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Gary Langham

The late Will Graf would end his AAG President’s columns with this optimistic affirmation: It’s a good day for Geography. Given the last year, you might be surprised to hear that it is just as true today as it was during his tenure in 1998-99. Let me explain.

As I write this, it is the one-year anniversary of our official announcement canceling the AAG Annual Meeting in Denver. I will never forget that week or that gut-wrenching decision. The AAG meeting was one of the first big academic meetings of the year, and the crisis was escalating quickly. I am sure that I was not the only one waking up in the middle of the night and checking the latest statistics and news. Increasingly, it seemed that we would have to cancel, yet more than 6500 members had registered, and the AAG had not canceled a meeting since WWII.

As the Executive Committee sat in the conference room in San Diego and voted to cancel the in-person meeting, it was just 30 days before the event. Since the AAG had been investing in a virtual platform for months, we knew we could offer a virtual meeting, though 30 days was not much time to prepare. We decided to give full refunds and make the virtual meeting free for anyone already registered. Of course, this was the only fair decision, but it was also consequential for the organization, both culturally and financially. We also knew that membership was likely to dip significantly, but we had no idea how much or how long it might take to rebound. So, we budgeted for up to 50% losses in membership and took a pessimistic view of the current fiscal year. This time last year, the AAG was looking into a fiscal abyss, but I am pleased to report that the AAG has weathered this financial storm very well.

With the losses from the meeting, we expected to take a loss in FYE20, and we did: Official losses were $2M. This figure does not include additional spending that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 Rapid Response program. In total, $900k was approved from reserves to fund nine programs.  For example, our support for students included Bridging the Digital Divide, providing direct funds to purchase hardware and software for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities. These programs are meant to help members cope with the economic challenges of the pandemic.

After the initial FYE21 budget was approved in April 2020, the AAG Council re-convened in June 2020 to adopt a new budget. The first draft of the revised budget projected a loss of $1.5M due to loss of membership and projections for the Annual Meeting with reduced attendance. To offset these projected losses, we reduced expenses by $846k, with the other half being approved from reserves. This approach cut nearly all expenses except for staff. Remarkably, we expect to end the year without the need for any reserves, ending in positive territory, even without considering revenue from investments. 

While AAG has experienced a 19% loss in membership year over year during the pandemic, this is far lower than the feared 50% loss. Three out of four of our lost members are either graduate students or members making under $75k per year. Therefore, Council has expanded eligibility for membership renewal fee coverage to all those making less than $75k and expanded the membership window for qualifying to two years. The job market appears to be recovering: Between March 1, 2019 and 2020, job postings at AAG dropped 38%. Postings have rebounded in 2021, and are now up 31%, suggesting at least some postings were merely delayed in the early pandemic.

The whole world turned upside down in the last year, and none of us are untouched. And still, it’s a good day for Geography.

The AAG has managed to get through a pandemic with surprising ease. To be sure, there are serious challenges ahead and much work to do. However, there is also reason to expect tomorrow will be a better day. Our work to replace our membership database and website is moving forward. On April 7th, we offered members the first preview of the site, and the full site is expected to launch in early summer. (We are welcoming feedback from members about a new tagline; share your ideas for a new tagline here). Together these new systems will open up greater possibilities for membership retention and a range of new and improved services. Multi-year membership, automatic renewals, tagged content, and much more will be possible. We continue to invest in creative, more inclusive approaches to meeting, including a climate-forward dispersed-meeting model for a new fall meeting, and a hybrid meeting that blends the best possible options for international virtual access and in-person convening in New York City.

Graph showing most participants valued interactive aspects of Methods workshops
Nearly two-thirds of graduate students in the AAG Methods workshops found the interactions highly valuable.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the last year is how popular our online seminars have been. In February, we kicked off a GeoEthics series, bringing together experts to talk about locational ethics. We also offered methods training workshops that have connected more than a thousand graduate students to a whole range of experts to discuss research challenges and solutions—and to one another at a time when peer support was also important. In all these cases, we showcase our membership’s expertise, connecting our members to it and each other. Traditionally, we might offer all these things only at the Annual Meeting. However, online platforms allow us to share year-round, to feature topics and presenters that reflect the AAG we want for the future. With minimal new expenses, we can showcase the expertise of our members while connecting and building community. 

Grapho showing Methods workshop responses approving of resources provided
All respondents to the survey on AAG Methods workshops found resources helpful; nearly two-thirds found them very or extremely helpful.

If you attended any of these sessions, you know that it really matters to attendees. Three hundred people were on one three-hour session, engaged and eager for more. Students shed tears as they connected to methods experts and one another, gaining access and answers they needed during the pandemic. More to come on this experiment, but it gives me hope. During the troubling days and nights this past year, one thing kept coming back to me. Even as the pandemic loomed over all aspects of our personal and professional lives, we still found the energy, funding, and resolve to launch the COVID Rapid Response programs and to support one another. We put the members and our community first.

The whole world turned upside down in the last year, and none of us are untouched. And still, it’s a good day for Geography.

 

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0090


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.