The degree requirement and our purpose

I was one of the folks who set up the “AAUW: Breaking OUR Barrier” Facebook group to discuss a proposed change to the AAUW bylaws. This change would drop the historic  requirement that all members must have a degree. While a majority of the members at the 2005 national convention agreed with this change, fewer than 2/3 agreed, so the degree requirement was retained. In 2009 we’ll be voting on a complete revamp to the AAUW bylaws, including opening the membership to all who agree with our mission.

I just had an “aha” moment when I realized that this may be more about a completely different article in the bylaws, one that has had very little attention/discussion.

Let’s take a few quotes for background:

Current Bylaws

Article II. Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of the Association is the uniting of the graduates of different institutions for practical educational work, for the collection and publication of statistical and other information concerning education, and in general for the maintenance of high standards of education.

This wording is very close to the text of the 1899 Charter, though that used “alumnae” where we now use “graduates,” presumably to honor our relatively recent decision to admit men.

Proposed Bylaws

Article II. Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of AAUW is to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. AAUW is organized, and shall be operated, exclusively for any or all charitable, educational, scientific, or literary purposes that may qualify it as an organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”), and exempt it from federal income tax under section 501(a) of the Code.

Previous mission

AAUW promotes equity for all women and girls, lifelong education, and positive societal change.

Current mission (approved by the board in 2007)

AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.

In all the verbiage surrounding the AAUW bylaws, this change in the Purpose to match the current mission has been glossed over. Hundreds (if not thousands) of words have been spent on structural issues and procedural details, but nowhere in the explanatory documents can I find a discussion of the change in the purpose.

The new mission was well accepted in 2007. Though in 1997 there had been a failed attempt to simplify and streamline the mission by a vote at the national convention, this fairly quick change by a vote of the board (not the members) did not rouse any serious opposition. Web sites changed, elevator speeches were revised (usually to be crisper and more to the point), dozens of presentations introduced the new mission to members across the country. The board had surveyed the members to find the key components of the AAUW “DNA” before proposing the new mission, and they did their job well, judged by the acceptance of the new mission.

However, a mission is not, in general, a “purpose” — an immutable description of why an organization exists. In our discussions of changing the mission in the past, there’s been an assumption that there is a core of “what AAUW really is” and the mission, while more than a marketing tag line,  is the set of words that instantiates that purpose for the present time.

That said, it’s pretty clear that the current mission and the one before don’t have a great deal to do with the “purpose” in the current bylaws. My sense is that though they can recite the mission and act to advance it, many members, at their core, understand AAUW as an organization that serves that 1899 purpose — uniting alumnae of various institutions. Perhaps this assumption was so ingrained that it was not clearly articulated in the discussions that led up to the 2007 change in the mission.

Why have those responsible for the new bylaws put the current mission into Article II? What has happened to the “uniting of graduates”?

I think we need a crisp answer to those questions, and I expect the answer will be “we change or we die.” At the 2007 convention, where we voted to lay the groundwork for the proposed bylaws, we were told in no uncertain terms that change is necessary — but not sufficient — for the continued life of the organization. We voted, unanimously, to change.

Why, though, did we change the “purpose?” I can’t say I’ve gone back through the documents of the strategic process, but my impression is that the whole strategic process was in the context of

“uniting alumnae” is no longer a viable purpose for a national organization

Those who want to join a group of college graduates, for whatever purpose, can find that group in their neighborhood and among their colleagues — it is no longer difficult to find other alumnae. Indeed the disconnect between even the “lifelong learning” mission and the current purpose argues that it’s been irrelevant for many years. It’s also accepted that those who  “join for the mission” are less likely to oppose the change to the degree requirement than those who “join for the people.”

We need a new purpose. We have a well accepted mission, and a decision was made to drop that in to Article II.

Once that’s done, the degree requirement no longer makes sense. Nothing in that mission requires that members supporting it have degrees.

So if you want to continue the degree requirement, how would you articulate a 21st century “purpose” for AAUW that includes that requirement?

I recognize that this change in purpose will seem unexpected to many who see AAUW as primarily a local organization —  friends and colleagues — doing good work and having fun, making connections to the community, continuing that “lifelong learning.”  It’s unexpected to those who haven’t dug down into the “why are we here” question. It’s the national board that’s had to grapple with that question — and after listening to thousands of comments from members across the country as well as the best legal and organizational development advice they could find,  they have approved the proposed bylaws. This is what they see as the best way forward to make AAUW a vibrant organization that will help advance equity for women and girls through its unique history and culture.

But we’re not there yet. Even if the proposed bylaws pass, we may face the “slow death” that was raised as a specter in at the 2007 convention in Phoenix. We will lose some members — perhaps even branches — who want to cling to the 1899 purpose. However, if we are to move forward into this new age, finding a way to energize our members, recruit new stakeholders and forge alliances with new partners, we must change.  We do have a chance at reversing the decades long decline to rise again as an organization that honors our incredible past as we invent our future — for all women and girls. Join me!

