Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sections
to the President, Geological Society of America
Committee Background and Charge
The Geological Society of America’s Programmatic Overview Committee reviewed the various types of meetings of the Society during its meeting in March 2004. At this time an overall decrease in attendance at Section meetings during the past three years was noted. GSA President Rob van der Voo appointed an ad hoc committee to review the Sections and Section meetings and make recommendations. This committee consisted of representatives of all six Sections, with the Section Representative to Council acting as the Chair and with the GSA Director of Meetings as liaison. His charge to the committee was:
(1) How can GSA Headquarters better assist Sections in their organization of Section meetings (albeit without breaking the bank);
(2) How can we make the Section meetings more attractive, so that attendance is enhanced; and
(3) Anything else pertinent to the meetings of the Sections that this Committee may wish to recommend.
This committee has communicated by e-mail and teleconferences and held a face-to-face meeting in connection with the Annual Meeting in Denver in November 2004. In addition, input has been sought and received from a wide variety of GSA members, including discussion with the Secretary/Treasurers of the Sections, many other current and past Section officers, and Section meeting organizers.
GSA Sections are independent organizations within GSA that function with broadly similar, but somewhat different, sets of by-laws, organizations and methods of operation. A Section Secretary commonly holds office for several years, providing some continuity, whereas the other officers typically have one-year terms. Sections are largely supported by revenue from their annual Section meetings as well as a $2 allocation for each Section member from GSA dues.
It is thought that the conclusions and recommendations of this Committee to the Sections (presented below) will be helpful to all Sections. In some instances, we recommend procedures that are already in place in some Sections, but that the Committee feels should be considered for all Sections. However, it is clear that the Ad Hoc Committee can only make recommendations to the Sections. To be adopted, the individual Management Boards of each Section must approve them.
Justification of Sections and Section Meetings
- Sections are a vital part of the GSA – the grassroots of the organization.
- Good science is presented at Section Meetings, some of regional character, some of broader nature and application.
- Section meetings provide professional and scientific functions similar to those of the GSA Annual Meeting, but often on a more regional scale.
- Many GSA members participate in Section meetings that do not regularly attend the Annual Meeting.
- Sections provide a unique opportunity to attract new members, especially students.
- Many students present their first papers at Section meetings.
- Section meetings are smaller and tend to be more informal, relaxed meetings than the Annual Meeting.
- Sections financially support students (over $73,000 in FY 2004).
- In FY 2004 Sections awarded $53,500 to support student travel to meetings to present papers ($33,500 for Section meetings and $20,000 for the Annual Meeting). About half of this travel funding came via matching funds provided by the Foundation.
- In FY 2004 Sections additionally awarded $16,000 to students for research grants, largely to undergraduates.
- Support in FY 2004 of about $4,000 was also allocated for student awards and participation in field trips.
- Mentoring of students takes place at Section meetings both informally and through opportunities such as the John Mann and Roy Shlemon Mentoring Programs.
- There are ample opportunities for both formal and informal pre-, syn- and post-meeting field trips involving students in connection with many of the Section meetings.
- Section meetings are commonly less expensive to attend than the Annual Meeting because of proximity and lower logistics and hotel costs. However, this varies from Section to Section and year to year.
- Section meetings provide important networking opportunities with regional colleagues.
Problems of Sections and Section Meetings
- Decreased attendance at Section Meetings the past few years.
Overall, attendance at Section meetings decreased from 3792 in 2001 to 2627 in 2004, or by about 30%. Decreased attendance at Section Meetings affects Section finances, recruitment of GSA members, Section support for students, and meeting costs. Meetings provide the main source of income for Sections. Lower attendance also usually means a greater cost per attendee since a good portion of meeting costs are fixed, thus producing a negative feedback. The reasons for decreased attendance at Section Meetings are likely varied and complex. However, the following are perceived by the Committee to be among the principal causes:
- A perception exists that the science presented at Section meetings is not of as high quality as that at the National Meeting, that it is field science rather than broad-scale modeling, and that consequently the meetings are less prestigious. To some extent the large number of student presentations at the Section level enhances this view. If professionals and faculty members do not attend, they will not draw students to the meeting.
- Travel funds to attend meetings are increasingly limited. Section meetings must increasingly compete with the Annual Meeting and specialty meetings. This is something that is beyond the control of the Sections, but they must realize they are in a competition and offer more for attendees.
- Meetings are often held in less appealing locations or at the geographical fringes of the Sections. The committee thinks that this is a big factor in attendance. Having a meeting in a desirable, easily accessible location is viewed as extremely important to the success of the meeting. However, the location commonly depends upon who has had their arm twisted to host and chair the meeting rather than trying to find the most attractive location. Current practices make it very difficult for the meeting Chair to be far from the meeting site.
