibitive favorites in the national election.
Dennis Chamot, a former member of the ACS Board of Directors, summarized his support of the petition in an e-mail obtained by ChemBark that is circulating behind-the-scenes among Councilors:
Briefly, here are the major problems, and what the petition calls for to solve them. First, N&E must spend several months identifying four people who would accept nomination. They receive many turn-downs. Then the four go before Council and two are eliminated – in the past Council rejected a Nobel prize winner, and another person who later went on to be awarded the Priestly medal, the Society’s highest honor. Time and again I have seen very impressive people, especially from industry, who are routinely rejected by Council. In every one of these cases, the people I refer to were rejected primarily because councilors did not know them; they had not been active in ACS governance. But president is a special position. Activity in governance, getting tickets punched, is not a requirement for eligibility.
Another problem, and one that is getting more serious, is the extreme length of time of ACS elections. This is driven by the requirement to announce nominees before the spring Council meeting and to run the election after the fall meeting. Busy people with jobs have more to do than be in a constant state of running for office.
ChemBark hears that the idea for this petition may have originated with Chamot, a long-time power-player in Society governance, but he did not respond to ChemBark‘s request for comment (sent last week). His circulating e-mail went on to state, “this is not a power grab by N&E”, which is exactly where the criticism of the petition is focused. By allowing the approval of nominees to bypass the full Council, many councilors fear that candidates who lack important qualifications such as familiarity with ACS governance will advance to the national election. Recall, the President is attached to significant political power, as she gets to vote with the Board of Directors, the body that has ultimate control of the Society.
Attila Pavlath, a past President of the Society, has also penned e-mails to councilors in advance of the vote. Pavlath tells ChemBark that he is “conducting an information campaign among the councilors to show why the petition is faulty.” The following excerpts come from a document Pavlath authored titled “The fallacies of the petition to diminish the Council’s power”:
The ACS President should not be a figurehead. It is not an honorary position given as recognition for scientific accomplishments or industrial leadership. The Presidents should be able and willing to give considerable time to the activities of the Society not just in Washington and Board meetings but to meet the members nationwide in Local Sections.
A President with scientific or industrial excellence might create more publicity in newspapers but in legislative circles their influence is not much more than a President with lesser such credentials. Realistically, the Presidents of the autoworkers or teamsters union have much more effect. The greatest influence of an ACS President can be on Local Sections, Divisions and individual members to inspire them to create and support activities benefiting the members, the profession and thus fortifying the Society.
Councilors are elected by the members to represent them. The Council created N&E for the purpose of searching for nominees to various positions on the ACS Board. The job of N&E is to provide adequate and meaningful information about the nominees so that the Council can evaluate their fitness for the position and make its choice. While nothing is perfect, certainly 400+ councilors’ decision is statistically more valuable than that of 15 persons on N&E.
The nominees and candidates should be willing to face the electorate at various ways and places showing their capabilities for the position and reveal their plans if elected. If someone is not willing or unable to find time for this, how will that person have time to carry out the arduous duty of the President.
So, the vote on this petition transcends the esoteric selection rules it is designed to change. Perhaps the real question that should be asked is, “what do we want in an ACS President?” Supporters of the petition would seem to favor star-power by recruiting candidates for President who are superior chemists known for high achievement in academia/industry/policy/law, even if it comes at the expense of those who are familiar with ACS governance. Opponents of the petition would argue that it is very important for the candidates to be known to the Council and involved in Society governance, as the office is not a figurehead position—the winner will serve on the Board for three years. Ultimately, one wonders if this question is one to be posed to the full membership of the Society rather than just the Council. Also, one can easily think of possible alternatives/compromises, such as removing the Presidential succession (Elect/Current/Past) from the Board, or having the full Council give each nominee an individual up-or-down vote to advance to candidacy.
Two-thirds of the Councilors present in New Orleans on Wednesday must vote in favor of the petition for it to pass, and there is already significant opposition rallying behind the scenes. It would seem that the smart money would bet against the success of this petition.
Edited 10 April 2013 to add a response received by Dennis Chamot by e-mail this morning:
You have somewhat distorted the intent of the petition. When I noted that this was not a power grab by N&E, I meant just that. I have never been a member of N&E, and I believe that several members of N&E in fact do not support the petition. I am also not in favor of the ACS presidency being simply an honorific position, nor am I overawed by “stars” – I run into quite a few in my day job. Rather, I want to EXPAND the possibilities for bringing good people into ACS leadership. Time and again over the years I have seen intelligent, thoughtful, articulate people – not generally known stars by any means – routinely knocked off the ballot simply because they were not involved in governance and not well known to a lot of Councilors. So the current process offers the membership LESS choice than what the petition would permit.
For example, a couple of years ago, three of the four nominees were sitting board members and the fourth had rotated off the board only the year before; this was not by design, but rather a result of the inability of N&E to get anyone else to accept nomination. This year, three of the nominees have been very active insiders, and the fourth has also had committee service. All are good people and have served well, but the board has 15 voting members, only three from the presidential succession. 12 are usually people with significant governance experience in any case. Nowhere in the constitution and bylaws does it say that a qualification for president is required governance service, but it appears that few without extensive governance experience, especially in the alternate non-academic years, care to put their names forward within the current system. I think this is a loss for the Society.
(By the way, I might note that N&E is an elected body – all of its members are councilors and they are elected to the committee by the members of the Council. While there were abuses in the past, times have changed quite a bit, and I have full confidence in the integrity of the members and staff of N&E, even if we may have some differences of opinion).
Edited to add: The petition was defeated in Council on 10 April 2013.