3 thoughts on “The degree requirement and our purpose

  1. The above may be useful, but there is some additional information that I’ll need to incorporate into a future version.

    1. Remember that this whole exercise is driven by the restructuring, a change that is necessary (if not sufficient) for the organization to survive (as we learned in 2007). That means we’re not really “changing” the AAUW bylaws, the bylaws of the 501(c)(4), but having an advisory vote on the changes to the Foundation’s bylaws, those of the 510(c)(3). I “knew” that of course, but hadn’t realized the implication that the charter that’s important is the Foundation’s. That never had the “uniting graduates” language. And, indeed, even while the 501(c)(4) had kept the “uniting graduates” language in its bylaws — because it was in its charter — as the organization changed over time, the “equity and education” had become more and more important.

    2. So it’s a change. Some will embrace it. Some will grieve and then come to terms with it. Some will reject it. We can say that “some things are changing but much will remain the same” but I’m not sure those who at this point, after years of discussion that they may not have been following, will move from the third into either of the first two groups. I don’t, however, think compromise on this issue will lead to a stronger organization or help us to survive for the next ten years. We’ll see.

  2. I just read Nancy’s comment. I appreciate the blog and explanation. I just came back from our state’s convention and heard about the changes directly from Linda Hallman. Apparently in our state, we have a male on the board. When members stood up at the microphone to offer any opposition to the changes, he verbally shot them down. He was extremely patronizing and then gave several stories why we should make the changes and just shut up. He said his parents were not college educated, but very bright and so they would not have been allowed in AAUW.

    I think your article articulates the change both in the mission and in membership far better than most of the presentations did including one from Linda Hallman, executive director from Washington, D. C.I I understand the desire to improve membership. It was pointed out that we have 60 million college educated women in this country, so that changing the membership status does not guarantee more members or more support on those issues we hold dear. Even the male board member who stood at the podium for more than two hours trying to convince us that our thinking was “passé,” made a useful if painful comment that rang true. He said all organizations have a life cycle. They rise, they fall and they die. It was clear that the membership who remained were not in favor of the change, but that the board was determined to have its way. When some branches said they will lose members because to the change the male board member just shrugged his shoulders and said that was unfortunate, but the wind was blowing in his direction. I don’t mind a healthy and intellectual discussion on the topic. I don’t know if that kind of exercise would leave people feeling less divided, but I thought our state convention board
    created more of a tempest by having a patronizing male run the discussion on bylaws

  3. Apparently Marjorie Williams does not know me, and unfortunately I do not know her. In her comments about our state convention, she probably took me as a member of the AAUW Minnesota state board since I was the convention parliamentarian in the business meeting. Or she missed the introduction that Co-President Mary Parcheta made of me for the bylaws discussion. I am sorry that she found me patronizing. I do not have the best voice quality, and I agonize how I come across.

    At the start, I set the scene for the path of change that we have been on, especially concerning membership. That passage includes why we began with baccalaureate members, used degrees as leverage to gain support for women’s education equal to men. We have won there, extended membership to women of all accredited schools, adopted a preference for diversity, then admitted men twenty years ago – I being one – and more recently, those with associate degrees. Open membership has been discussed for years and perhaps we are soon there. I stressed repeatedly that given the effects of past changes, we are not likely to be drastically changed any time soon on the branch level.

    The way branches change is how they recruit. With a potential market of 60 million degreed women, let’s rise to the challenge to bring in more graduates and swell the ranks.

    My efforts were to elicit and answer questions in order to increase understanding about how and why the proposed bylaws are stated as they are. This meant widen the perspective on the issues and give more context, somethig of an intellectual exchange. Admittedly, this is not a discussion person to person in order to give more people more time to state their views or ask their questions.

    I did invite additional questions at the conclusion of the session and several did talk to me about their concerns.

    Truly, I regret that the proposed open membership for those who support our mission is taken as divisive. Certainly, it is all bound up with who we want to be and how we see ourselves and our perspectives on the possible effects of this change. I am not sure how the 75 people that morning divided up on the issues: they expressed a range of views and suggestions.

    Because I am an AAUW member of a Minnesota branch, one who has attended every state convention for the last 20 years, who has traveled and spoken all over the state, was four years on the state board and served as state bylaws chair, and now serve in my fourth year on the AAUW Bylaws Committee I became the natural person to talk to the Minnesota convention membership about bylaws.

    I did not feel that we had left a tempest behind. Some told me they were better informed to carry on the discussion in their branches. Each will decide.

    When we get to St. Louis, we will have further rounds of healthy discussion. Then we will vote for the common good as our understanding and individual consciences direct. And as in the past, we will live with the results and go forward.


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