- Quality of the meetings varies from year to year. Quality depends largely upon the enthusiasm and abilities of the volunteer organizers, as well as how engaged the Management Board is. The current system demands that organizers spend a good deal of time and effort on the logistics of the meeting. Organizers must be proactive and have a well thought out plan, in advance, in order to run a good meeting. They need to spend more time on the technical and scientific portions of the meeting and less on the actual logistics.
- There is little mentoring of meeting organizers by past meeting organizers and almost no formal, built-in, mechanisms to ensure adequate continuity from year to year at the Section level. The GSA Meetings Department has run a training session for future Section Meeting Chairs that has been successful, but this is often essentially the only input they receive. However, this session has not been offered regularly over the past few years. Furthermore, it is largely on the “nuts and bolts” of running the meeting, not on such things as the scientific program. Advice given later by the GSA Meetings staff to specific questions from meeting organizers usually has been deemed as helpful. However, advice delivered at different times is apt to come from different Meeting Staff members, leading to inconsistencies and confusion.
- Costs for the meetings are increasing, e.g., computer projectors, meeting rooms, hotel rooms, etc. It is increasingly difficult to hold registration fees to an acceptable level, particularly because students, at reduced registration fees, make up a large percentage of Section meeting attendees. One of the problems faced has been that Section volunteers, not meetings professionals, have done all negotiations with hotels, AV contractors, etc. With increasingly complex meeting facility contracts, professionals from GSA’s Meetings Department need to become involved at an early stage. The Meetings Department staff now reviews contracts for the Sections and the Executive Director signs all contracts. However, the Sections generally feel that the cost of having the GSA Meetings Department undertake meeting site selection, hotel and vendor negotiations, and a greater role in the logistics is beyond what can added to the registration fee for the meetings
- Informal nature of Section organization
Sections are generally organized around a Management Board led by a Chair, a Vice Chair and various Members-at-Large. Chairs are commonly elected for one year. Secretary/Treasurers are elected in all but one Section to serve for several years. They are effectively the principal operating officers of the Sections. Some Secretary/Treasurers have been re-elected to this office for several consecutive terms. Local Meeting Chairs and organizing committees generally serve for one particular Section meeting. The Ad Hoc Committee repeatedly heard examples of a lack of communication and direction among these Section jurisdictions and between the Sections and Headquarters. The committee feels that commonly too much responsibility is being placed on the Secretary/Treasurer for the well being of a Section. In many instances, the Ad Hoc Committee perceived the organization of the Sections to be too unstructured. Former officers and members of Management Boards indicated that it was not always clear who had responsibility for what, and it was too easy to assume the Secretary/Treasurer or “someone else” would let them know what needed to be done and at what time. Management Boards typically meet only once or twice a year. There is little evidence to suggest that, in most instances, they are seriously proactive in their approach to Section activities.
Potential Solutions - Recommendations to Sections
- Place the Highest Emphasis on Having a Quality, Diverse Scientific Program at Section Meetings.
- Seek out exciting and ‘cutting-edge’ symposia and theme sessions, including broad, non-regional subjects.
- Encourage membership of the Section to participate in the organization of a theme or symposium session for the meeting. Use e-mail, GSA Today and GSA Connection as a means of reaching members to do this.
- Be innovative in organizing the technical program; don’t be constrained to just traditional talks and posters. (For instance, integrate a symposium with a field trip.)
- Provide and encourage the opportunity for "real" discussion at the meeting, at least in some sessions.
- Hold more sessions of a “Hot Topics” nature and in the area of Geoscience and Public Policy.
- Offer a diverse program with something for both professionals (from many arenas, e.g., industry, academia, K-12 education) and students.
- Diversify the meeting and bring in new groups of attendees; seek formal input into the meeting from the Divisions, the Allied and Associated Societies and the applied geology community.
- Specifically reach out to the applied geology community. Applied geology is mostly regionally based and the Sections are more able to attract this community to the GSA than the national Annual Meeting. Target this group with special symposia and sessions designed for their needs and offer short courses, with continuing education credit, explicitly for this population.
- Hold at least one “special symposium” per Section each year on a broad topic, yet one of general interest to Section members. Create a symposium similar to the Pardee Symposia at the Annual Meeting and support these special symposia with funds for travel or other expenses.
- Seek additional funding for these symposia from outside donors and corporations. Obtain GSAF assistance in this effort.
- Work with the editorial board and editor of Geosphere so that extended abstracts (2-5 pages?) from these special symposia can be published in Geosphere. Such exposure would give a presenter wider notice and would help attract high-profile scientists to the meeting. It would also help to publicize the fact that good science is presented at Section meetings. The editor and at least one member of the editorial board of Geosphere have expressed an interest in publishing extended abstracts from one designated special symposium at each Section meeting per year.
Recommendation 1: In order to accomplish these goals, it is recommended that each Section form a Section-wide Program Committee charged with the responsibility of organizing the technical and scientific programs for the Section meeting.
- The Committee should consist of 5 to 9 members serving for at least 3 years on a rotating basis.
- The Committee should answer to the Management Board of the Section, but also include the Local Meeting Chair or, at least, a representative of the local organizing committee.
- The Committee should include at least one designated representative from the Divisions, the Allied and Associated Societies and the applied geology community. These representatives should be charged with assuring that each of their respective interest groups sponsor technical sessions at the meeting.
- The Committee must be proactive in seeking proposals for theme sessions and symposia for the meetings.
2. Provide Greater Support for the Meeting Chair.
One of the strongest complaints the Ad Hoc Committee heard was that Section Meeting Chairs felt they had little guidance or support from previous meeting organizers and thus had to start essentially from scratch. The Ad Hoc Committee strongly recommends that Sections help to alleviate this problem by forming a Meeting Advisory Committee. This committee might consist of the Local Meeting Chair, past Chair and future Chair, plus at least 3 other members serving on a 3-year rotating basis. These members should include other past Chairs or those with meeting organization experience. Such a committee would provide a resource and planning function for the Section meetings and continuity from year to year.
It is also envisioned that this committee would assist the Management Board in locating future meeting sites. Sites need to be chosen for their attractiveness to Section meeting attendees in terms of their location, accessibility, facilities and cost. Sites should not be chosen simply on the basis of who is willing to act as host and meeting chair. If the GSA staff can do the logistics, the Local Committee would not need to be at the site, opening up a larger pool of potential Local Committee members. Meeting sites need to be chosen well in advance. Five years ahead of time is needed so that logistics and facility costs can be efficiently planned and contracts professionally negotiated. Longer lead times will also give the Local Committee more time to prepare all aspects of the meeting.
Recommendation 2: It is recommended that the Management Board of each Section form a Meeting Advisory Committee. This committee would assist with the planning of the Section Annual Meeting, provide support for the Local Meeting Chair and be responsible for advising the Management Board on future meeting sites.
3. Section Fund Raising.
The Ad Hoc Committee feels that opportunities to acquire additional funds for the Sections, and particularly for the Section Meetings, are being lost because they are simply not being sought in an organized fashion. We believe an innovative, proactive Fundraising Committee working at the Section level could help acquire sponsors that will make meetings better and assist in keeping registration fees down. Such fundraising activities would likely target more local, perhaps smaller, funding sources than the national GSA Foundation. It is thought that a Fundraising Committee might be made up of individuals appointed to multi-year terms to provide continuity. At least two individuals should be appointed to this committee a minimum of three years before each Section meeting with the specific responsibility of seeking funds for that particular meeting.
Recommendation 3: It is recommended that each Section form a Fundraising Committee to seek sponsors for Section Meetings and opportunities for outside funding of Section activities. This committee should be appointed by the Management Board of the Sections and work with both the Local Meeting Organizing Committees and the GSA Foundation.
4. Section Organization.
As noted earlier, the Ad Hoc Committee heard numerous examples of a lack of communication between Section Management Boards, local meeting organizing committees, the Section Secretary/Treasurer and Headquarters. Furthermore, the Committee feels that perhaps too much responsibility is being placed on the Secretary/Treasurers. They are expected to be all things to the Section and while they are dedicated volunteers, they seem to be over-worked. The Ad Hoc Committee feels that the Management Boards of the Sections need to review the structure of their organizations. Clear lines of responsibility need to be laid out and followed. More responsibilities need to be formalized so that everyone knows their roles and duties. Individuals on Management Boards and local meeting organizing committees must be proactive in their Section duties. They must also help to lighten the load on the Secretary/Treasurers. The Ad Hoc Committee, thus feels that this is an appropriate time for Sections to re-evaluate their organizations.
Recommendation 4: It is recommended that Section Management Boards formally review the organization of their Section, take an increased role in the function of the Section, clarify duties of the various parts of their organization and make sure that lines of communication between all groups are clear and known. Management Boards need to assume a proactive role to assure the success of the Section and Section meetings.
Potential Solutions – Recommendations to GSA Headquarters
1. Have Section Meeting Logistics Handled by the GSA Headquarters Meetings Department.
Having a professional Meetings Department staff member dedicated to Section Meeting logistics would go a long way toward alleviating many of the current problems with running Section meetings. This recommendation was unanimously and enthusiastically endorsed by all the members of the Ad Hoc Committee and all of those we consulted, particularly by people who had been past Section Meeting Chairs or on local organizing committees. Such a person at Headquarters would be responsible for assisting the Section Management Boards and Local Meeting Chairs with site selection and review, contract negotiations and general logistics support for the meetings. Tammy White, former GSA Meetings Department Director, indicated that she felt a half-time person added to the Headquarters Meetings Department staff would be adequate to undertake these responsibilities. The advantages that such a person would bring to the Sections include the following:
- Meetings could be held in the most appealing sites, not necessarily constrained by the location of the local Chair.
- Meetings professionals from GSA would handle hotel and meeting arrangements and contracts, not inexperienced volunteers as is done now. This would also allow opportunities for potential bulk cost savings. For instance, savings could be obtained by holding more than one Section meeting in a certain hotel chain during a given year or using a common national AV vendor.
- The Local Chair and Local Organizing Committee would be freed from dealing with most of the meeting logistics, thereby allowing them to concentrate on the technical, scientific and other aspects of the meeting.
- It would encourage more good people to volunteer to chair meetings and provide them with the time to spend on making the meeting better rather than on logistics.
- Having one person at Headquarters handle all of the Section meetings would provide continuity from one year to the next and among the Sections. Questions from the Sections would be answered consistently, and this person would also be able to offer suggestions to the Sections that are based on experience.
- This person could help organize site selection earlier.
Support for a Meetings Department Staff Member to assist with Section logistics will need funding from Headquarters. Since meeting revenue represents the main source of income for Sections, registration fees for the meetings would need to be raised to prohibitively expensive levels to cover this cost and would be counterproductive. Sections currently pay $15 per registrant to Headquarters for registration assistance and this cost would not change. However, raising the registration cost to cover an additional Headquarters Meetings Department staff person would be difficult, particularly as we wish to continue to attract students to the Section meetings. Registration fees for students, who are now provided substantially reduced registration fees, would have to be raised, or else the burden is placed upon the professionals attending the meetings. Neither option is feasible. This added cost would also likely cut into the support that Sections provide to students for meeting attendance and research. If Sections were asked to fund this expense, the Ad Hoc Committee feels that most could not afford to do so over the long term and would thus continue to run their meetings much as they do now.
Recommendation 1: It is recommended that Section meeting logistics be handled by the GSA Headquarters Meeting Department, preferably by one person assigned these duties. It is further recommended that this person be funded by the national GSA and not directly billed to the Sections.
It is also recommended that GSA Headquarters:
Recommendation 2: Continue to hold training sessions for Section Local Chairs.
All present and former Section Meeting Chairs we contacted found these sessions to be very helpful. Such sessions, led by the Sections Meetings Department Coordinator, would also provide an important personal interface between the Coordinator and the local organizers. It is also suggested that a couple of past local meeting Chairs be included in these sessions to highlight potential problems and solutions.
Recommendation 3: Increase and expand cooperation and coordination between the GSA Foundation and the Sections.
The GSA Foundation needs to play an active role in encouraging and assisting the Sections in fundraising activities. GSAF input should be part of any training session for the local Chairs and holding a separate session for Section Fundraising Coordinators or committees should be considered.
Recommendation 4: Help to formalize regular contact and input to the Section Meetings from the Divisions, the Allied and Associated Societies and the applied geology community.
The Ad Hoc Committee is unsure exactly how to best accomplish this, but input from these groups is greatly needed to diversify and expand Section meetings. We suggest that both the Divisions and the Allied and Associated Societies establish a new position of “Liaison to the Sections.” The charge to this liaison would be to help Sections find interested representatives of these groups to serve on Section Program and Meeting Committees. A Division representative for each Section and/or a Section representative to each Division and Allied and Associated Society should also be appointed. It is further proposed that a representative of the Sections be invited to the national meetings of the Divisions and Allied and Associated Societies.
GSA Sections, like the national organization and our science in general, are facing a number of significant challenges. This report is an attempt to outline some of the current problems that Sections are facing and offers some potential solutions. The Committee hopes that each Section and the national GSA will adopt the recommendations of this report. The Committee also hopes that this report will serve as a starting point for on-going discussions and evaluations by each Section of their organizations and operations. While the national GSA has built-in feedback mechanisms that continually review its operations, these are largely lacking at the Section level. Therefore, the Management Board of each and every Section must take a clear, proactive role in accessing their Section on a regular basis. Business as usual will not insure the continued successful operation of the Sections. The national organization also needs to be mindful of the important role played by the Sections and offer all the help and guidance that it can. The Committee is confidant that with continued vigilance by both the Sections and the national GSA that the Sections will remain strong and continue to play a vital role in the Geological Society of America.
Submitted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sections, March 2005
J. Christopher Hepburn – Committee Chair & Councilor
Richard J. Diecchio – Southeastern Section
Joan Fryxell _ Cordilleran Section
Carrie Jennings Patterson – North-Central Section
George C. Stephens – Northeastern Section
Diane R. Smith – South-Central Section
Walt Snyder – Rocky Mountain Section
Tammy White – GSA Liaison - past GSA Director of Meetings